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How to Build a Continuous Workplace Learning Culture

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How to Build a Continuous Workplace Learning Culture

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Workplace learning is one of the most effective ways of improving employee productivity, but that’s not the main reason why companies are pursuing it. Besides improving skills, there are visible benefits to creating a learning culture, such as increased worker autonomy and engagement, leading to higher organizational performance. Additionally, employees who have agency over their career, determining what skills to develop and what projects to take on, are likely to be more satisfied with their jobs and therefore stick with the same company for longer. 

But creating culture - never mind creating learning cultures - is no cakewalk. It takes a clear strategy and thorough planning, as well as the ability to get everybody on board. Read on to learn why workplace learning is so important, discover insights from recent research about what it takes to develop a learning culture in your organization, and learn how to apply them step-by-step. 

Why Foster a Culture of Learning?

Having a continuous learning culture is a hallmark of high-performing organizations. As already highlighted, workplace learning increases engagement, skill levels, and even employee loyalty. Here are the benefits of learning in the workplace, in more detail:

1. Higher Organizational Performance

It’s no secret that you can do more when you know more, particularly when you have employees with advanced skill levels. High performers in the company can act as triggers for a snowball effect by passing on their knowledge, but also by motivating peers to level up their skills, particularly in competitive environments. 

2. Greater Employee Engagement

A lot of workplace learning happens outside the classroom. One of the great benefits of having a learning culture is that it encourages your talent to take the bull by the horns and self-motivate in the face of unknown obstacles. Through peer feedback, mentorship, and a generally positive attitude towards calculated risk-taking, you will encourage your people to learn by doing and involve others in the process.

3. Increased Resilience and Ability to Respond to Challenges

It’s part of the definition of a learning culture that you have to adopt a growth mindset. This means that every adverse event is a learning opportunity and can be a great lesson if approached with the right attitude. 

When you’re dealing with challenges every day, being outside of your comfort zone can become second nature. Constant exposure to novelty makes a mandate to learn in the workplace inevitable since learning becomes ingrained in the company culture through the work you are encouraged to do. 

4. Better Ability to Retain and Compete for Top Talent

High-performing employees are at the top because they invest the time and energy to learn and refine their skills. That also means they likely want to continue doing this and need opportunities to grow and develop continuously in the workplace. What’s more, they like to be surrounded by people who are just as good, if not better than themselves, to stay motivated, feel appreciated, and continue learning. 

5. Enhanced Capacity to Meet Current and Future Talent Needs

Training your people for the skills you need to achieve quarterly goals is something to keep in mind in present as well as future scenarios. Maximize your ability to fill the skill gap by investing in both organizational culture training and practical skill development. First, help your people adopt the learning culture mindset and then, allow them to develop new practical skills. You’ll see an impact on the bottom line sooner than you know it.

Tip: check out our competency skill assessment to identify current gaps in your team’s digital skills!

But What Is a Culture of Learning?

Simply learning at work - such as through online classes or occasional workshops - is not enough to say that you have a continuous learning culture. If learning is not integrated

with other systems of talent management, it’s difficult to create a learning culture. 

When looking to define a workplace learning culture, it is important to pay close attention to attitudes and behaviors, as much as to learning opportunities. This not only concerns the attitudes of learners but also those of leadership and L&D responsibles. According to a report by MindTools, innovation in culture trumps innovation in digital: 71% of learning leaders with high-impact learning cultures report actively involving learners in learning design, compared with just 21% on average. 

The Growth Mindset

A learning culture in the workplace is predicated on a willingness to try new things, learn from failures, and discuss and share the learning with others. This also means that, at the organizational level, failure should not be punished. In fact, many high-performing Silicon Valley startups operate by the mantra ‘Fail fast, fail early.’ 

Of course, that’s not to say that you should encourage employees to fail all the time – it simply means that you encourage a culture of innovation, experimentation, and sharing. The most important thing you can do is support a reflexive attitude that looks to understand the reasons behind failure, to make increasingly better decisions. 

How Experts Define ‘Learning Culture’

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoting the CEB, the definition of learning culture is ‘a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization.’ As you can see, learning is all the more valuable, the more it is linked to your company’s OKRs.

Karen E. Watkins, professor of Human Resource and Organization Development, says that ‘the learning organization is characterized by continuous learning to create a continuous transformation of an organization and its culture.’ She also emphasizes that, for learning organizations, creating a learning culture is more important than specific behaviors or ‘action imperatives.’

In a study from 2019, organizational scholar M. Srimannarayana suggested several characteristics that answer the question “What is a learning culture ?” We list the top five below: 

  • Organization’s learning strategies are closely aligned with business strategies
  • The organization’s culture is a culture of learning
  • The learning function is staffed by qualified learning professionals
  • Learning is an integral component of organizational talent management
  • Organizational values specifically refer to the importance of learning and development

Learning in the Flow of Work

Learning experiences that come from directly tackling something relevant to the business are, of course, the most valuable. But sometimes, the skill gap can be so large that your employees will feel intimidated by the prospect. Constantly punching above your weight can become an alienating and discouraging experience, which means that not all learning can happen without training. 

In the case of structured training, such as compliance training, or courses aimed at developing new competencies, it’s still important to establish a link to the company’s goals. Ideally, any theoretical training will be connected to a practical project where your talent can use their newly acquired skills. For example, if you are asking your workforce to learn more about AI prompting, make sure you support them in developing actual use cases. That way, they bring tangible impacts to the team by applying the new skill.

How to Build a Learning Culture at Work According to Science

One of the toughest challenges in building a culture of development is dealing with employee resistance. It’s easier to continue doing things the old way than to adjust your mode of working and embrace new values, and no amount of organizational culture training will change that. But to address the resistance, you must understand the causes. Often, it comes down to a few key reasons: an attempt to avoid uncertainty, experiencing fear of failure, or dealing with disruptions in sense-making. 

Support Transformational Leadership

Creating a culture of learning should ideally come bottom-up: an inside revolution! But that’s easier said than done. According to a Management Revue study that looks at organizational change initiatives, a key ingredient influencing employees’ change commitment is having transformational leaders. This was almost twice as important as having ‘change-specific leadership practices’ and especially relevant when the change had a significant personal impact on the employees. 

This means that creating strong messages and having inspirational leaders is more important for getting buy-in than planning specific steps. Trust is at the core of transformational initiatives – it will lower your talent’s cynicism about change and build an environment where people can grow together.

Create Spaces for Learning in the Workplace

When thinking of learning spaces, the first picture that pops into your mind might be a traditional classroom. But learning can happen in many other spaces besides the usual classroom setting. In this case, learning spaces encompass all spaces where learning may take place, whether it's intentional or just a happy accident. 

In that sense, there are three dimensions to consider when conceptualizing learning spaces: the personal, organizational, and spatial dimensions. In each of these spaces, the learner agency manifests differently. For instance, organizing self-learning requires different actions than learning in a hands-on situation such as a cross-departmental project. Just the same, learning in a dedicated space in the office, such as a workshop room, is different from learning at your desk, where urgent work tasks may arise. 

In a 2016 paper dealing with learning spaces at work, researcher Natasha Kersh suggested that understanding how employees cross the boundaries of different spaces as described above can help you understand why only some learning succeeds. The transfer of knowledge and skills is closely tied to personal motivations and attitudes. Engagement and motivation are crucial for boundary crossing, i.e. learning across different contexts and environments. This process is integral to self-directed learning and involves taking personal responsibility for learning, whether in formal or informal settings.

“Individual motivations strongly relate to the potential utility and opportunities of a learning context or space. The research suggests that spatial associations may either undermine or facilitate learning attitudes.”

Consider the Learning Transfer

Your ability to take on the responsibility of learning is significantly influenced by your attitudes, motivations, and dispositions, which shape how you respond to workplace affordances and challenges. Additionally, the extent to which you are motivated to engage with learning opportunities available at work helps in applying skills across various learning spaces.

Ask yourself: is my workforce empowered to apply what they learn? Do they have a support system in place when dealing with new topics? In the SAGE Handbook of Workplace Learning, authors Evans, Guile, and Harris discuss the gradual release strategy, which supports your employees in transitioning between learning, practice, and workplace settings. This approach involves a step-by-step transfer of responsibility from the educator, trainer, or supervisor to the learner. 

Account for Individual Differences

The amount and quality of learning within your organization are significantly influenced by the environment where the learning takes place. Personal factors like gender, race, and age, as well as organizational factors, impact employees unevenly when it comes to engaging with learning. 

For example, a study examining informal learning in the workplace found that, generally, women tend to consider the following factors as key to building organizational culture: 

  • “in my organization, people help each other in the course of learning and development” and
  • “in my organization, people are free to discuss mistakes and learn from them.”

In contrast, men ranked the following as their top two factors: 

  • “in my organization, people have mutual respect for each other”, and 
  • “in my organization, people help each other in learning and development.”

Additionally, male and female learners ranked personal factors differently about their influence on employee engagement in informal learning activities, as shown in the figure below.

Graph source: Bancheva, E. and Ivanova, M.: Private World(s): Gender and Informal Learning of Adults, 2015

Steps for Building a Continuous Learning Culture

The following is not a ready-to-use recipe that will work for any organization. As you will have figured out by now, it’s important to consider your company’s circumstances, including the industry, the existing company culture, as well as the current and future goals. However, these steps are practical ideas about how you can go about implementing scientific findings about workplace learning.

Make Learning a Part of Your Values

Bringing learning closer to the core of your organization’s identity will not only help you create a learning culture in the workplace but will also serve you in attracting the right talent. Think about your mission statement and your organizational values: is there room for adding ‘continuous learning’, or at least a sense of curiosity, and experimentation? What about a mandate to adopt a growth mindset? 

These are values that typically help young companies stay competitive and energized – but you might find that establishing a new attitude in a decades-old organization is nearly impossible. In that case, we suggest conducting culture training in the workplace. Whether through new activities that allow employees to discuss their feelings and attitudes towards the proposed new ways of working, or team-bonding workshops that encourage them to own and live the values you wish to instill, change can only happen through active participation.

Weave Learning Into Your Goals

Not making learning a priority usually means that learning doesn’t happen – and you will fail to support a culture of learning. Start with baby steps and find ways to make it as easy as possible. 

For instance, instead of demanding that everyone dedicates a certain amount of time to learning, ask them to organize regular learning exchange sessions to share lessons learned from failed initiatives. This will not only help others avoid the same mistakes, but it can prove to be a key tool for establishing rapport, helping employees devise new goals, and collaborating on strategies to achieve them. 

Analyze Leadership Styles

Leaders have an oversized impact on the company culture. Given their power to influence decisions and to determine the work of their reports, leadership behaviors trickle down to the most junior employees, determining how they perceive desirable qualities and ways of learning at work. If your leaders don’t encourage learning or take the time to share their learnings with others, it will be difficult to motivate anyone else to do that. 

Think of your most visible department heads and ask: what is their leadership style? Are they the coaching type, or the pace-setting, micro-managing type? Do they highlight the importance of learning by teaching others? Do they self-direct their learning, and show an eagerness to learn? Are they held accountable for any of these behaviors? Tackling obvious leadership issues will help you bring about the culture you desire more quickly than anything else.

Make Learning Social

Social conversation is incredibly important for a continuous learning culture because it provides a context and stimulus for constructing thoughts and learning. Groups contribute to your understanding beyond what you could achieve individually.

Is it easy for your employees to connect and exchange ideas? Do you have dedicated spaces for informal learning? Especially in hybrid or remote-first companies, it’s important to actively organize social time, as it’s a prime time not just for fostering connection, but also for knowledge exchange. 

Whether a Slack channel or a workshop room full of props for collaboration, you need to make it easy for your talents to learn from one another. Even better, why not help them organize monthly or quarterly project showcase meetings, company-wide bar camps, or other peer-learning activities?

If you want to take it one step further, you could also consider setting up professional learning communities focused on specific topics, where senior team members can act as coaches and answer questions. Peers can exchange resources there, share feedback on materials, and increase their motivation by engaging with a community with a shared vision and values. 

Create Meaningful Incentives

Show that you value learning by rewarding those who go above and beyond to make learning possible. Sure, providing lunches for everyone during a learning exchange workshop is nice, but are you taking any actions to systematically reward learning? 

We’re talking about including learning in your performance reviews and making it obvious that growth will be rewarded. And then, of course, offering that reward, whether during the promotion cycle or through other means. Public recognition of learning champions, praise, and title promotions are also symbolic rewards that can motivate people. But don’t leave it just at words – make sure your employees know that the work they put into learning and teaching others will pay off!

Final Thoughts

We hope that, having read our piece, you have a better understanding of how to improve culture in the workplace such that it leads to more learning, development, and ultimately, growth. The process of instilling learning values will not be finished overnight but takes commitment from leadership, learning champions, and employees alike. 

The basic idea is to make sure you involve all your stakeholders, from the most junior to the board of directors, consider their unique needs, and devise engaging ways to get them on board with making learning part of your workplace’s DNA. And, if you’re looking for a program that makes learning easy, rewarding, and social, check out our course offering and feel free to get in touch!

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