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Build a Learning Culture

Five strategies for company leaders to develop a culture of continuous learning that encourages employees to stay and flourish and also positions the business to thrive.

​Amid accelerating automation and fundamental changes to work caused by the pandemic, companies are growing their learning programs. Organizations that fail to keep pace risk losing their competitive advantage—and their employees.

That message appears to be resonating within many businesses. A recent study by online learning platform TalentLMS and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 67 percent of HR managers expect their learning and development budgets to increase in 2022. Moreover, in March 2020, fewer than one-quarter of learning and development professionals globally said their function had a seat in the C-suite; by mid-2021, that figure rose to close to two-thirds, according to LinkedIn's 2021Workplace Learning Report.

As jobs change, so will required skills. By 2030, almost one-third of all jobs worldwide—more than 1 billion—are likely to be transformed by technology, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. No wonder 3 in 5 chief human resource officers and other HR leaders say their top priority for 2022 is building critical skills and competencies, according to a survey by consultancy Gartner.

"With the half-life of skills shrinking, we know the skills people have today could be obsolete tomorrow, so at IBM, there's a large emphasis on making sure we can build skills that work for employees, drive customers forward and help the business grow," says Trena Minudri, global learning business strategy and digital solutions leader at the tech giant.

Learning is an investment not only in people, but also in the business—especially when labor is tight and turnover is high. Business leaders at Cisco understand that. "We know that people stay at Cisco if they feel invested in," says Alicia Lopez, head of learning and careers at Cisco. "When people leave Cisco, most of the time they haven't had an investment in their learning and development."

People value learning. Over three-quarters of employees say they're more likely to stay with a company that offers continuous training, according to the TalentLMS and SHRM report. At the same time, 86 percent of HR managers say training boosts retention.

So, how can business leaders develop a culture of continuous learning that encourages employees to stay and flourish and also positions the business to thrive? Here are five strategies.


Work Backward

First, determine the desired end result, then work backward. Start with a needs analysis to understand not only why your organization needs certain skills but what success looks like. "Make sure you have a deep understanding of what you want the outcome to be," says Mark Marsen, HR director of Allies for Health + Wellbeing, a nonprofit provider of medical care and social services in Pittsburgh.

Critically, the needs analysis must consider how learning serves the organization's overall mission and strategy—the big-picture "why" for the learning. When crafting a development program for his 15-member leadership team, Marsen first considered the desired outcome: improved leadership skills, such as trustworthiness and transparency.

"If learning isn't connected to the why, it won't stick," Marsen says. "Whatever learning we do needs to be both operational and strategic."

Not enough learning strikes that balance. Nearly 80 percent of surveyed business leaders say capability building is extremely or very important to the long-term growth of their companies, according to management consultancy McKinsey & Co. But just one-third believe that capability-building programs often or always succeed in achieving their objectives and business impact.

A needs analysis can help business leaders understand at the outset why the organization requires certain skills and what success looks like, says Emma Klosson, a learning experience designer with corporate training company SweetRush, headquartered in San Francisco. The desired outcomes might involve a decrease in customer complaints or an increase in sales, Klosson explains. The objectives will point to the key performance indicators that organizations use to track the results of any learning.

Let Employees Drive

Put employees in the driver's seat and let them learn in the ways—and at the pace—that work for them. "Everyone learns in a different way, so the more variety we provide, the better the results we have," Minudri says.

IBM's learning platform offers content in a variety of formats, including webinars, articles, virtual classes and practice environments. It also lets people sign up for in-person and hybrid sessions. Employees can learn anytime, anywhere, in the ways they want. In 2016, the year IBM launched its learning platform, it recorded 7 million learning hours. In 2019, that number went up to 13 million. And in 2021, it hit 22 million.

But as the company lets employees direct their own learning, it also has to be quite clear about what it needs them to learn, Minudri says. "We want to make sure it's all moving in the direction of IBM's strategy and client needs," she says. "When we do that, people move toward those skills." In other words, employees can drive their own learning, but they still need to get to the right destination.

This year, Cisco launched a learning program called Cisco Illuminate to help foster a culture of continuous learning. Each quarter, Cisco Illuminate focuses on a different learning area, such as leadership or teams. The program involves virtual and asynchronous learning, so people can learn how and when they want.

Cisco also encourages its people to learn because they want to—not because they have to. While leaders communicate the importance of continuous learning, the company doesn't mandate a certain number of learning sessions or hours, other than required compliance targets. "We want people to have a growth mindset," Lopez says.

L&D in teh C-Suite graphic

Act Fast

"Whatever type of learning we put in front of people, it has to be 'sticky' and it has to be second nature, or it won't be effective," Marsen says.

How can organizations make learning stick? By letting their people put the skills they learn into practice, experts say. For instance, when leaders at Allies for Health + Wellbeing make strategic or departmental decisions, they evaluate how the decisions reflect the core leadership values they learned about in previous sessions.

Think of it like learning a new language. The best way to learn it is to use it.

"If people go through all the time and energy to build new skills, they need to be able to apply that in their jobs as soon as possible," Minudri says.

Not enough employees get that opportunity, however. While 97 percent of employees say they would learn a new skill if given the opportunity, only 39 percent believe their organization helps them understand how needed skills apply to their own context, Gartner experts report. Employees in the TalentLMS and SHRM survey say the No. 1 way that training could be more effective is by aligning it with job responsibilities.

Learning-by-doing should happen first in risk-free spaces where employees can try new skills and get immediate feedback. "Create experiences that mirror the real world as closely as possible and allow learners to practice and fail in a safe space," Klosson says.

To put training into practice, companies must carefully time the training, according to Marla Capozzi, a partner and leader in McKinsey Academy, a unit of McKinsey that builds leadership and front-line capabilities. Trainings should be scheduled so they're followed by work that allows people to use their new skills. "That helps with a tighter integration between work and learning," Capozzi says.

"It's not about two- or three-day events," she adds. "It's about what can be accomplished over the next three to nine months of learning and applying it at the same time."

Well-timed training also helps companies pivot at moments of organizational change. "Leaders can use learning and development to say, 'We'll equip you with the skills to lead the organization into the future,' " Capozzi says.


Learning is an investment not only in people, but also in the business—especially when labor is tight and turnover is high.


Plan Ahead

Learning should develop professionals, not just deliver skills. And companies with the best learning programs develop people beyond their current roles. By preparing their people for both present and future work, companies create a learning culture that offers an enticing value proposition to their employees, Capozzi finds.

More than 80 percent of employee moves involve someone switching from one employer to another, according to McKinsey. Amid record attrition rates, employers can retain workers by helping them expand their skills—within the organization.

"For many people, development usually means advancement. But it's not just about how I become more promotable but how I increase my value to the company," says Bill Thomas, managing principal of the HR consulting firm Centric Performance in Pittsburgh. The best way to increase employee value, he adds, is not by elevating responsibilities but by broadening skill sets.

IBM opens up its learning offerings to all employees so they can explore new careers within the company—so, for example, someone in HR can learn about artificial intelligence. IBM employees who have the most learning hours are 20 percent more likely to move into new roles and 44 percent more likely to get promoted, Minudri says.

Staying Power graphic

Go Virtual

Work isn't the only thing that suddenly went remote with the arrival of the pandemic; training and learning did, too. As virtual learning expanded, so has its reach. In 2019, IBM delivered about 22,000 virtual learning events. The following year, that increased to 40,000 virtual events.

With so much of people's work (and lives) now digitized, organizations have to get savvier about virtual learning, Klosson says. "Now we fight for learners' attention."

Companies must carefully consider when and how they deliver remote or in-person training—or a hybrid of the two. A hybrid approach could deliver foundational concepts digitally, then bring people together for in-person classes that provide more in-depth learning.

"The challenge is focusing on structure and personalization," Capozzi explains. In a virtual environment, companies should provide shorter learning segments (15 or 20 minutes, for example) that teach just one skill or tool at a time. But again, people need to quickly apply what they learn: "These smaller pieces of learning have to be immediately applicable to what you're doing," Capozzi says.

And, of course, it all comes back to making the business better. When business leaders understand what their organization needs and provide meaningful training for their people to do their jobs better, they'll stay a step ahead.

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

Explore Further

SHRM provides advice and resources to help business leaders build a culture that incorporates continuous learning.

How Learning and Development Can Attract—and Retain—Talent
Creating a personalized training program can help keep top workers satisfied.

How to Conduct a Training Needs Assessment
With a training needs assessment, organizations can make informed decisions about the best ways to address competency gaps among individual employees, specific job categories and teams.

HR Q&A: How Do We Ensure Employees Transfer New Skills to Their Jobs?
The application of newfound knowledge and skills starts by creating a climate that obtains and supports organizational and employee commitment.

SHRM Toolkit: Developing Employees
Employee development is almost universally recognized as a strategic tool for an organization's continuing growth, productivity and ability to retain valuable employees.

SHRM Toolkit: Developing Managers
The training of managers should be an ongoing process, and all managers should be concerned with management development—in terms of both their own and their subordinates' advancement.

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