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8 Tips for Creating a Learning Culture

How to make learning and growth a part of your organizational DNA.


The ancient wisdom that learning never ends is of great modern importance. Company leaders are embracing how important adaptability is to thriving in today’s quick-changing business environment. And employees from the next generation expect a workplace that will continually feed their minds and build their skills. Indeed, training and development opportunities are the most popular benefits an employer can offer to Millennials, according to Deloitte’s 2016 report on corporate learning trends. 

Moreover, the march of technology has only made human learning more critical. “Research suggests that within 15 years, roughly half of all jobs will be automated,” says Edward D. Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia and co-author of 
Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age 
(Berrett-Koehler, 2017). “What will be the competitive differentiator for employers when raw technology is cheap and widely available? I believe it will be the quality of your human workforce—having employees who are able to think, relate and learn continuously.”

That means creating work cultures that are geared toward constant learning. “Like most things in business, the concepts are simple,” Hess says. But “the challenges are in the execution.”  

And, like learning itself, those challenges never end. Creating and maintaining a true learning culture requires continuous measurement, the disciplined use of processes and, as you might expect, overcoming objections while you integrate the concept of learning into how your company operates. All of that is no small job, but here are 8 steps that can help you succeed. 

1. Recognize the Difference Between Skills and Behaviors

Skills are generally straightforward to learn and often narrow in scope: Knowing how to use a piece of machinery is a skill, for instance, and so is being adept at Microsoft Excel. You can usually teach individuals a basic skill online and then test them to measure whether they’ve mastered it, says Phil Geldart, CEO of Eagle’s Flight, an organizational culture and leadership development firm based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

But lessons on behavior—how someone acts under certain circumstances or pressures—are trickier to impart. How do you teach people to behave in a safe manner? Not only do you have to instruct them on, say, the proper way to don protective gear, but you must instill in them the importance of why they need to wear it in the first place. 

“A learning culture should be designed to enable and promote learning behaviors,” Hess says. “The first thing to do is define the behaviors you want and the behaviors you don’t want and design [your culture] to produce those results.” For example, if you want people to challenge the status quo and be candid with their colleagues at all levels, you must teach employees how to do that. Indeed, that idea must be incorporated into your company’s overall approach to learning. 

TRY THIS: In her book 
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity 
(St. Martin’s Press, 2017), Kim Scott says the best way to develop a culture of candor is for leaders to ask their employees to challenge them directly—and to not react defensively to what they say. “If a person is bold enough to criticize you, do not critique their criticism,” writes Scott, a former manager at Google and Apple.

2. Make It About KSAs, not KPIs

A learning culture reflects an organization “that values and has norms around learning,” says Amy DuVernet, director of certification programs at Training Industry Inc., a media company focused on learning professionals in Raleigh, N.C.

In particular, she says, it’s a culture where people are encouraged to improve their knowledge, skills and abilities, or KSAs, in order to better themselves for the organization. “It’s more than training,” she emphasizes. It’s where learning “permeates the culture.”

That means your workforce must understand that learning and experimenting are both safe and expected—and shouldn’t be reserved only for formal training scenarios. “Today, both the company and individual have to continually adapt, and skills have to be continually updated,” says Eric Duffy, chief executive of the enterprise learning platform provider Pathgather in New York City. “A learning culture understands this and broadcasts that you’re expected to continuously improve.”

​In addition, you must “take the time to continuously reinforce new skills learned,” adds Debbie Deissroth, SHRM-SCP, corporate director of learning and development at Kennedy Health in Cherry Hill, N.J. “It’s critical to integrate all of the learning so that people can see the connection between each of the skills being applied until they become preferred behaviors.” 

“It’s [about] empowering people to discuss new knowledge with co-workers and experiment on their own,” adds Maria Ho, research head of the Alexandria, Va.-based Association for Talent Development. Instilling that second piece is where companies struggle, she warns—which is why tip No. 3 is so important.

3. Get Buy-in at the Top

“Buy-in” goes beyond sign-off. Leaders must fully understand how a learning culture works, why they’ll need to be visible champions of it and, of course, why it’s worth the investment. “Any time you can translate HR initiatives into dollars, it’s going to help you make the argument,” DuVernet notes. 

The bottom line is leadership should be excited and must model the behavior it wants to see. In addition, the message that it’s OK to fail must come from top executives, Ho says. Indeed, failure is integral to learning. That’s why managers must provide many opportunities for workers to go out and experiment.

Also, ingrain one word in your thinking: relevance. “Making sure learning goals are aligned with business goals is absolutely key,” Ho says.

“A learning culture is a strategic imperative in a world characterized by change and complexity,” Hess says. “Constant improvement and innovation are required to stay competitive.” Your leaders must be shown that learning underlies constant improvement, operational excellence and innovation. To get your executives excited, prove how learning can improve the business and its results.
TRY THIS: Endeavor to get inside the CEO’s head while you’re making your arguments—and ask lots of questions to clarify his or her vision for the company, suggests James Balagot, head of learning and development at San Francisco-based Yelp, which publishes crowdsourced reviews of businesses. “I’d ask, ‘What kind of brand do you want? What kind of people do you want to hire?’ When you have a learning culture, you attract a higher-quality candidate, one who’s more aligned with the company vision.”

4. Engage Middle Managers

While learning cultures start at the top, they won’t get much on-the-ground traction if you don’t get middle managers on board. Managers must understand how important learning is to the company’s long-term future—that it keeps workers’ skills up to date, if not ahead of the curve, and prepares employees for growth opportunities, which improves retention. 

Like executives, managers should actively participate in creating a learning culture, helping workers learn what they need to know and following up after a learning exercise is complete. “Managers need to understand that if employees take time to develop skills, it will help make them stronger contributors and team members,” says Paul Wolfe, senior vice president and head of human resources for in New York City.

Of course, managers will want proof before they start pulling their employees away from “real work” to spend time learning. But if you study your company’s operations closely enough, you’re bound to come up with examples of the advantages of learning that managers can readily grasp. 

This goes back to the idea of instilling a sense of safety to experiment. Managers want to see their employees exhibit certain behaviors—whether that means following safety checklists or always challenging the status quo—as much as HR and executives do. “If HR convinces managers to spend five minutes on [reinforcing desired learning] at stand-up meetings each week, they’ll do it because they’ll see the results,” Geldart says. This is a critical step. “You can’t be relevant without line managers,” he says. 

Workers look to their leaders for support and encouragement, so “if you want relevance, you need managers to buy in and know how to help their employees after training” is done.

TRY THIS: Employees at TED, the media organization that posts educational and inspirational talks online, have “Learning Wednesdays” every other week. These are meeting-free days when workers can do whatever they want—as long as they use the time to learn something. 

5. Communicate Your Goals

​Because culture is an organizationwide issue, you must ensure that each worker recognizes the value learning offers to him or her as an individual as well as to the business as a whole. 

It’s not enough to announce your program in an e-newsletter or social media post and then rely on employees to “get it”; HR departments must actively market their educational offerings, share their philosophy around learning, and encourage managers to talk up training and development opportunities. “The culture of learning is communicated as part of the hiring process and should be in the employees’ values,” Ho says. “HR should integrate it into the hiring and onboarding process.”

TRY THIS: Make employee relevance part of HR’s internal brand. That’s what the folks at job board did. “Our new tagline for Indeed’s HR team is ‘We care about what you care about,’ ” Wolfe says. 

6. Integrate Learning Platforms

When reviewing learning technology platforms, a number of products are available. You can buy off-the-shelf programs and then run them as is or customize them, or you can invest in tailored, industrial-strength solutions. 

As you proceed—whether through a formal request-for-proposal process or your own exploration—be sure you know which problems you’re trying to solve, both technically and educationally. For instance, will a new technology integrate into your existing systems? Does it fit with the way your employees want to learn? “Having a vision upfront helps ease the due diligence process,” Wolfe says.

Rolling out programs at the right pace is essential, and you want to test their effectiveness as you go along. It should be an iterative process, where you release a solution, test it, gather feedback and “iterate to make sure it’s right for your audience,” Wolfe suggests.  

7. Continually Measure and Adapt

Always assess the results of your efforts. Besides determining your effectiveness, this will give you the information you need to keep your business case updated for management.

Such assessments can be difficult in the short term, Duffy says, but conducting employee surveys to establish benchmarks in areas such as knowledge and performance is a good way to start. Over time, you can then measure against those variables to gauge learning’s impact on retention, internal mobility, business results and other factors.

“If you do employee engagement surveys, you should start to see improvement in answers about employee development and learning,” Wolfe says. In addition, he recommends conducting curriculum-specific surveys to get ongoing feedback. That will help you keep up with your organization’s changing needs.

Also, don’t forget to assess how employees are responding to your approach, and not just the results of your learning initiatives. Are they taking advantage of the opportunities you’re offering? Are they using the online library you set up? The results will help identify which approaches are the most popular and effective among your workforce. 

Then, of course, there’s the ever-present question of how to translate your data into dollars. Proceed with caution here. “Tracking business results and ROI [return on investment] can be tricky,” Ho says. You may not have access to the data you need, and, in any case, ROI studies take a lot of time. 

That may be why less than 20 percent of organizations currently measure their training results in financial terms, Ho says. Instead, “they do target studies on specific programs where they can get the data.” For instance, learning programs geared to salespeople may be relatively easy to measure because sales departments work with a lot of hard data. Measuring the impact of learning on managers’ coaching effectiveness, however, will be more difficult.

At Kennedy Health, employee engagement scores have shown significant improvement in all core organizational-health factors each year since 2014, when the organization began training its managers at all levels on “servant-based” leadership, Deissroth says. Beyond that, “people in the organization can sense more-open discussions, which are focused on learning from each other and have resulted in greater collaboration between departments,” she says.

TRY THIS: Measure the usage and effectiveness of different learning channels. For example, DuVernet asks, if you set up a learning library, are people using it? If not, try making the same information available through additional means.

8. Embrace the Multichannel World

​If you find people aren’t partaking in what you’re offering, take a hard look at the content —and your approach to it. “Consider whether the topics are right,” Wolfe says. 

At the same time, he adds, make sure your content is available through a variety of channels “so people can learn in the way that works best for them.” 
“If the content you’re using isn’t the right stuff in the right format, it’s not going to work,” Duffy says. Put another way, you should offer content through the channels and devices that employees are using outside of work. 

“Organizations need to figure out how to give employees effective forums to communicate new knowledge,” Ho adds. By that, she means exploring the use of social media, access to self-directed learning platforms and online learning centers. Bear in mind that learning needs differ, not just from individual to individual or age group to age group, but from topic to topic. Matters of compliance, for example, can’t be handled in the same way as communications skills. Thus, there must be a balance between “push and pull learning,” Ho says. 

Changing a culture is no small undertaking, and most agree that knitting learning into your organization’s DNA takes time and care. “Don’t try to do it all at once,” Duffy says. “Work your way into the process.”

“A learning culture will transform many HR departments from being compliance-oriented to being human development-oriented,” Hess believes. “Over the next 10 years, people will take on only the jobs that technology can’t do well—in other words, those that involve higher-order critical, creative and innovative thinking and high emotional and social intelligence.” In that environment, he says, human resources will focus more on human development and helping individuals to excel at becoming lifelong learners. “HR will become HD,” he says.  

Mark Feffer is a Philadelphia-based journalist who focuses on HR, technology and data analytics. 
Illustration by Dan Page.

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