(Editor’s note: We’re re-running this previously published blog to underscore the importance of building a learning culture as we move into 2021.) When was the last time you learned something new? Think back on that moment and how it happened. Perhaps you were searching for more information on a topic and came across something new. Or the information may have been presented to you unexpectedly. If you pay attention, it’s likely true that you learn something new every day. But, establishing a learning culture in an organization is not as simple as it may seem.
Many organizations have great intentions but fail to execute a strategy that truly transforms a culture into one that values constant development, knowledge transfer, and thoughtful inquiry. The typical shortcut organizations use to build a learning culture is through HR technology. Specifically, learning management systems, access to MOOCs, and other on-demand learning platforms are often used as tools to support lifelong learning. On face value, there is nothing wrong with providing learning resources to employees. But libraries full of books don’t create readers on their own.
To truly establish a culture of lifelong learning, we must get past resources and dive deep into behaviors. When our behaviors contradict our initiatives, we undermine the process and lose credibility. Here are a few examples of how we subtly sabotage a lifelong learning culture.
- Early in my career, I worked as a technical recruiter for an IT consultancy. This was one of the most valuable experiences in my career due to both the transferrable skills I acquired and also the mentoring/coaching I received. But looking back on the experience, I can now see so many missed opportunities. Many of those moments centered around the most senior Account Manager, Larry. Larry had been with the company so long that on one work anniversary, the CEO gave him a Rolex. The very generous gift, of course, was worth pennies compared to the revenue Larry generated as the most successful Account Manager who was also responsible for the largest/most stable client. Larry earned his status as the golden employee, and he also leveraged that status very well.
In a recruiting firm, collaboration and communication are constant. Recruiters are constantly pitching candidates to account managers and account managers try to engage the recruiters to fill their openings. To promote information-sharing across the organization and avoid one account manager relying too heavily on one recruiter, all-team meetings were held constantly. In these meetings, each person would share their latest candidate/hottest job and everyone would brainstorm ideas for one another. Except Larry. Larry typically shared his account’s job reqs first, then had “an important meeting” he had to go to, and would disappear while everyone else openly shared, questioned, and encouraged one another. On the rare occasion when Larry did remain in the room, he brazenly played Brickbreaker on his Blackberry and tuned out the activity in the room entirely. Additionally, once a month, the entire company gathered for a few hours of skills-development training. Larry never attended one of these “mandatory” meetings. When asked why, he loved to say “I’ve been doing this so long, I’ve already forgotten more than you know about recruiting.” And then he’d leave for a few hours and return in his freshly washed BMW with a box of movie theater candy.
While trying to establish a learning culture, there were a number of things they did right.
- Everyone was paired with a mentor.
- Everyone was encouraged to take advantage of the tuition reimbursement program.
- Brainstorming, idea-sharing, knowledge-transfer, and opportunities for inquiry were built into the schedule every week.
Unfortunately, Larry’s actions and leadership’s failure to correct them resulted in undermining the goal of establishing a learning culture.
The most senior and/or most successful person in the organization should theoretically have the most to offer. But they’re often not required/encouraged to fully participate in learning opportunities. The content is either considered too basic for the senior employee or not a good use of their time (since they carry so much of the business on their own). Even if that individual is present, if they’re allowed to disconnect from the conversation it signals to everyone else that they’re judged by a different set of standards.
Establishing a true learning culture means formally, and consistently, facilitating learning opportunities between those who need to learn and those who have knowledge/experience to share. This requires commitment and engagement from everyone in the organization. Additionally, it means placing a high priority on learning experiences even when they come at the expense of “work time.” Many training workshops require attendees to shut down their phones entirely, otherwise they will never capture their full attention.
- Another common pitfall organizations experience is failing to recognize, validate, and praise learning achievements. In a learning culture, when an employee returns from a 2-day workshop, they’re encouraged to share what they learned with others. In most organizations, they’re greeted with overdue requests and jokes about how it must have been nice to take 2 days off. Learning is not a vacation. Completing learning goals should be celebrated/shared as freely as business wins.
- Next, outside of formal learning, learning cultures must encourage idea sharing and thoughtful inquiry. These activities become universally accepted after senior leadership models the behavior themselves. Additionally, mistakes should be shared openly so everyone can learn from the experience and identify solutions without shaming the person who made the mistake. Again, this cultural shift requires leaders to be transparent about the tough life/work lessons they learned by trial-and-error.
Each of these activities reinforces the learning concept in ways that are more impactful than a password to an eLearning library. It’s an organic approach to stimulating a cultural shift and requires everyone to play an active role. There’s no finish line when it comes to learning. When you think you’re done, you may look around and realize you’ve only just begun.