As responsible managers in successful organizations, we need our employees to steadily and continuously learn and improve. And research shows that’s what employees want, too.
"To stay relevant in today’s business world requires a fierce desire to learn, to improve, and to adapt," writes Jeff Boss in this article for Forbes. Notice the phrase fierce desire. Beyond having a willingness to learn and improve, we need to be intentional and devoted to the pursuit.
So how do we go about establishing a learning culture?
The good news is that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants in this arena. Peter Senge and his colleagues started researching and writing about "learning organizations over 20 years ago, giving us many great books and resources on the subject. And thought-leaders are still researching and writing about it to this day. So let’s summarize some of the most relevant and actionable ways to establish your very own culture of learning.
Demonstrate that you value learning
It’s not enough to have management proclaim, "Our organization values ongoing learning." When it comes to embracing learning, actions speak far louder than words: your organization's ongoing practices and processes will reveal the truth.
"Organizational culture isn’t so much what upper management says it is but rather a belief system that is reinforced by your employees in the way they interact, produce, and identify with your company," writes Nicole Maddy for ‘a’ magazine.
A learning culture is one that establishes behaviors and cultural norms that encourage the collection of data and information, reflection on that information, and sharing the findings to improve performance within the organization. Now let’s dig into a few of these practices.
Provide a supportive learning environment
Make sure there is appropriate physical space and equipment available for things like online learning and other training activities. We recently had a student take an online class from his car so he could turn up the volume and hear the instructor. Don’t be that organization.
Put regular learning and training in every employee's job description
If you want team members to learn and improve, it helps if you explicitly say so. You can have this conversation during hiring, onboarding, and at regular intervals, like employee reviews. Reviews can include a "what have you learned" opportunity for reflection. Ideally, each employee will have a training plan to follow. If that sounds like too much, check out our suggestion for a super-simple training plan.
Also set explicit expectations regarding the time your employees should invest in training. Your team members will appreciate clear communication around what times are appropriate, how much time they should invest, and how you want them to mark their calendars or timesheets.
Use pilot tests to gather information and test hypotheses
Piloting is one way to foster a learning culture by experimenting with new offerings. A new approach can be test-driven for a defined period and on a small scale. You get to test an idea under real conditions but with minimal risk, and you can make adjustments quickly.
Pilots provide an opportunity to gather data and determine if the new approach usefully solves the problem it was designed to address. You might also consider tying in some continuous improvement processes.
Put employee development in somebody’s job description
Is anybody in your organization held accountable for employee development, or does it occur unevenly and in a non-strategic manner? I’m often reminded of the old business school adage, "We manage what we measure." So make sure it’s somebody’s job to be pro-active about employee development. In some organizations this is squarely in HR’s court, sometimes it falls to managers, or even a separate training team. Find the right fit for your team.
Value data and information more than tradition and perception
In your emails and meetings and hallway conversations, use language that clearly shows that your decisions and strategies are based on a thoughtful look at the available information. The more you can foster this approach and be transparent about it, the more you will model the fundamental behaviors necessary to a learning organization.
Use After-Action Reviews
These systematic debriefing sessions that occur at the end of a project or initiative provide important opportunities for information-gathering, review and reflection. Are they constructive and non-charged, providing true learning opportunities rather than blame? Make sure employees feel psychologically safe enough to share openly and to learn. The point of after-action reviews is to share lessons and codify results.