Leading the Way to a Learning Culture

Culture happens. I know, it sounds like a bad bumper sticker from the ’90s, but it’s true: Your organization has a culture. To be successful, that culture will need to be one where learning is valued. Growing and sustaining that kind of learning culture starts with leadership.

So what is a learning culture? By definition, a learning culture is a set of organizational values, conventions, processes, and practices that encourages individuals—and the organization as a whole—to increase their knowledge, competence, and performance. When a healthy learning culture is in place, it encourages people to have an open mind and seek out the knowledge they want, at the moment they want it.


ej4 Blog Leading the Way to a Learning Culture
Why call it a “culture,” rather than a “mindset” or a “set of policies”? What does “culture” mean here? The core idea is that learning itself is a continuous process, like the growth of a plant, not a one-time event or once-a-year ritual. While it can include many kinds of traditional training (including instructor-led training and off-campus workshops), it also includes self-guided learning—think webinars, articles, short videos, and so on.

While a lot of learning itself might be self-directed, it won’t happen spontaneously unless conditions are right. Learning is like a seed: It needs to be put in good soil, given water, and sunlight. And so learning cultures start with the organization’s leadership and branches out from there. If left unattended, the “learning garden” can end up with weeds, which grow wildly and get out of control

(Think of bad information an employee might find on YouTube, or bad advice from a well-meaning co-worker.) So leaders have to continually review and cultivate their learning culture, too.
In other words, good leaders create a good learning culture by setting the tone and practices (good soil), rewarding learning (watering the seed), and filling the workday with the right kinds of learning experiences through coaching (cultivating).


But Wait: Why Should Leadership Care About Learning Culture?

Whether your organization is actively trying to shape its learning culture, or takes a more laissez-faire approach, the values, conventions, processes, and practices are there. The research makes it clear that when leaders pay attention and work towards cultivating a healthy learning culture, companies do better.

For example, according to a seminal study conducted by Bersin by Deloitte, companies that nurture their workforce’s desire to learn are at least 30% more likely to be market leaders. That’s not just because they are great companies overall. A separate study by Accenture found that, for every dollar invested in training, companies received $4.53 in return, or a whopping 353% ROI.

As Bersin’s principal and founder Josh Bersin puts it, “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.” This makes sense: A company cannot reap the benefits of knowledge if learning was never allowed to take root to begin with.


Why Managers Should Care About Learning Culture

Caring about an organization's learning culture is one thing; getting everyone else to care is another. Managers are busy enough already as it is…what reasons can leadership give them for caring about learning culture?

Here are six reasons managers should care about a strong learning culture:

  1. It boosts creativity. Employees who take the time to learn will bring fresh ideas to the table.

  2. It increases productivity. Employees who learn on their own are more likely to pick up relevant skills and shrink the skills gap. When given the freedom, they often discover helpful productivity tips or better ways of doing tasks.

  3. It builds confidence. As employees develop their skill set, they become more confident and are more likely to take the initiative in projects.

  4. It contributes to the organization’s overall succession plan. If a manager gets promoted, who will be there to take the reins? Whoever he or she is, you want that person to be competent and well-rounded.

  5. It decreases turnover. Psychologists have identified the lack of proper training as one of the top five reasons (outside of compensation) that employees tend to leave their companies. Ninety-four percent of employees report they would stay longer with their companies if those companies invested more in their careers.

  6. It helps meet your team’s goals. When employees are more competent and confident, the entire team will be able to achieve its goals more frequently and more quickly.

A learning culture can do these things only when everyone buys into it. Without the good soil of a learning culture, employees will not take learning seriously. And without “constant watering,” employees will become sidetracked with other tasks. Both leaders and managers need to be proactive and keep learning alive and thriving. 


Watering the Seeds: How Can You Lead the Way to a Learning Culture?

Again, learning does not happen in a vacuum. A company’s leadership has to set the tone, as well as make learning an overall part of the company’s strategic plan.

Managers have to lead by example, too. They will be the ones working closest with front-line employees, and so are ideally placed to provide opportunities and encouragement.

Leading by example here means more than learning on your own, or “talking a good game” when it comes to learning. Here are a few concrete steps that some of our own clients have taken:

Set the tone during onboarding.

You can make a good first impression with new hires by giving them lots of opportunities to learn and share with one another. What do you need to do before your new hire starts? On their first day? Their first week? 30, 60, and 90 days? The process is ongoing. In some instances, people start off strong with new employees, but lose momentum and forget the importance of the onboarding process. Brand yourself from the very beginning as a company that supports learning.

Make time for learning.

Both leaders and managers will have to approve time for learning. Whether it’s a half-day instructor-led workshop or giving employees breaks to watch ten minutes of instructional videos at their desk, leaders and managers directly control the time spent in learning activities. So make that time.

Fill the workday with learning experiences.

Leaders and managers who support a learning culture also tend to be good coaches and mentors. They provide candid feedback and guide employees toward content that will best help them, now and in the future.

A large part of this coaching involves embracing “teachable moments” during the workday, rather than saving all of that advice and input for the annual or quarterly performance review. For example, a good mentor might notice an employee struggling or making a mistake, and then suggest a learning opportunity to help strengthen the employee’s skill in that particular situation. It’s important to catch mistakes early so they don’t become a habit and so you can help them be more successful.

But sharing advice or teachable moments doesn’t always have to be when an employee makes mistakes or is struggling. It can be a part of an overall practice of information sharing.

Learning experiences and information sharing isn’t a one-way street. Managers can learn a lot from their employees, too. Bring in an employee to help you figure out the latest software update, or to help you brainstorm and problem solve. It shows that you’re still learning and that you value their expertise and perspective.

Set the example.

Leaders and managers need to reserve time for their own learning. When possible, make this visible to the whole team. For example, you could invite other employees to attend a webinar with you. Or organize a “brown-bag” lunchtime learning session. Or watch and then share a video on a topic relevant to something the team is working on currently.

Here’s an even simpler way to lead by example when it comes to learning: Simply ask someone to teach you something. You’re never too old to ask for help and employees will appreciate that you value their input.

Make information sharing a common practice.

Yes, encourage the sharing of information! Did you find an interesting article on how to write more engaging emails? Or how to be more productive throughout the workday? Share it! Once they see you doing it, your managers and employees will be more likely to share, too. How can you make this happen? In team meetings and one-on-ones, make it a practice to bring it up! Make it known to your team that this kind of sharing is encouraged.

Reward continuous learning.

When employees put the time and effort into improving themselves, they should be recognized for it. Recognition reinforces the behavior you want to see in your employees—not to mention that it makes them feel good! When they feel better about themselves, they will feel better about your company. 


More Tools for Your Learning Culture

I can’t say it enough: Culture is created and cultivated by leaders. To grow a strong learning culture within your organization, you have to lead the way!

Let me practice what I just preached and share with you a few great resources. I encourage you to do likewise. Who do you think can benefit from these whitepapers and eBooks?

I’ll also point out that ej4’s Thinkzoom LMS is a great tool for encouraging continuous learning. It has a full library that allows employees to engage in self-directed learning, as well as a social learning tool that makes it easy for employees to share their learning with others. Sign up for a 15-day free trial to explore these features for yourself.

Or, if you’re not ready for a trial, educate yourself on what to look for in eLearning content with my article “How to Buy eLearning Content for Your LMS (And Not Regret It Later).”

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