by Deidre Koppelman, Founder and CEO of PEAR Core Solutions
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Most people want to be learning, and doing so at least a portion of every day, even if they don’t realize it. Learning keeps people interested (and interesting – but that’s for a different article!) and engaged in their lives and in their work. Employees are quite aware of when they are no longer learning; once that happens, it’s as if a countdown clock appears above their heads that is clicking towards the time when they will be moving on.
WHAT IS A “LEARNING CULTURE?”
It would be easy to say that any company providing training, access to classes, or a mentorship program is a company with a “learning culture.” While it very well may be true that these companies do have a culture of learning, it’s not a result of these programs alone. A company can offer learning opportunities of all sorts, but if nobody knows about them, people are embarrassed to take advantage of them, lessons learned through these opportunities are irrelevant to the job, or employees are actively discouraged from trying out their new knowledges or skill, then learning is not an integral part of the company’s culture.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF A LEARNING CULTURE?
Some of the learning that happens on the job has to happen, otherwise your employees will not know how to do their jobs. After that, a culture that actively encourages more learning than is strictly required will:
- INCREASE ENGAGEMENT AND DECREASE TURNOVER
Many studies have shown that a learning culture can directly influence employees’ satisfaction and engagement on the job, thereby leading to higher productivity and less turnover
- LOWER FEAR, RAISE CONFIDENCE
Employees fear being “found out.” They don’t want their managers or co-workers to think that they don’t know something. If everyone is encouraged to admit that they do not know something – from the top to the bottom of the organization – then everyone will be encouraged to learn, gain confidence, and….
- ALLOW FAILURE (IN ORDER TO SUCCEED)
Learning something new means trying something new which can lead to failure. If you fear failure – and if your company reinforces this fear by not allowing even the slightest chance of failure – then employee learning and growth will be severely limited (as will innovation in the company and ultimately, success). A culture that encourages learning must encourage not knowing and even failing.
HOW DO WE MAKE OUR CULTURE MORE ABOUT LEARNING?
- PROVIDE LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
With or without a training budget, you can provide opportunities for your employees to learn. These don’t have to be big events – they can be as simple as:
- a manager involving an employee on a client call that would normally be handled alone (and then discussing it afterwards to ensure the employee learned from it)
- free or low cost webinars or online classes (and provide homework, such as asking the employee to type up a summary of the main points learned)
- “brown-bag” classes where one employee teaches other employees about a subject (this helps both the teacher and the students!)
- cross-training opportunities (these can be as official as a job-rotation program or off-the-cuff mentoring of one employee to another)
- ENCOURAGE EMPLOYEES INPUT ON LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES (AND THEN TRY TO SAY “YES”)
Employees frequently know more than anyone what they don’t know and could use on the job. Make it OK for an employee to admit they don’t know something by encouraging them to come to their manager with suggestions for opportunities to learn something new. This is something that should be repeatedly reinforced by all leaders in your organization.
- ENSURE LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES ARE RELEVANT TO THE JOB
This may sound obvious, but it can quickly become a blind spot and can derail your attempts at encouraging a learning culture.
- Obvious job-related learning opportunity:An employee is going to be sent to a Spanish-speaking country for work. A crash course in Spanish and maybe a class or book regarding the etiquette of that country would clearly be relevant.
- Not-so-obvious job-related learning opportunity:A programmer wants to take a class on a new programming language that isn’t currently used at the company. Before green-lighting the opportunity, you should explore the reasons why this skill will be helpful to the company. For instance, is the reason the company hasn’t been using that language because nobody knows it, or is it not being used because it isn’t useful to what the company currently does?
This second scenario is where things can quickly “go south” in terms of building a learning culture. The process of keeping employees focused on the most relevant learning needs to be handled carefully. You want to ensure that the employee understands you are encouraging their growth while at the same time helping define guardrails. You’ll want to ensure the employee has an active role in these discussions, which may include asking for a use-case-scenario or asking the employee to research other opportunities if the original idea isn’t relevant. Keep the encouragement for learning high, but keep the learning relevant!
- ALLOW EMPLOYEES TO USE WHAT THEY LEARNED
This is the key to truly instilling a learning culture. You can provide all the opportunities that money can (or can’t) buy, but if employees can’t use what they learned then your company is not truly encouraging a learning environmentSCENARIO:
Janet is sent to a two-day offsite workshop to learn about the latest digital marketing methods. She comes back to the office excited to use what she’s learned. Janet becomes quickly discouraged, however, when attempts to use what she learned are met by her manager with some version of “that’s not the way we do it here.”
A learning culture is one in which learning opportunities are not only provided, but encouragement to use that knowledge on the job is baked into the culture. This is not to suggest that every suggestion an employee has should be implemented, but it’s critical to let employees know that their attempts to learn and grow are positively met.
- INVOLVE MANAGERS
This is clearly the key to item #4. Like the scenario describes above, if the manager doesn’t encourage use of new knowledges or skills, employees will not be motivated to want to learn. The best way to ensure managers encourage learning is to encourage your managers to learn as well. Items 1-4 above apply to them as much as anyone!
“What’s the point?” or “What’s in it for me?” is behind every single task an employee undertakes, both large and small. Consciously or not, employees need to know that either the company or the employees will gain some sort of benefit from the work. Wouldn’t it be great if employees were able – and encouraged – to answer that question most of the time with “I’ll learn something?” Encouraging learning – and allowing use of new knowledges and skills – will help your employees be more engaged in their work, and will ultimately pay your company dividends in increased productivity, better quality work, and lower turnover.