Guidelines for Building a Learning Culture

Organizational commitment to learning is a business imperative in any economy, but the economic pressures of 2020 have rapidly accelerated the pressures to upskill the workforce.

Increased automation alone will disrupt 85 million jobs globally across 15 industries and 26 economies by 2025, according to World Economic Forum research.

In this economic climate, your employees need to be agile, and learning has to be part of your organization’s DNA. By building a learning culture at your organization, you’ll give your workforce a competitive edge and set them up for success now and in the future.

Here is how to establish a learning culture at your organization.

Prioritize Organizational Learning Outcomes

Learning is imperative for any organization to keep up with advances in technology, and learning, when prioritized internally, gives you an edge in the competition for top talent. The pace of change is only accelerating, and continuous upskilling is vital to maintaining an agile and up-to-date workforce. Ongoing learning helps your organization innovate and disrupt rather than be disrupted. Work with direct managers to identify where skills are lagging in their teams. 

It is helpful to map out your job infrastructure and home in on how each role will evolve so you can proactively determine which skills you need to develop now.  An upskilling framework also allows you to prioritize hiring talent with the soft skills you need that are harder to teach, such as emotional intelligence, critical thinking and adaptability. You can update someone’s technical skills, but teaching an ability to learn is much harder to pin down.

Leadership should set the tone that learning is important for organizational success. Identify specific organizational learning outcomes to work toward, and cascade those down to individual departments, culminating in an individualized learning plan for each employee. Set three-, six- and twelve-month plans for achieving those outcomes, and embed accountability in existing processes, such as performance management.

Define the Hallmarks of Your Learning Culture

Culture is an ambiguous term, so before you can develop a learning culture, you have to define what that means for your specific organization and workforce. “The first step in building or reinforcing a ‘learning culture’ is defining what a ‘learning culture’ means for your organization,” says Ben Butina, SPHR, an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist, and Manager of Learning, Development and Talent Management at Arconic. “Your definition doesn't have to be perfect, but it should be agreed upon by your major stakeholders so that everyone can pull in the same direction.”

Take an objective look at how learning happens at your organization now and how it could be improved. Butina recommends using a technique he calls the “Reality Show Assessment” to force your mind to think more objectively about workplace learning behaviors. “Pretend a documentary film crew is coming to film your organization to showcase it as an example of an effective learning culture,” he says. “What would they see through the camera lens that would show them that your company is doing things right? What will they see your employees and leaders doing?” If direct managers don’t follow up on plans to develop employees with specific feedback, you need to build that behavior into day-to-day management.

In addition to understanding behaviors that drive learning, you need to develop a learning program infrastructure. What tools or processes would make learning easier? Is learning centered on electronically delivered modules or through mentoring and peer-to-peer learning? Or some combination of both? Engage stakeholders at all levels in this conversation. Use surveys and focus groups to give employees a voice. Their buy-in is vital to the success of your organization’s learning endeavors, so involve them on the front end as much you can.

Incorporate Learning Into Performance Management

To align your organization on learning initiatives, embed learning into an existing process, such as performance management. “Create the expectation for managers that part of their role is the ongoing development of their employees,” says Kim Stewart, SPHR, senior vice president and head of talent management at First Citizens Bank. Instead of a vague requirement for managers to develop their employees, help them build specific learning plans with outcomes and checkpoints they can track during performance management conversations and formal quarterly check-ins.

Align each of an employee’s performance goals with a specific learning outcome. If an employee wants to become a leader in the organization, for example, one of their goals could be to learn about and train their peers on newly implemented software. Help managers identify opportunities for supporting learning culture through on-the-job learning that links performance and professionals goals fluidly (and usually results in better overall performance). Be sure to include learning outcomes for each goal so that employees can assess their progress along the way. Give employees a sense of mobility by incorporating professional development plans into the performance management process.

Be sure to incentivize your managers to develop their teams — talent hoarding can destroy learning initiatives by stagnating top talent in one place. Tie managerial rewards and bonuses to talent development and mobility. Reward managers who help place high-potential employees where they can thrive and do the most for the organization instead of keeping them in one department. “If you don't support your talent’s development, then you run a higher risk of a key competitor contacting them and giving them an opportunity,” Stewart says.

Link Learning to Career Pathways

Employees will be more motivated to learn if they foresee mobility within the company. As employees master learning outcomes, they should be able to see themselves working toward tangible progress. “Be public about your intention to develop people both personally and professionally and provide learning options and opportunities that support that,” Stewart says. Learning modules should focus on a combination of the help they need to be better at their current job and prepare them for future roles within the organization. Remember that mobility can be upward or lateral and should offer opportunities for cross-training. To increase retention, help employees find the right vertical where they can feel fulfilled and contribute the most before focusing on upward mobility.

Technology is advancing at breakneck speed, forcing us to face the inevitability of losing jobs to automation — a trend that has only been accelerated by the pandemic. But just because jobs are disappearing doesn’t mean you have to lose the valuable workers currently occupying those roles. Boost your learning culture with a reskilling program to transfer those employees to roles with more longevity, such as positions working alongside artificial intelligence and automation.

Work with IT to begin developing those roles and job descriptions now so you can allay fears of job loss and begin establishing a reskilling curriculum. Tap into existing job infrastructure to identify the directions these roles might take and map out mobility options for current occupants. If your employees know that they have options for mobility, they are more likely to buy into reskilling initiatives and support a culture of learning.

Make Learning Modules Accessible

Just as  t the pandemic has accelerated changes to when and where we work, it has also changed the ways we learn. For example, workers in traditional office settings may have access to online learning through laptops or desktops, but workers in other settings  such as manufacturing, retail or health care — may not have ready access to a computer.

But 81% of Americans do have a smartphone and  mobile-first delivery will allow employees to access learning modules during dedicated learning time at work. These modules should be kept short to increase the likelihood of employees adopting this learning into their busy schedules.

Other new technology, such as virtual reality, can even replicate the physical environment in a virtual format, allowing employees to learn equipment and machinery, even if they aren’t physically present. 

One key to creating a thriving learning culture is acknowledging the pace of change. When developing your video-based learning modules, prioritize the quality and relevance of your content over high-quality production values. If you don’t have the bandwidth to develop learning modules internally, you can also partner with a learning organization. Look at established learning catalogs and partner with companies to license their training for your workforce.

Most importantly, business cycles are much shorter than before.  Any learning plan or strategy has to be agile, relevant and easy to deploy.

Learn more about HRCI’s new learning platform.