Talent Development

Building a Learning Culture

By Melissa FlemingJanuary 10, 2018

Last month, Everwise hosted a webinar on “Building a Learning Culture” with Jeff Diana, the former Chief People Officer of Atlassian & SuccessFactors. A seasoned executive with 20 years of HR experience, Diana serves as a strategic HR consultant and sits on the boards of progressive HR companies including Everwise. He shared his expertise with our community on how to build a learning culture, rooted in the belief that individual growth improves organizational performance. Here are key takeaways:

Focus on career development

One of the most important factors in whether or not an employee recommends a company as a great place to work is career advancement, not compensation. This marks the continuation of a steady shift over the years. It’s true that compensation and career level are correlated, but today’s employees assign a lot of value to how a company helps them develop their careers, not just compensation at each career level. Focusing on career advancement as a company relies on creating a culture of learning, where employees feel they can grow as individuals and in their jobs.

Getting it right is critical to talent retention and attraction, which is increasingly important as many organizations struggle to attract and retain top talent fast enough to keep pace with the markets. “The number one limit on an organization’s success is people’s capability,” says Diana. “In order to get the most out of your people you have to first put in the right cultural foundation.” Diana compares laying the groundwork for a culture of learning to properly equipping your sales team with the tools to crush their numbers. Without a solid foundation that supports people achieving their potential, an organization’s progress will be limited.

Make a case for greater investment

Organizations that are committed to creating a culture of learning have a real competitive advantage. According to Diana, the four primary benefits of putting resources into building a culture of learning are: 1) increased employee engagement, 2) higher retention, 3) streamlined business processes,  and 4) higher ROI/organization success. The best way to make the case for increased spending on Learning & Development (L&D) initiatives is to directly link them to specific business outcomes.

“When you look at the business objectives for a three-year period and you tie that to what capabilities the business needs to have, you can see very clear lines that say why we need higher retention,” says Diana.

What we know for certain is that an organization won’t succeed without the right talent. “Supply is lacking,” Diana says. “We have to help people learn on the job within the context of what they are experiencing today to meet the pace and dynamic nature of business.” One way to make the case for increased L&D investment is to identify capability gaps and how L&D programs can help develop the supply chain of skills needed to reach an organization’s desired business outcomes.

Measure your culture to determine development needs

“One way to grab everyone’s attention is to assess culture,” says Diana. “No leader wants to be at the helm of a culture or a team that isn’t deemed healthy and something they can be proud of leading.”

Having employees assess the health of an organization’s culture can help galvanize efforts to create more learning opportunities. Getting employee input also serves the dual purpose of creating a culture that values transparency and its employees’ opinions. Diana suggests starting with a culture quiz that contains 8 to 10 targeted questions. For example, Do you have rituals that regulate and reinforce values? If you have values around learning and growth, do you have rituals that signal that growth? Does your CEO regularly ask for ideas on strategy? Does your company internally publish mistakes and share learnings from mistakes? Is your physical space driving collaboration? Do you have the tools in place to effectively collaborate? Do you have the ability to give feedback? From those questions, strengths and gaps will emerge, making it easier to take action.

Start small and simple

Diana breaks down the process of enabling a learning culture into four steps: process, culture, L&D investment, and measurement. The best way to start is small and low cost. Find a leader who can pilot a program and generate results that could lead to an expansion. Make sure the language within the company – from performance reviews to the handbook to all-hands invitations – reflects a culture of learning. Find internal success stories of high-performing teams of active learners to help you make the case for L&D investment.

While Diana points out that there are many ways an organization can invest in L&D, the most important one is to build learning into the organization’s culture. The four levers that HR professionals can utilize to drive a sustainable culture are values, transparency, rituals and tools. Having a good set of values conveys the message that learning, self-development and risk-taking are part of the company’s mission and an employee’s daily life. A culture that values transparency and access will breed trust and loyalty. Rituals signal learning and the right tools will empower employees to be curious, collaborate and learn and grow on the job.

Putting it all together: Design learning experiences that impact positive behavior change

Learning today is much more about context than content. Simply put, people are more likely to learn if they can easily recall the information and apply it to their day-to-day jobs. So the challenge for HR professionals is to incorporate the social and experiential side of learning into their programs. You’ll see the best results with initiatives that are intimate and collaborative. “Like anything else we’ll participate more in it, we’ll recall it better if the experience itself touches us in a deeper way,” says Diana.

The best learning happens on the job, where the context is clear and the application is immediate. In order to shorten the loop of trying something, gaining insights and putting those different behaviors back in action, Diana says to think about the actual work that is being done. Having the ability to apply that knowledge to what someone does every day is the best way to turn knowledge into capability.

According to Diana, employees want learning experiences to be highly personalized, more social and collaborative, and rooted in real work. Over 70% of managers want their digital experiences to be more adaptive, 60% want the experience to be more social and collaborative and 55% want more experiential learning included.

It’s important for managers to encourage learning on the job to leverage a team’s capabilities and motivate team members. Diana suggests managers encourage learning by providing the content foundations, mentors/coaches, practice in real work situations and performance feedback from teammates. All of these are learning experiences that offer employees opportunities to practice by doing.

With the right combination of people, resources and feedback, all employees can achieve their full potential. To do this Diana advises that you find role models of high-performing teams within the organization and point to internal success stories to make the case for more L&D. Start small and low cost with a pilot program. Make it easy for people to provide feedback. And most importantly, tie the L&D experiences to business outcomes. The investment in building a learning culture is valuable to both employees and management, and will allow you to tap into the potential of your workforce and improve your organization’s performance overall.

View a recording of the webinar here.

Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

About the Author

Melissa is a Southerner by birth, New Englander by education and New Yorker by choice. A writer and editor by trade, she runs marathons, travels whenever possible and usually has a book in hand.

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