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Building a continuous learning culture? 8 honest questions you have to ask

Think about how much our work worlds change. New products launch, companies move in new directions, industry trends shift, new competitors emerge, and the faces around us change. 

So to think that the skills and knowledge we built years ago will keep us relevant, winning and ahead of the competition is fairly naive. 

Hence why you’re here and reading about continuous learning! In a world where things change so rapidly, the fastest learner wins – that’s why you can’t afford to do it once per year or pack people off for generic courses. Achieving your goals means giving the right people, the right knowledge and skill at the right times – for that to happen, you’ll need a continuous learning culture.

What Usain Bolt can teach us about the need for continuous learning

If you really want to know what continuous learning means, check out Usain Bolt’s record in the all-time men’s best 100-metre times. In January 2022, the Lightning Bolt accounted for more than a third of the top 21 record times! 

He could have easily become complacent at the 9.77 seconds that propelled him comfortably into the top 10, but he continued making gains over time – no matter how marginal they were.

Bolt only shaved off 0.19 seconds in setting the current world record, but it made him a legend of the sport and a global icon! No matter how brilliant he was, he never stopped learning. 

He once said, “There are better starters than me, but I’m a strong finisher.”, reminding us that no matter how far ahead of the competition we think we are, standing still means we’ll eventually get overtaken.

At one point, Blockbuster were that strong starter, miles ahead of the likes of Netflix, and yet they stopped evolving and listening to what customers wanted. Maybe a culture of continuous learning would have kept that beloved childhood staple alive?

8 blunt questions you need to ask to build a continuous learning culture

It’s better to ask the right questions and arrive at your perfect solution, rather than follow a generic template and end up somewhere equally uninspiring. 

Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, it’s not as simple as introducing a few particular activities and ending up with a continuous learning culture. How could following such static advice really help you build a fluid culture where everyone is ever improving?

Your endpoint today could be your starting point tomorrow, hence why it’s better to know which questions you need to ask to not only create your learning culture today but refine it over time.

1. What culture and learning behaviours already exist?

Imagine it’s your first day at a new yoga class. Are you really going to stroll in and start correcting people on their form and barking orders to try new things? Probably not. That’s a one-way ticket to the downward-facing dog house!

So why would you do it as an L&D professional trying to build a learning culture?

In both scenarios, the best advice is to read the room! It might be on a small scale, but people will be learning. It’s better to understand how, where and why before you ask them to do it your way.

Why? Because it’s easier to work with existing habits that are happening organically, rather than forcing people to do something that feels artificial and against their instincts. For example, your customer support team might have an advice channel in Slack. Observe how they engage with each other there and consider how you could refine and improve that process. 

At the same time, look out for who’s frequently sharing wisdom and who’s got a curious mind. The people currently leading the organic charge for learning could be your biggest advocates as you build out that culture.

2. Do our company culture and values facilitate continuous learning?

Unless the company culture facilitates learning, it’ll be tricky to build that process of continuous development. If it’s an environment where new ideas are shot down and people are prickly when challenged by those outside their team, can you really drive the collaboration that results in on-the-job learning from peers?

If trust is lacking from the company values, will people feel comfortable undertaking self-directed learning as they try to overcome challenges? If the ethos isn’t one of growth and professional development, will people feel motivated to learn new things? 

3. What’s the point of learning in your company? 

If learning goes nowhere and has no impact, why would someone do it more than once? If the portions are too small at a restaurant, it’s highly unlikely you’d return for more disappointment! 

People have a similar appetite for development. You can think of it as the two Ps on their plate:

  • Purpose
  • Progress.

There’s a sense of fulfilment when we know our role is making an impact in reaching the company’s overall goals. And if there’s the opportunity to progress into new roles, we’re more likely to stick around and continue working productively.

This is why learning opportunities and initiatives need goals, and those goals need to be tied to impact. We don’t become better at our roles by arbitrarily picking an event to attend or a course to complete. But if we can understand business objectives and our role in achieving them, we can learn the right skills and information to achieve purpose and progress.

4. Why should key stakeholders care?

It’s not just learners you need to win over, it’s senior leaders and managers. What’s in it for them? Why would building a continuous learning culture be in their best interest?

Again, it’s a question of impact. You need to explain how learning is going to solve their problems and help in reaching key goals. When it comes to continuous learning, you’re also pitching how it will ensure they’re able to solve future problems too.

How can you figure this all out? One, you’ve got to start having the right conversations. Two, you need to change HR or L&D’s role and perception in the business. Too often, people come to you simply asking for a solution – and too often, people prescribe it with no follow up questions. 

Instead, have consulting-style conversations where you truly understand the challenges and problems, then you can have an impact through learning.

5. Are you asking people to do something you wouldn’t do yourself?

When was the last time you learnt something new? If the people trying to instill a learning culture aren’t embodying that attitude and mindset, it’s far harder for others to get behind them.

Typically, time is a barrier to learning. We all claim we’re too busy or that learning will take us away from our day-to-day tasks. In a continuous learning culture, you’re building an approach where people are learning on the job and busting that myth. In the short-term, however, you have to win people over through leading by example.

6. Are you comfortable with failure?

The idea that it’s okay to get things wrong is fundamental to continuous learning. Failing is a key part of the learning process, and it’s crucial that we’re giving employees the psychological safety to make mistakes. 

When we learn new things, we’re not always sure of the impact they’ll have in our role. We might see a great marketing campaign and decide to try something similar, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll work.

However, in work environments where we get a finger-wagging if ideas don’t pan out, we won’t learn continuously. If a new idea does go awry and our managers give us a dressing down every time, that’ll deter us from learning and trying new things in the future. We have to be trusted to fail, but there also needs to be a feedback process to learn from those moments.

7. Do we really offer the tools to learn continuously?

By the same token, if we’re using tech that makes learning more headache than mind blown, will we really want to do it in the future? Did you know that the average employee spends an estimated two hours each day looking for the information they need to do their job properly?

That friction is the enemy of continuous learning! And a good learning experience is one that adds maximum value with minimum friction.

One way we can do that is by putting the right technology in place! If you bring all your scattered learning into one place, (we’ll gladly show you how), you’ll allow people to find it on demand. And if your teams are working in remote and distributed ways, that’s worth its weight in knowledge. 

Ask yourself these two questions: 

  • Where are our people doing their work? 
  • How can we bring learning to those places? 

Too often, learning is disconnected from the workflow. We have to go through endless app switching, losing productivity in the meantime. If you can integrate your learning platform with the tech people use on a daily basis, you’ll drive that culture of continuous learning.

Check out the learning experience platform that connects your people to the right knowledge, in the right moments, everywhere they already work! 

8. What’s our employer brand? Are we known for progress and upward mobility?

Self-awareness is an excellent trait, especially if we’re in the business of building a learning culture and attracting the right people to fit it. A company reputation for promoting learning and offering progress means we’re more likely to attract candidates with the same mindset.

Of course, that can only really come from doing it! If you’re all talk and no action, none of your employees will talk about you in glowing terms. And if you’ve ever visited Glassdoor before hitting send on an application, you’ll know the role that social proof can play. 

It’s all about understanding where you are now and how far you are away from building that strong employer brand. And while we’re talking about Glassdoor, it’s worth seeing what people have to say about your company. It might give you an honest insight into why people left and what role the culture had to play.