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How to build a learning culture that works at work | Advice from the experts

Do you really need to ‘build’ a learning culture? Or do you actually need to work out how and where learning is happening at the workplace and shape the culture around that?

For most of us, it’s in our nature to seek out or try new ways of doing things – we try and fail, we pick people’s brains, we follow our curiosity and thirst for knowledge. And until we stop and think about it, we probably don’t really consider that to be learning. 

Part of that might be based on past experiences with learning at either school or work because we see learning as something we go to, it’s structured, specific and disconnected from where we actually need to apply what we learn. A learning culture runs against that because it’s all about embedding learning into what you’re doing as teams, individuals and organisations to drive the business forward and help everyone grow.

It’s something you can’t underestimate the influence of, as Josh Bersin put it “the single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.”

So, how do you build one or harness how people are already learning at your company and shape that into a culture? We asked six experts in the HowNow community for their advice on creating a learning culture and making learning a habit.

Lead by example to build a learning culture

You can tell people what the culture is as much as you like, but if they can’t see colleagues and those in higher positions walking the walk, there’s probably going to be a ‘why should I bother?’ feeling flowing through the company. But if your CEO, managers and people in power are demonstrating how they’re learning, sharing their insights with the team and highlighting how important it is, your people are more likely to buy into it.

And that’s evidently part of the culture at Xoomworks because our two experts at the company extolled the benefits of leading by example when we asked them about building a continuous learning culture.

Nikolina Todorova, HR Manager at Xoomworks, explained that:

“Creating a culture should start from the top – we should not expect that users will immediately start using a tool just because they’ve been told. If leaders/managers/contributors do not ‘live’ the culture themselves, no one else will.”

If we take one of the biggest stigmas or misconceptions about learning at work, which is that we’re all just too busy, we can really see the value of leading by example. If the CEO or Founder is able to find time among their busy schedule, there’s that sense of ‘well, if they’ve got time to do it then I should be able to as well.’

Edd Tomlinson, Senior Consultant at Xoomworks made a similar point but also tackled two other perceived hurdles – information being easy to find and feeling like it’s adding value. 

“It has to be a top down approach from the CEO, and you have to make the content easy to find. Does it add value is the question I ask myself when I write a Nugget. Will this be something they want to search for?”

Use your learning tech for more than just learning

This is starting to feel like an attack on all the misconceptions about workplace learning, but this one is definitely linked to building a learning culture. 

If someone’s only experience of learning technology is a very traditional LMS, they’ll view it as something very functional that exists outside of where they normally work. Chances are they’ve been sent there for compliance courses or mandatory training and this is all a polite way of saying that they think learning is boring!

As Katie Harrison, People Operations Assistant at Cognism, put it, we should make it fun!

“Make it fun! It is obvious to have learning materials related to your job role but you can use a learning platform for so many other things, shouting about rewards, creating content that brings communities together and even competitions!”

This is particularly good advice if you’re just launching a learning platform or you’re trying to entice more people to log in more often. It’s no secret that if something feels fun then it’s more likely to become a habit and something we do regularly – so if you can get people to use your tech more often by making it a more enjoyable place to be, use that to your advantage!

Ensure learning feels relevant, has a purpose and demonstrates impact 

If there are three words to pick out from our next three experts, they’re “relevant”, “impact” and “purpose”. A culture where people want to learn is one where they can understand why learning is going to make them better at their job and how they’re contributing to the company’s purpose or goals.

Adam Davies, People Development Partner at Gymshark sums it up in succinct fashion by saying:

“Make it relevant to their role, and tangible with a development plan. Make it easy to access, and get tangible data on.”

And when we say tangible data, it leads us nicely onto impact! If the numbers clearly show us that our learning and development is having a positive impact on our skills, how we’re performing or the company’s objectives, that’s positive reinforcement that what we’re doing brings rewards. 

Marie Payne, People Development Specialist at Checkout.com, points out that we should tie data from learning into the review and promotion process.

“Measure their commitment to development, make that a part of reviews and promotion metrics. Measure how Managers are supporting development. Make tools for development clear, easily accessible and available for everyone to use – then understand who isn’t engaging and target them directly.”

That last point is a great one because a good learning platform will help you understand who is and isn’t engaged! If someone’s only logging in once a month or spending a few minutes a week in there, chances are they’ve either not bought into the learning culture or the platform just doesn’t connect with them. 

Once you’re armed with those metrics, you can collect feedback from those people and understand what their reservations might be. On the other hand, those same numbers will help you recognise learning champions and advocates who really lead by example. Their enthusiasm can be vital in getting others on board, so it’s important you have meaningful conversations with them too.

Our last expert word goes to Martin Møller Andersen, Head of Global L&D Online Learning and Operations at Telenor, who really hammers home how important purpose can be.

“Create a purpose for learning something – put it into context so that it can be applied in real life work and create impact.”

When learning isn’t designed for the problem it needs to solve or moment it needs to be applied, it’s far more difficult for your learners to see the value in learning or use it to deliver that impact. In fact, we had a whole conversation around this idea of applying learning at the moment of need with Bob Mosher, which might just change the way you look at workplace learning…