What is a learning culture and why is it important?
A learning culture can be defined as a community of people within an organisation who exhibit growth mindsets. In other words, employees want to develop new skills and share those learnings with others.
To understand the critical nature of a learning culture, visualise a tree: the trunk and branches represent learning solutions, while the roots symbolise learning culture. The importance of the roots is clear but they are often overlooked, with L&D efforts being focused on more visible elements like training, coaching and e-learning. The problem is, without a strong foundation, the tree will quickly perish.
Research by Bersin showed that companies who have strong learning cultures are at least 30% more likely to be market leaders in their industries. Yet, according to the Corporate Executive Board, only 10% of organisations have a true learning culture.
In this blog, we outline some key principles for embedding a strong organisational learning culture, sharing examples of how this has been achieved at Merkle Agency Services (‘Merkle AS’).
Hiring and onboarding
To build a successful learning culture, organisations must recruit lifelong learners; people who are self-motivated to pursue new knowledge and skills on an ongoing basis.
Is this woven into your hiring process? If not, there are myriad opportunities to assess candidates in this respect. For example, interviewees can be questioned on learning both inside and outside work. Candidates with a growth mindset will be eager to talk about courses they’ve attended, articles they’ve read and even documentaries they’ve watched or new recipes they’ve tried out. Interviewers often neglect to ask candidates about their spare time, but if the person is a lifelong learner, they’ll be able to demonstrate this in all facets of their lives.
Once hired, employees must be immersed in the organisational learning culture from the first day. The Merkle AS orientation involves talking to new recruits about curiosity – one of our employee core attributes – and how this is threaded throughout our day-to-day working lives, regardless of how long employees have been at the company. New Merklers, whether fresh grads or experienced hires, then embark on a formalised training programme which supports them in honing their role-specific skills.
Carving out time for learning
It’s crucial that time is specifically carved out for employees to upskill. If this doesn’t happen, day-to-day tasks will come first, meaning that employee development is deprioritised and devalued. Ultimately, this negatively impacts the quality of work employees can provide for clients.
At Merkle AS, we allocate a particular amount of time per week to personal development. This could involve formalised training, self-study or a wealth of other activities. This assuages the guilt that’s often associated with taking time out of the working day, and so people are more inclined to prioritise learning in addition to client work.
Empowering managers to promote learning culture
Line managers are pivotal in helping to embed a learning culture. Merkle AS managers regularly connect with L&D to share their team members’ learning achievements, which are publicly celebrated.
In addition, our Management & Leadership Programme trains AS managers to:
- Cultivate and nurture growth mindsets in their team members
- Incorporate team member learning journeys into quarterly reviews and promotion conversations
- Support their team members in writing SMART goals and milestones for their Personal Development Plans
Our Senior Management Team is also pivotal in embedding the learning culture at Merkle AS. Executives regularly speak about what inspires them, share books that have changed the way they think and discuss how they’ve overcome challenges.
Promoting honest and meaningful feedback
Like most organisations, Merkle AS managers learn how to deliver developmental feedback to their team members.
But we go further: every employee delivers and receives meaningful feedback in all directions. Through 360 feedback, people understand which skills they need to improve, and how to improve them. Feedback is therefore a critical component of building a strong learning culture.
When do you start training employees on feedback skills? Merklers participate in feedback training during their first few weeks and continue to do so as they move up the career ladder. We train our people in a way that promotes our organisational ‘zone of psychological safety’, where mistakes are discussed and framed as learning opportunities.
Creating high-quality learning experiences
A lot of organisations provide formalised training programmes, but some are not fit for purpose. This could be because they are not designed and delivered according to adult learning theory. It could also be that the training doesn’t focus on relevant and achievable learning outcomes, or perhaps the programme hasn’t been updated for some time. The bottom line is that organisations need to continuously invest in their structured training programmes.
At Merkle AS, we have a significant amount of formalised training, including but not limited to programmes at new hire and management levels. To ensure these provide maximum value, we:
- Conduct Training Needs Analyses before implementing new sessions and programmes
- Measure the impact of programmes and adapt training accordingly
- Implement a rigorous feedback framework, again adapting training accordingly
- Ensure all trainers undertake a comprehensive ‘train the trainer’ development pathway, involving several days’ training, multiple observations and self-reflection exercises
Encouraging on-the-job learning
What learning opportunities does your organisation offer beyond formalised training programmes? Other development paths are crucial, but often forgotten. For example, coaching can be a very effective way to learn because of its bespoke, one-to-one nature. We have numerous coaching programmes at Merkle AS, including those for new hires and for people partaking in cross-department rotations. By training a large proportion of our workforce to coach, we’ve also found that informal coaching is used on a regular basis to support colleagues in solving problems.
Other learning opportunities that can help to embed a learning culture include:
- On-demand access to a learning portal. For example, we have ‘Merkle University’ which hosts thousands of learning programmes our people can leverage.
- Knowledge-sharing channels and events. At Merkle AS, we have many groups on Microsoft Teams where knowledge is shared, as well as department and agency events.
- Team learning activities. Managers run regular sessions for their teams, with themes ranging from imposter syndrome to third-party insights tools.
Ultimately, to achieve a strong learning culture, knowledge sharing must become an ingrained habit.
Embedding an organisational learning culture can be a slow, multi-dimensional process, but the rewards are huge. Consider that 68% of Millennial workers surveyed cited growth opportunities as the most important factor in keeping them engaged and motivated at work. From an organisational perspective, a strong learning culture attracts and retains new talent, builds corporate agility through leveraging employee skillsets and supports succession planning.
For all these reasons and more, L&D professionals should consider embedding a learning culture as a long-term, high-priority goal.