Every business should strive to become a learning organization. Harnessing the intellectual capital of your people through continuous learning and improvement can become a key competitive advantage. At the heart of your core business outcomes such as innovation, productivity and growth lies the learning process. Many leaders have yet to grasp this fact, and even among the ones that do, transforming into a learning organization requires a commitment from all of your people.
The first thing you will need to do is ensure that you have an adequate vision and purpose for your company. The reason for this is that a commitment to lifelong learning involves asking some of your employees to change who they are and potentially sacrifice time for the benefit of the company. Learning benefits them, but if it’s a company initiative it will naturally be seen as a part of their work. This is why your vision is important – you have to have your employees enrolled and engaged with what you are trying to achieve. It is only through a strong sense of purpose that they will be committed to continuous learning.
You will also need to create the right structure for learning to take place in. For instance, you will need to decide how much time employees can spend during working hours for learning or how often they are permitted to attend learning experiences such as talks and conferences. There may also be a need to integrate a leadership structure for learning such as a Learning and Development department, depending on the size of your organization. This may be necessary depending on the motivation of your employees – it helps to have people that can keep them accountable, check on their progress and help them with obstacles.
Once you have a strong vision and learning structure in place, you need to think about how you can design your culture around learning. A few things to consider are:
As the leader of this change, it is important that you equip yourself with an overview of the basics of how and why people learn. There are three key things you will need to keep in mind when you evaluate different tools and think about what learning approaches you want to implement.
A learner at their best is someone who is curious about the world or a particular subject. This provides the fuel that transforms learning from work to play. Creating a culture of curiosity and facilitating the right experiences that foster this feeling is necessary for learning to become cemented in your organization. Curiosity is the difference between a learner wanting to learn for themselves as opposed to feeling like they have to. It is perhaps even stronger than any vision or purpose you create for them as it is entirely intrinsic. Everything you do in regards to implementing learning will facilitate curiosity in some way: learning conversations, mentorship, exciting talks and freedom of inquiry all play a role. At all times, it is necessary to understand the role curiosity plays in learning and how you can unravel the sense of wonder or discovery in each learning experience – and in each individual person.
The memorization of facts, processes and techniques is often used as a simplification of what learning is. Although it plays a key part, it is just one aspect of true learning. Closely linked to memory is whether an individual has understood the information and whether they have created a mental model in their head which links it to their existing store of knowledge. Having a grasp of the science behind memory and understanding is necessary particularly when it comes to designing your own in house learning experiences. There are so many different approaches to learning and they all tackle these two challenges in different ways. There is a science to it, but so much of learning depends on both the experience and the learner. Optimizing what’s best for each of your team members will be a work in progress for you.
An underrated aspect of learning, but arguably the most impactful is learning how to think effectively. It’s great thinking that leads to improvement, better communication and better decision making. Even with limited knowledge, great thinkers in your organization will be able to figure out the appropriate steps to become effective. Thinking is best seen as the core infrastructure of the mind and it is important to come up with ways to improve thinking in your company. What to keep in mind:
With traditional corporate training, learning is confined mostly to structured programs and workshops. Lifelong learning in your organization can still include this, but it’s necessary to go beyond this, utilizing approaches enabled by both technology and new ideas about learning.
Software – In recent years, there has been an explosion in online learning. At your fingertips, it is possible to undertake a variety of educational courses, including one’s from accredited universities. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) from companies such as Udemy and Coursera provides the opportunity for your employees to learn real skills that can enhance their career such as data science or design. Softer or smaller skills such as improving communication or using Excel can also be picked up through subscription learning by companies such as LinkedIn who create content for a professional audience.
Books – The insights from books provide important ongoing learning opportunities for your team, with notable examples being ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg which has been a huge influence on many professional women. In an age of decreasing attention spans however, many may not have the time or energy to read, particularly after work. This is where audiobooks are useful as your team can listen and learn on the way to and from work. Although these type of books can’t help them develop practical skills, the insights and perspectives they gain can enhance ideation and problem solving at work.
Conferences and retreats – Executives already make use of conferences and retreats as ways to increase their network and grow as individuals. But that same benefit can be useful for your employees too to help give them new perspectives. The learning at these events may not even be directly related to the work they are doing. You could organize retreats for instance that aim to improve them holistically, helping them become a more well rounded person which benefits you too.
Peer groups – The people around us act as one of the main sources of the information we are exposed to. We are most open with our peers and they understand our strengths and weaknesses best which provides excellent opportunities for feedback in a more friendly way. Receiving feedback from management can be interpreted as scolding, but with peers it can be seen more as a team effort. Consider then creating ways for peer to peer feedback or implementing structure that fosters learning conversations such as daily sit downs where everybody reflects on what they’ve learned.
The effort to create lifelong learning starts at the top with the leadership team. It is probable that most executives in your team are already lifelong learners which could help explain their success. However, it is necessary that this is also broadcasted to your team so that they can see that it is now an integral part of your culture. All the aspects described above need to be demonstrated by you first, and there are also some additional steps that leadership should take.
There is likely a goldmine of insights in the combined expertise and experience of your team. Aswell as using these insights as marketing material, consider creating recurring events where your team can learn from each other. This could be about how specific departments or functions work, big ideas or even personal stories that go beyond work. The point here is for your leadership team to be involved in the learning experience, both facilitating it and being consumers.
Mentorship has many advantages such as increased engagement and opportunities, but it’s primary purpose is to serve as a learning experience.The person being mentored is able to have access and personal time with somebody who likely has much more knowledge and experience than them. They are able to access this knowledge in a safe and unique way that they wouldn’t be able to from traditional learning methods such as books or software. Creating a mentorship structure that involves all aspects of your organization can create huge opportunities for learning. There are various ways to approach it – from structured mentoring programs to random encounters that mix and match people throughout the organization.
We have highlighted the key ways to get started when it comes to implementing lifelong learning in your organization. In the future, we will likely see the rise of hybrid institutions which are both workplaces and learning institutions. As education struggles to keep up with the changing economy and demand for talent, business leaders have to take it upon themselves to create cultures of learning to remain competitive. In the information age, the current knowledge economy and soon to be a creative economy, the advantages of such are too large.
Stefan Soellner is an expert in scaling for companies, experienced consultant for business model and product innovation, and coach in the field of innovation management.