10 ways to foster a learning culture within your organisation

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The word ‘learning’ does not just have to refer to putting people in classrooms or taking them out of the office on a week-long training programme. It can mean something more organic than that, more ingrained into the fabric of your organisation and the way people work every day. By creating and maintaining a learning culture within your business, you encourage an environment full of useful development opportunities which your employees will actively seek.

Obviously there is no ‘hard and fast’ way to achieve this; creating a lasting culture within any organisation takes a great deal of time and careful effort, but the 10 points below cover some fairly straightforward steps you can take in order to get closer to fostering a learning culture within your company.

1. Give people time to reflect

Some of the most powerful and lasting learning experiences happen not just from the experience itself, but from the learners taking the time to reflect, assess and ask questions once the intervention is over.

You can’t just put someone onto a training course and assume that their development is complete once that course is over. Give people time to think about what they have learnt and to apply that learning within the context of their job. This could be as simple as allowing dedicated periods of time at certain points after the intervention to look back on the learning and discuss the outcomes.

2. Encourage knowledge sharing

If you have somebody who is performing incredibly well, or who has a high level of knowledge that would be valuable to others in your business, you want them to share that with other people. Essentially you have an incredibly powerful, ‘free,’ resource that the rest of your staff can tap into.

Encourage your most talented people to share the knowledge and best practice that enables them to be so productive and effective. In turn, they will learn things from others, so you achieve a full cycle where everybody in the business is supporting and enhancing each other’s development.

3. Use coaching and mentoring

Mentoring is a great way for a more experienced member of staff to pass knowledge to somebody further down the career ladder. It can work both ways, though – a senior team member might also be able to learn a great deal from somebody with a different, potentially fresher, perspective.

Similarly, by training your line managers to coach you encourage a rich two-way dialogue between them and their employees, and you also create an environment in which people are more likely to take responsibility for their own learning.

4. Start from the top   

When it comes to creating the right culture within your organisation, the process really has to start from the top. Senior leaders are the ones who can instigate the overall culture of the business, and in order to lead by example they should absolutely live that message themselves.

It is then lines managers’ responsibility to set that tone and culture within each of their teams. Training your managers and leaders to set the tone for a learning culture at team level is an effective place to start when it comes to creating the right kind of overall learning environment within your organisation.

5. Let people make mistakes

Making mistakes is an integral part of any learning process. Often it is only by getting something wrong, realigning, readjusting, and retrying, that you discover the best possible way to approach it. Far from being detrimental to your business, then, mistakes can actually be healthy, provided they are treated and managed in the right way.                      

People mustn’t fear mistakes, or else they may try to hide what has gone wrong instead of discussing it openly and learning from it. Encourage a culture whereby making mistakes is not frowned upon, but rather seen as an opportunity to gain a positive outcome. Of course, if people are making the same mistakes over and over again then it should be addressed, but that is a separate issue.

6. Facilitate cross-team communication

Perhaps one of the biggest killers of an effective learning culture is the presence of ‘siloed’ teams – heads down, focussed on what is immediately in front of them and the task in hand. Of course you want focussed teams, but if those teams are not talking to each other there is a real danger of missing out on opportunities for skills and knowledge sharing.

There are many ways to encourage cross-team communication. You could have teams present to each other regularly, for example, or arrange job shadowing. You could even look at the office layout to see if it naturally restricts interaction. However you do it, try to make it easy, and desirable, for employees to share expertise outside the confines of their own teams.

7. Provide the right learning opportunities

This may seem like an obvious one, but you would be amazed at how many organisations want to encourage their staff to develop and grow, yet don’t actually provide ample opportunities for them to do so in a way which is meaningful and beneficial to them.

Forcing people into certain types of learning can lead to a lack of engagement in the process, and can begin to resemble more of a ‘box ticking’ exercise. Ask your employees what would benefit them, and encourage them to do their own research and come up with mutually beneficial learning ideas. By providing staff with relevant opportunities, they are more likely to engage in the process.

8. Be transparent

Give people clear information as to what learning is available to them and how they can go about requesting it. Provide clarity in terms of how learning links in with career development.

Providing the right kind of learning can be a great way to demonstrate to people that you are invested in them as an individual and in supporting their career, but if people are not even aware that a structured path of learning is available to them, or if they are confused about where to begin, then neither they nor your organisation will benefit.

9. Encourage new ideas

Learning is not just an opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge, but also to explore and understand new ways of doing things. A culture of learning goes hand in hand with an organisation where new ideas are innovative and plentiful.

By encouraging new ideas within your organisation, your people are naturally going to want to learn as much as they can in order to springboard new thinking. This could mean wanting to be involved in specific learning interventions, but it could also mean a desire to learn from one another and see what other people around the business are doing.

10. Be flexible               

If people are interested in any kind of learning, and they approach the business for support, don’t simply turn it down just because it doesn’t immediately appear to be relevant to their role. Taking such a black and white approach could potentially mean missing out on implanting valuable skills or behaviours within your staff.

Well-rounded employees are important to any organisation. Importantly, though, if you tell people that they can only access learning which completely relates to their role, you give the impression that you are only interested in their development if it immediately benefits the business. This kind of rigidness is unlikely to make people feel excited about L&D within your organisation, and you are therefore unlikely to achieve a positive learning culture.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list. Each individual company will inevitably approach learning in its own unique way, but the important thing to take away is the importance of having that learning culture, whatever that means within the context of your business. Creating an organic thirst for learning within your organisation means your people will naturally strive to develop themselves and each other. This can only ever have a positive impact on your business and your bottom line.

Mark Eagle is a highly experienced L&D consultant who’s specialism lies in taking a consultative approach and looking at the strategic organisational needs of his customers in addition to programme design and delivery.

If you enjoyed Mark’s blog post, you should also read Enhance issue 5. It features a guide to creating a collaborative learning culture within your organisation.