Simple ways to build a learning culture

Henry Ford famously said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” It helps the brain stay fit, the individual unique. And given that half of today’s in-demand skills weren’t on the list three years ago, there is a premium on employees’ learnability.

That’s for individuals. And it extends to organizations too. As a Bersin report pointed out: “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.”

What is a learning culture? It’s one that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed towards organizational goals. Companies with this culture can react quickly to disruptions, adapt to meet the demands of a changing business climate, and harness a wealth of ideas for new products, services, and processes. Yet only 10% of companies have been able to create this.

So, how do we build a learning culture at work? Here are a few pathways:

  • Hire for curiosity. If you hire people who are naturally curious, and amplify the fit between their interests and job roles, you will have people who are willing to learn! The intrinsic motivation of such hires will be exponentially more. How to identify curiosity in someone? Look for openness to new experience, tolerance for ambiguity, critical thinking, and inquisitiveness.
    Jennifer Dearborn, VP of SAP, says “a dedication to business results is the catalyst for a learning culture. So, you want people who are curious, committed, and who understand their role in the bigger picture of your company.”
  • Reward continuous learning. Even though managers understand the need for learning, they are often interested in boosting short-term performance, which can be an enemy of learning. And with demands of productivity, employees only have 24 mins a week for formal learning. Given this time crunch, they are more inclined to learn if there is an environment that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up are encouraged.
  • Highlight knowledge gaps. To improve performance, it’s crucial to tell employees what they are doing wrong. And naturally, managers avoid difficult conversations. This is particularly problematic when it comes to learning, because the best way to trigger curiosity is to highlight a knowledge gap — making people aware of what they don’t know. And often people are generally unaware of their limitations.

In a nutshell, building a learning culture rarely depends on formal learning programs. Instead, the extent to which you encourage learning behaviors in your people defines how the culture grows.

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