Learning Culture: How Entrepreneurs Can Build It in Their Organizations

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Bailey Maybray
Bailey Maybray

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To be successful in the long term, businesses need to keep up with technological and social changes and evolve with their customers.

Learning Culture: A woman holds up a piece of paper in a classroom with working professionals.

Building an effective learning culture pushes an organization to focus on learning. Colleagues frequently create or share new classes. Managers make time for learning new skills in their work schedules.

In other words, learning sits on top of everyone’s mind. Workers have access to a plethora of resources, feel excited to discuss their progress with co-workers, and actively box off time for new courses. A strong learning culture enables an organization to explore and expand its abilities.

And entrepreneurs stand to benefit from building learning into their startup culture. As you begin to hire and scale your business, giving your workers an environment that encourages personal and professional development will help them grow and stay with your company. 

Definition of Learning Culture

A learning culture is an environment that encourages, prioritizes, and shares learning across an organization. It helps develop a talent pipeline, ensures workers stay engaged, and plays a part in overall employee wellness.

“For me, when I talk about learning culture, it’s how the organization collects, categorizes, shares, and makes information accessible to everyone in the organization,” says Dinye Hernanda, a human resources manager at Jodel. “For startups, [learning] is a way to live. You need to learn. You need to absorb as many things as possible.”

Characteristics of a Learning Culture

Learning culture surrounded by its different elements: creativity, experimentation, communication, information exchange, empowerment, resource sharing, and supporting management.

A learning culture involves more than just free webinars and pamphlets — it needs to be embedded into your entire organization, from the top down. To build a learning-oriented company, consider incorporating the below characteristics into your programs.

Creativity: Employees should be supported for thinking outside the box. You could host brainstorming sessions or pitch contests, or institute a no-bad-idea policy that encourages junior employees to offer their thoughts and opinions to their managers.

Experimentation: Experimentation takes creativity to the next level by allowing employees to execute on their ideas. Create a dynamic that welcomes innovation by starting projects like an internal venture studio for employees to develop new products and solutions.

Communication: Be proactive in communicating the learning resources your organization has to employees. Explain how you, as the business owner, plan on learning new skills or taking advantage of new programs and policies.

Information Exchange: Working professionals have a lot of useful knowledge they can share with each other. Consider launching an internal information sharing system. For example, you could ask managers to conduct mini-lectures on topics they feel passionate about, like copy editing or graphic design.

Resource Sharing: A strong learning culture encourages employees to share resources, including free classes, lectures, and e-books. Founders set the tone — if you discover something useful, share it with your colleagues. For example, you could send your team a TED Talk you found inspiring, or a free coding class you’re working through.

Empowerment: Enable your employees to take ownership of their schedule and make time to learn. You could say, block off a company-wide learning hour every Wednesday. Ensure your employees always feel comfortable throwing out an idea or giving feedback to management — perhaps by setting up anonymous ideas or feedback forms.

Supporting Management: It’s essential to get buy-in from all levels of the company, including middle managers. You could set up workshops on how managers can better teach their direct reports, offer them leadership-training tools, and give them time off to learn.

Why Is Learning Culture Important?

By creating a learning-centric environment, employees can continuously grow and upskill, giving business owners an ever-evolving workforce. The company can better keep up with technological changes, and have an internal pipeline they can draw on for promotions.

A strong learning culture also helps retain talent. Over 9 in 10 employees state they would stay at a business that supports continuous learning, and more than three-quarters of job seekers view companies with a strong learning culture as more appealing.

According to Hernanda, startups should build a formal learning culture for three additional reasons: alignment, accessibility, and structure.

First, a learning culture creates greater alignment between your organization and your employees. Without directions, workers might waste time learning skills that do not match with your organization’s goals. Well-designed learning programs guide them down the right path, making your employees upskill in areas you need.

Additionally, people learn in different ways — some study at their own pace, while others need more assistance. Creating a wide variety of offerings helps make learning accessible to everyone.

Furthermore, a learning culture can empower employees to learn. Obtaining new skills while keeping up a full-time job can be overwhelming. Having an undefined amount of time to learn and grow might make employees feel lost, while structured learning programs make learning more approachable.

Learning Culture in the Workplace

You can see a company’s learning culture in action through its programs and initiatives, such as weeklong innovation competitions, or reimbursements for educational pursuits.

For example, Adobe created the Kickbox, a red box with everything an employee needs to create and test new business ideas. The Kickbox contains a six-step guide to help workers hone in on their ideas, develop go-to-market strategies, and prototype their product.

The box also gives $1k to each employee to develop their vision — and they can spend it without supervision or expense reports. Eventually, Adobe made Kickbox materials available for thousands of other companies to employ, symbolizing its broader commitment to learning.

At Alphabet, the company runs an employee-to-employee learning network named Googler-to-Googler, which encourages employees to share information and knowledge. Over 6k Googlers volunteer to help their colleagues learn new skills. Googlers can volunteer as mentors, create learning materials, and even teach classes.

Will Webb, founder at B2B consultancy Lead Strategy, provides a learning track similar to academia, where each employee selects a major and a minor. For example, they could major in finance and minor in content marketing. Webb’s company then identifies mentors and purchases relevant, external content to help each worker down their learning pathways.

Webb attributes the company’s two-year-long 100% retention rate to this learning initiative.

Creating a Learning Culture

1. Provide resources

Online learning platforms can be an easy way to start supplying your employees with learning opportunities; LinkedIn Learning and Udemy both have plans for businesses. Alternatively, you can create online courses or in-person workshops internally.

Miro, a B2B company that helps firms collaborate better, provides workshop templates like reverse brainstorming or breakout-room activities.

SessionLab, an organization that helps build workshops, offers how-to guides and templates for training. You can find templates for your next course, learn how to make the most of them, and use them to create a workshop for your organization.

2. Create measurable incentives

Employees can get caught up in their day-to-day duties. Create specific incentives to nudge employees to take breaks to upskill. For example, you could award a monthly bonus to employees who complete 10 hours of learning. If you’re on a limited budget, you could launch a program where managers regularly give kudos to learning-obsessed employees.

3. Rework KPIs to include learning opportunities

For employees, promotions within a company are typically connected to their performance. Retool key performance indicators (KPIs) to reflect your company’s focus on learning. Many companies use 100-day plans to guide newcomers. Consider including learning objectives, such as completing a certain number of online courses or attending virtual webinars.

4. Start from the top

Make an effort to build in learning incentives for not only your employees, but your managers as well. Offer bonuses to managers that create time for their direct reports to learn. Create a kudos program where employees can shout out managers for their commitment to learning.

5. Communicate changes

Employees may get excited as a new learning program launches, but forget about it as they get swamped with calls and projects. Communicate learning changes frequently — for example, managers could send a monthly roundup of resources to their employees.

6. Leverage employee knowledge

Chances are, your company is filled with professionals who have a wealth of knowledge. Your marketer is an expert at content creation, while your software engineer is fluent in multiple computer languages.

Tap into your employees’ skill sets by setting up a network of teachers and learners like Google. You could incentivize employees to host webinars, create digital booklets, and teach online courses — which will help other workers learn and encourage relationship building. 

7. Measure and optimize your learning culture

Like most aspects of entrepreneurship, you need to try, iterate, and improve as you go along. Collect feedback from employees. What incentives do they want? What kind of learning do they engage with most? You could send a company-wide survey every month to get a pulse check on your learning culture.

Every organization has distinct needs, so experiment with different approaches and find out what works best for your organization. A learning culture in and of itself requires continuous learning.

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