With an accelerating technological development, continuous learning is increasingly important for both employees and organizations. I have previously written about the importance for employees to develop learning skills. To make this happen, we need to build a learning culture. In this article, I describe 6 important steps to help you along the way.
Boston Consulting Group recently wrote that companies will increasingly need to compete in the speed to learning. Instead of economies of scale, we will talk about economies of learning.
We need to develop organizations that “acquire new knowledge and innovate quickly enough to survive and flourish in a rapidly changing environment”. The quote is Peter Senge’s definition of a “learning organization”.
In my article “6 factors for creating a learning organization” I describe the overall building blocks that need to be in place for a learning organization. To succeed, we need to start with the organization’s culture.
Building a learning culture
- Encourages and rewards experimentation.
- Give employees influence over work and learning.
- Make use of mistakes as a learning opportunity.
- Encourage reflection.
Getting there is about influencing values and behaviours, using communication, role modelling and building learnability. It is also a question of creating structures that reinforce desired behaviour, e.g. within recruitment, rewards or the way business processes are structured.
In the article I will go through the steps important for creating change and a culture that encourage learning as shown below.
Step 1 – Understanding and anchoring the need for a learning culture
Management often talks about the ongoing skill shift and the need for a culture that encourage learning and development. In reality, I often find it difficult to create the mandate and resources needed to change the culture. The existing culture is something that has taken the company where it is today. It can be difficult to question old truths and as leaders be brave enough to stand for the changes that need to be made.
To get management and employees, we need to find the purpose that can really engage and create a desire for change.
Understand the global driving forces
For most companies, exponential technological development mean that we need to think in a completely new way. Deloitte’s Human Capital Report 2019” shows how trends forcing us to redo the way we work with learning fundamentally.
We need to understand those trends in our own industry. How do we create an effective culture that thrives in a volatile world and meets the organisation’s goals? How does digitalization affect our industry, customer behaviors, our offerings, working methods, skill needs and attracts new employees?
Together with management, we need to understand and describe the reasons why we need to review our culture. We need to show a compelling purpose for a change.
Understand what a learning culture is
The next step is to understand and describe what a learning culture really is and how it helps create a learning organization as well as results. Research from Bersin Deloitte’s identifies 3 dimensions found to be particularly important:
- Employees drive their own learning and work.
- Encourages and rewards Growth Mindset and initiatives.
- Provides employees with challenging tasks.
- Allows employees influence over work and learning.
- The organization encourages reflection.
- Encourages and rewards experimentation.
- Make use of mistakes as a learning opportunity.
- Reflection is a planned activity.
- The organization shows the value of learning.
- Offers development in both current and future roles.
- Encourages and rewards learning skills.
- Leaders prioritize learning and collaboration
We also need to create a compelling picture of what we gain from a culture of learning and development. Research shows, for example, that companies with a strong culture have a 3 times higher development of profit than those with a weak culture. They are also more likely to:
- Predict and respond to changes (2x)
- Innovate (2x)
- Develop employees (7x)
Understand the current culture
- Fear of risk and failure.
- Overconfidence in behaviors that have led to past successes.
- Lack of openness and collaboration (departmental silos).
- “Fixed mindset” within the organization.
In order to plan the change, it is therefore also important to understand the existing culture in depth. A good way is to measure behaviors, i.e. the extent to which employees, for example, are able to reflect on mistakes they make. It can be done with questionnaires, interviews and through observing how management behaves.
Involve employees in creating the message
We can now produce the message that can be used to first convince management and then engage the employees. It is important to involve representatives from management, HR and employees in the work to get it right.
A agile way of working is called “Collaboration JAMs“. For a limited time, we engage the organization in discussions around important themes in culture on a social platform. With analysis of data, we identify the most important issues and deepen discussions while finding the people who can become future ambassadors and pursue future steps.
Then count on many meetings with management and key stakeholders to convincingly explain why culture needs to change, what the company benefit from it and how it should be done.
Step 2 – Engage management and ambassadors in a vision and action plan
With a successful anchoring, we can start a mission to drive the change of culture. During this step we will develop vision and a action plan and find the ambassadors who will be involved in driving change.
The vision will be the basis for future communication around culture. It should give a clear picture of what learning is in the organization, be short, ambitious and linked to the organisation’s goals and values. In the work, it is important that all stakeholders we find in Step 1 are involved. One example is the Swedish retail company ICA ́s “Learning ambition”
We prioritise and enable learning to create greater business results – through new mindsets, behaviors and the use of digital opportunities.
With its “People story”, telecom company Ericsson has created an agreement between the employee and the company that describes the offer to the employee and what behaviors contribute to Ericsson’s vision. “People story” is closely linked to Ericsson’s purpose and strategy as shown below.
Ericsson’s vision for employee learning and development reads:
We learn best when we are challenged and receive continuous feedback as we actively contribute to our team & Ericsson ́s overall success.
Develop action plan
When I help companies develop a learning strategy, the vision is an important part of the future state. In the anchoring step we have looked at driving forces and the company’s strategy. We now formulate this into a “Vision & Future State” description and goals for learning in the organization.
The end result of strategy work is an action plan on how the organisation will achieve the vision and goals. It shows how we should work specifically with culture, but also how we build other parts, such as social learning.
I have in some cases been involved in developing learning strategies that has since been difficult to implement. Some common problems have been:
- Lack of anchoring in HR and management.
- Encouragement from leaders who then do not provide enough resources and support.
- Insufficient knowledge and lack of Growth Mindset in the organization.
The aim now is to engage and train those who are ambassadors so that they can lead in the future through examples, such as collaborating, experimenting, talking about mistakes, the value of learning and sharing their own learning. For example, we can:
- Visit organizations that have progressed further.
- Hold workshops on driving forces, learning culture and modern learning.
- Arrange Bootcamps or challenges where participants try collaborative platforms, reflection exercises, etc.
Step 3 – Build awareness and engagement on a broad scale
In the first steps we create awareness, knowledge and ability of the core team that will drive the change, with HR, management and ambassadors. In the next step, we begin work on building awareness among employees on a broader scale.
Communication helps to create awareness around why change is important, what a learning culture means and what we have to do to get there.
One example is Ericsson Academy, which has its own team that continuously work with communication to create awareness of behaviors and the value of learning.
For example, in the campaign above a large number of employees where asked about their learning habits. A number of videos of interviewed employees were pushed out into the common video channels. A “community” was set up with links to learning offers and discussions on learning habits.
The team coordinated campaigns like the one above, with activities to support launches of new academies, new learning platforms and offerings.
Part of the communication was to follow up on the results of the activities. They continuously measured traffic on different learning portals and conducted surveys around awareness and attitudes around learning.
A another example is ICA, who work with communication and digital support to increase awareness of culture, Growth Mindset and the value of developing learning skills. The messages are widely communicated across the organization and also in social media like Linkedin.
Leading by example
Leaders and ambassadors have an active role in passing the information forward and leading by example. An example of this is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
In 2014, he took over a Microsoft that had lost ground against competitors like Apple and Google. Satya realised that it was primarily the culture that prevented Microsoft from change and from becoming an innovative company. Satya decided to change the culture from “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all”.
He began by engaging management in discussing learning, his own preconceptions, innovations and mistakes at weekly meetings.
Satya posts video reviews of books he read, arranges Hackatons to inspire experimentation and officially publishes mistakes he himself made and what he learned from them. Microsoft collaborates with Carol Dwecker to inspire and educate everyone in Growth Mindset. The list can be made long and Satya’s own behavior has been an important factor in the change.
Microsoft is now the highest valued company in the world. Since Satya´s start, the course has tripled. Compared to Google and Apple, the course has evolved twice as much.
As the example show, senior management has a major impact on culture through their statements, behaviors and what they encourage and reward.
Activities that enhance culture
Part of creating awareness is offering activities that demonstrate new behaviors. One example is Zappos “Culture bootcamp” where leaders get to work with their learning skills and test different methods such as reflection meetings, collaborate on social platforms, methodology to learn more from experiences, etc.
IT-support to drive change
Driving change in culture is complex and can be greatly streamlined with IT-tools for cultural change. For example, they can offer support with:
- Analyzing existing values and behaviors.
- Gather ideas and opinions from employees.
- Identify influencers and ambassadors within the organization.
- Set goals for and follow up behavioral changes.
Step 4 – Develop employees and managers learnability
Awareness and willingness to change is the basis of creating change. In order to develop new behaviors, we also need to work with the employees’ ability to learn and managers ability to support this.
Developing employee’s learnability
According to a study from CEB/Gartner about 20% of employees demonstrates learnability. It is something we need to inform on, train and coach with the help of ambassadors and managers.
My article “Learnability – develop your learning skills” describes how we can all get better at learning. The image summarizes the included capabilities:
- Motivation – Increase motivation for learning and develop a “Growth Mindset“.
- Planning – Understanding trends, translating to your own development goals and building a sustainable action plan.
- Experience – Learning from experiences by seeking challenges, experimenting, learning from mistakes and reflecting.
- Social – Learn from others by asking for feedback, collaborating and building professional networks.
- Information/environment– Learning from information and the environment by searching, curating, sensemaking and applying in your work.
- Education – Learn from courses in your personal ecosystem, curate, process knowledge and apply at work.
- Evaluation – Document, reflect, ask for feedback and evaluate your own ability.
According to a study from LinkedIn Learning, there are many advantages to being a “Heavy Learner“. Not only are they more successful, but also more involved in their job.
Leadership for learning
According to the LinkedIn Workplace Learning report in 2018, 75% of the employees would engage in a learning activity recommended by their manager. The manager usually has the greatest impact on employee behaviour and we need to support the managers to demonstrate the behaviors that strengthen culture, such as experimenting and talking about learning as I described in the section about Satya Nadella.
The manager has an important role to play in providing developing experiences. It can be about tasks and projects in the team, but also about opportunities in other roles and departments.
Some ways managers can encourage learning through experience:
- Find and match challenging tasks.
- Help employees plan developing activities.
- Embed reflection into the work.
According to CEB/Gartner, 70% of employees lack awareness of the behaviour required in a learning culture. The managers task will be to create awareness and coach employees to develop the behaviors needed, such as:
- Plan for frequent check-ins.
- Often ask for feedback.
- Help the employee learn.
Drive collaboration and learning
There are more things the manager can do to show the value of learning, some examples are:
- Include reflection at team meetings.
- Plan time for experimentation and learning.
- Promote/reward employees showing learnability.
We do not build learnability using a 2-day course or an eLearning course . Learnability consists of behaviours that are difficult to establish, such as talking about mistakes or sharing knowledge and experience. All the steps in the article are designed, taken together, to build sustainable learnability, from the realization of the need to update of the company’s processes.
Learning skills, Growth Mindset and behaviors that build a learning culture also need to be included in leadership training, onboarding, in courses and learning portals. One example is Ericsson where you have a long-standing learning portal “Everyday Learning” where articles, instructions, videos, and eLearning on learnability are readily available. On the portal is also a discussion and sharing of experiences and resources around the development of learnability.
Step 5 – Adapt processes and organizational capability
Building awareness and capability goes a long way, but not all the way. What use is it if we want to learn, but don’t have access to relevant content, can’t access external webinars, don’t have time or if we are not rewarded for learning.
We need to build the learning culture into the company’s structures and processes to create a sustainable culture.
According to ATD’s study ” Building a Culture of Learning “, adapting HR processes to a large extent affects the establishment of a learning culture. For example, 42% states that “learning content available during the working day” has “a very significant impact” in building learning culture. The corresponding figure for “including learning skills in recruitment” is 36%.
An learning organization that support continuous learning
Working with awareness and learnability lead to employees who want too and can learn more. However, we need to ensure that it is possible to learn. That there is access to relevant content, technology that enables and an organization that support employees and manager
The capabilities of the learning organization need to be built up in parallel with the learning culture. In my opinion, this is something many underestimate. Creating demand for offers within learning but not being able to deliver creates disappointment and risks the whole initiative.
The organization needs to establish abilities that I briefly described in the article “6 factors for building a learning organization“.
According to both Korn Ferry and Bersin Deloitte, job seekers’ learnability provide a better forecast for success than degrees and CVs. This means that learninability should play a prominent role in the recruitment process.
It is also important to talk about the company learning culture and opportunities for learning and development. According to PwC, opportunities for a career, learning and development are the most important trait of an employer when job seekers decide where to work.
According to Bersin Deloitte, the likelihood of developing a strong learning culture increases 4 times if the work is integrated with the company’s “performance management” processes. This means a greater focus on development during talks and a closer dialogue, such as:
- That employees reflect on their development.
- How the employee’s self-leadership has led to results and learning.
- Focus on the development of the employee’s “Growth mindset” and learnability.
The likelihood of creating a strong culture of learning increases 3 times if the work is integrated with the company’s career planning. When employees easily see opportunities in the organization and what is required for these, the motivation to learn and develop increases. Such as.:
- Use open systems to show what job opportunities are available.
- Change the focus on “career” from moving up in organization to learning and developing.
- Prioritize learning skills when promoting.
The image is an example from the SABA Cloud platform where all jobs in the organization are available. The employee can set up ambitions in the short and long term and see what skills are required, which learning can help and who can support them in developing.
Processes and organization
It is not just HR processes that contribute to a stronger culture. According to Bersin Deloitte’s studies, 4 out of the 12 most important factors for creating a learning organization are dependant on how we design and organize the work.
These include: building learning and reflection into the work, e.g. in the form of “Lessons Learnt” after completed projects or in weekly meetings. Another example is to build feedback into the work, e.g. the reviews given to Uber drivers.
After each customer, the driver receives reviews from passengers. For a driver, it is important to be as close to 5 as possible. A driver can also see where improvements may need to be made, e.g. in “finding better”.
According to Bersin Deloitte, companies that can provide detailed feedback at work are 3 times more likely to have high business results. Feedback can come from customers, other employees’ feedback, or from data, such as time or measure of quality.
The design of work for learning also includes giving employees the right of decision-making and the opportunity to experiment and improve the design of work on their own initiative. It is also a question of developing as a team rather than as individuals, such as:
- transparent work and collaboration e.g. in Slack or Teams.
- organize cross-functionally according to customer needs.
- give the team the right to decide instead of a hierarchy of managers.
Step 6 – Strengthen and establish the learning culture
The final step is to strengthen and fully establish the learning culture. The work we have done above continues, but we also need to ensure that the changes are sustainable in the long term. Below are some advices.
Work with stepwise success
From the outset, we will not have the resources to work on the change in culture. It will take time to get engagement from management or commitment from all employees.
We need to work stewise to demonstrate success and thus gain more commitment from management and employees and as a result be able to make further changes.
I myself helped Ericsson to change the way they worked with learning a few years ago. The important change was to ensure that the business owned their responsibility for employee skills to create better alignment to needs and agility. We started with a defined product area for which there was a great need within the organization, the launch of 4G.
After successful establishment, we were able to move forward step by step to other product and functional areas and thus got momentum where organizations eventually joined the change themselves.
It is important to use the early pilots to build on and improve the concept. In this way, we are building learning in the process of change itself which increases the likelihood of success.
It is important to celebrate the success of early pilots. Use the results to further improve the business case, describe success stories, hold presentations both internally and externally. After each successful pilot, we increase our circle of influence and access to resources for continued work.
An important part of developing and strengthening the learning culture is which people and what qualities are rewarded. What happens when I spend more time learning? Is it allowed? Am I rewarded for learning time?
Examples are managers showing recognition one-by-one or publicly for example, during the weekly meeting. Even more effective is a culture where employees give each other recognition, where you “high-five” experimentation, risk-taking and learning.
In a recognition system, employees can give each other recognition and as in the image above, offer “high-five” paired with feedback, gamification and reward features. Examples of systems are 15five, Kudos and Bonusly.
Companies that are good at giving each other recognition have 12 times higher earnings and 31% lower staff turnover, according to studies from Bersin Deloitte.
Learning culture as a “brand”
The communication I talked about in Phase 3 above needs to be permanent. As an example, “Ericsson Academy” has its own communication group that coordinates all communication around learning and builds a brand for the academy.
It’s about creating symbols and stories around learning that appear everywhere in the organization; on the intranet, the learning portals or like at Microsoft, where the napkins in the lunchroom call for lifelong learning.
Many organizations also have physical academies or “innovation centers” to enhance the experience of the learning brand. One example is Accenture with his academy in Chicago where employees from all over the world arrive for new career steps.
Building the brand for learning takes place in collaboration with the top management, communication and HR. The learning culture is something we want to show those looking for jobs, because it strengthens us as an employer. It is also as I wrote, part of the whole business strategy and what is shown to the outside world. Both Ericsson and Microsoft are good examples of that.
How to move on?
I have described in a previous article how we can encourage the learning skills of employees. In this article, I have described how a learning culture can develop. We also need to think about how we can:
- organise and design the work for learning.
- work with the organisation’s IT-support to facilitate and strengthen learning.
- create an internal organization with mandates and resources to support the development towards a learning organization.
In future articles, I will describe how your organization can work with other factors to create a learning organization.