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Six Steps to Building a Continuous Learning Culture

13 Jun 2023

Futurist Alvin Toffler suggested that the illiterate in the 21st century “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. 

In most industries, in most companies, in most workplaces today, continuous learning is required to innovate, to improve and to survive.

This article explains what continuous learning is, what its benefits are, and suggests steps needed to build a continuous learning culture in the workplace.

What is continuous learning?

Continuous learning is the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge on an ongoing basis. A continuous learning culture is an environment where employees are genuinely encouraged and supported to learn new skills and knowledge on an ongoing basis. 

One way of thinking about the need for continuous learning is to consider the “half-life” of a learned skill. Half-life is a term originating in nuclear physics, referring to the time period for radiation to get 50% weaker. A similar concept in learning is that the half-life of a skill is how long it takes to decay so it is only 50% useful.

There is debate about how long a typical half-life of a learned skill is in the workplace. An influencer at the World Economic Forum suggested recently suggested the lifespan of a skill was 5 years, but other commentary suggests it can be shorter, with technical skills often decaying to half within 2.5 years or less. And this is all before the dawn of generative AI.
But however many months or years it takes for learned skills to decay, it’s clear that the world of work is changing rapidly and that unless we continually refresh our skills, we will not remain productive. So a workplace culture where learning is encouraged is likely to be very positive.

Steps for building a continuous learning culture

Here are some steps to consider when building a continuous learning culture.

1. Start from the top

An organization’s culture is strongly influenced by the behaviors of its leaders. If you want your organization to have a continuous learning culture, your CEO and other executives need to lead. They need to genuinely believe in learning and be people who engage in frequent learning.

It’s very hard for a learning and development department to put a learning culture in place without high level support. If leaders don’t model a learning culture, then your workforce won’t take it seriously. This should be a top-down initiative supported by the senior management of your company.

2. Embed an expectation of learning in your organization’s DNA

In order to genuinely communicate expectations that all employees need to continuously learn, you need to find ways to demonstrate commitment to the expectation that employees spend considerable time and energy on learning.

How to do this will vary depending on organizational culture, but some things which may help are:

  • If you have values you expect employees to follow, include learning within them
  • Ensure that the expectation for continuous learning is included in onboarding
  • In job descriptions, include an expectation for learning, perhaps also including certifications to obtain or maintain if relevant
  • Encourage learning within your employee handbook
  • Ensure that learning is included within regular career development discussions with employees and within employee or performance review conversations
  • Ensure that supervisors and managers lead learning and training ventures-it needs to be part of their role to encourage L&D
  • Find ways to recognize those who do effective learning within the organization

3. Assess your learning culture

If you are putting measures in place to improve a learning culture, you need to measure progress and trends. Some ways of measuring learning culture include:

  • Employee attitude surveys with questions on learning, particularly useful if you ask the same questions every year and review trends. Useful questions can include factors like the availability of learning opportunities and the support of managers and peers
  • Counting the number of certifications in the organization is a simple and useful measure
  • Measuring learning activities of various kinds within the organization might also be practical
  • Exit interviews are a useful place to ask about learning, especially as a common reason that employees leave is that they feel their career is not being developed.
  • Other qualitative interviews can help.

It’s important to keep measurement “light”, you don’t want measures to be self-fulfilling, e.g. that activity increases just to hit targets rather than to learn.

4. Encourage internal peer to peer learning

Learning doesn’t have to be formal training courses. In fact, the 70-20-10 model of learning and development suggests that 

  • 70% of learning happens by “doing”, on the job learning by making mistakes, taking time for retrospectives and learning from the experience
  • 20% is learning from others, learning from your mentors, and conversations with peers (if you pay attention and ask questions)
  • 10% of learning comes from study (reading, researching, courses, etc.)

These numbers are indicative, but useful as a way of thinking about learning.

There are many ways to encourage internal learning, here are a few:

  • A lot of learning now is via blogs, news articles and so on. Encourage internal channels (across departments) whereby people can exchange useful articles. For example, our company has a “watercooler” channel within our Slack system, which is used to circulate articles of interest about markets and technology to peers
  • “Lunch and learns” where one person gives some training to others are very useful. They can either be in person (with sandwiches etc) or virtual with everyone at their desk at home
  • Host quarterly or monthly roundtable discussions on different topics relevant to your business and industry
  • Bring in outside speakers (perhaps from partner companies) to inform and engage your workforce
  • Mentoring can also work very well – assign relevant more junior people a mentor they can get support or assist with expanding their knowledge and skills

5. Provide opportunities for learning from outside

Of course, there is great learning available from outside providers.

Try to make small purchases by employees of external learning, e.g. buying books, attending webinars or attending local industry meetings. The key is to make this as frictionless as possible, so that it’s easy to do and doesn’t require too much approval. 

Consider also making one of the wide range of learning platforms available company wide, eg. LinkedIn Learning, Pluralsight and so on. Review their use, but if they get take-up, they can be useful.

And if you really are committed to continuous learning, you need to have some budget for external training courses or other kinds of learning that people ask for. Learning is more than just formal training, but the right formal training can be very useful. Just remember that one of the key ways in which learning “sticks” is to have manager support in its implementation, so make sure that your training is joined up in this way.

6. Encourage certification of learning 

Getting a certification of some learning or a skill not only validates learning, it also gives a sense of achievement to employees and demonstrates to employers that their people have valuable work skills. 

It’s worthwhile to encourage employees to obtain external validation of their learning with a formal certification. For example, employees can obtain IT certifications or in focus areas like project management or privacy. Such certifications are not expensive, and usually are win/win for the employee and employer, the employee gets something they can be proud of and may help in their career, the employer knows that their workforce has useful skills. There is some useful evidence for the value of certification in productivity and competitive advantage to be found too, via the IT Certification Council.

If you have specific skills within your organization that you wish to encourage, it could be worth setting up an internal certification program. In such a program, you’d define a blueprint of knowledge/skill and set up a test or exam to measure it. Many organizations use Questionmark’s platform to create and deliver such exams, often with a digital badge for those who get the certification.

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Benefits of continuous learning culture

If you are able to improve the continuous learning in your organization, here are some of the benefits you should expect are:

  1. Improved employee retention. Numerous surveys suggest that a big reason why employees leave an organization is the inability to learn and grow. Encouraging learning makes it more likely that they will stay and develop with you.
  2. Continuous learning is likely to lead to more engaged and motivated employees
  3. Skills needed are changing rapidly. With effective learning, you will get more  innovation and productivity
  4. You are also likely to get a higher rate of customer satisfaction
  5. A lot of employers report skill shortages, clearly if learning happens within, you will have fewer skill shortages
  6. Ultimately a continuous learning organization is likely to be a more competitive organization and one that is more likely to survive and grow

Common challenges employers face

Culture is hard to change, and here are some challenges employers might face in implementing continuous learning.

  • Cost – A lot of learning can be informal or peer to peer but some investment in training or certification is usually part of a continuous learning approach. If you struggle with the cost of this, consider the cost of not doing it. If your employees do not have good skills, will they be creative and be able to keep up with the competition, particularly with fast changing technology?
  • Insufficient support from managers or executives – Without support from executives and management, continuous learning is hard to put in place. You need to get buy-in from them or the initiative may well fail. Get their buy-in and explain what they need to do to support their team in learning
  • Siloed departments – It can be difficult in a large organization for different departments to interact. Consider ways in which cross-department platforms can be used to encourage communication between people in different departments and learn from each other

We hope this article has given some useful ideas on how to implement continuous learning in your organization. 

19th-century author William Pollard said: “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

What was true then is surely as true today.

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