Few leaders have gotten to where they are without learning their way to the top. For all employees to grow, leaders need to offer professional development opportunities to turn every team and department into a learning organization energized by change and well equipped to adapt.
Building a culture of learning in the workplace is vital to retaining talented employees and facilitating meaningful digital transformation within organizations. According to Kelly Palmer and David Blake, the authors of The Expertise Economy: How the Smartest Companies Use Learning to Engage, Compete and Succeed, 62% of CEOs believe that they’ll need to upskill at least a quarter of their employees over the next five years in order to stay competitive. Those employees also seek lifelong learning: 91% of Generation Z employees view professional development and employee engagement as leading factors when they’re picking a company to work for.
Our own research shows that workers also crave greater transparency across the organization, particularly as it affords them more opportunities to learn about things like their company’s strategies and how their colleagues operate, and even to gain insight into their competition. Even if such knowledge is transferred passively, tapping into this information provides teams with greater context about factors that affect their decision-making and problem-solving.
So how do you make your company a place where employees are engaged and excited to tackle the challenges they face every day? These tools and strategies for creating an environment conducive to professional development will help you do exactly that.
What it means to be a learning organization
The idea of the learning organization isn’t new—Peter Senge first proposed it in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline. Learning organizations create time and space for employees both to acquire knowledge and think critically and to collaborate and share. Productive experimentation and inclusive environments empower employees to express their ideas, raise doubts, and make decisions.
Research shows that an organization with 5,000 employees can save $12 million in lost productivity by making sure information is shared within an organization and overall team performance is prioritized.
But what does this look like in the modern digital workplace? The forced and formal classroom of old is out. Proactive leaders are increasing their focus on professional development and learning that is self-directed and integrated into their team’s daily workflow. Employees learn better when they are faced with a problem-solving situation rather than a dense textbook, so making learning and development interactive is important.
Some of the most valuable learning opportunities at work are also organic rather than organized. In his book Informal Learning, Jay Cross says that 80% of workplace learning takes place informally. It makes sense. Consider how much we learn simply by striking up a conversation, or how often we approach problems by consulting those around us.
Informal knowledge transfer not only comes naturally to us but is also more cost-effective—research shows that an organization with 5,000 employees can save $12 million in lost productivity by making sure information is shared within an organization and overall team performance is prioritized. It just takes the right environment to foster this.
Offering up professional development opportunities
You can be the most open communicator face to face, but when it comes to sharing information around your organization, it helps to have some tools. Organizations like research firm Towards Maturity and online learning platform Udemy note that promising new innovations in learning and development can help companies implement successful learning strategies by putting more control in the hands of employees and making learning opportunities both flexible and integrated into people’s daily work.
Live online learning and e-learning platforms
One of the easiest ways to move away from a formal, text-heavy approach to professional development and workplace training is to make use of e-learning platforms. Degreed, Fuse, and Axonify are all great at breaking lessons up into small, mobile-friendly components so users can manage their own learning. Employees can access content that’s fun and easy to understand, whenever and wherever they are.
Team collaboration platforms
According to Towards Maturity’s Learning Benchmark Report, companies are increasingly seeing how instant messaging and team collaboration tools facilitate shared learning. Encourage employees to have conversations around learning through these tools or share useful content with one another through dedicated channels.
To lead is also to learn—encourage feedback from your team to make your programs effective. Learning and professional development is a continuous exercise, and online surveys help paint a picture of exactly what kind of information employees seek.
Use these tools to create a learning roadmap where the path is clear and employees have a part in shaping the journey. A career, after all, is a winding road: There’s a horizon at the end, and your team wants to know that they’re properly equipped to make it there. That’s why Salesforce created an internal version of its popular myTrailhead customer learning platform. It’s also why Pixar started Pixar University, with optional classes open to all employees, and why Airbnb uses the Degreed platform.
Experimentation and the employee experience
Even with the right tools in place, leaders play an important role in shaping the culture of learning in the workplace. According to Lindsay McGregor, author of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, people are at their happiest when play is encouraged and problem-solving is at the forefront of their work. So instead of forcing employees to study, let them break out of their daily routine to try something new.
This is something Upworthy, the fastest-growing media site of all time, has taken to heart. As a believer in experimentation, the company has several tips for creating a culture of open communication and knowledge transfer:
- Encourage divergent thinking. Don’t ask employees to come up with the right answer to a question—ask them to come up with as many different answers as they can.
- Testing should be a shared responsibility. Running tests and experiments are obviously important, but the key is to make employees responsible for their own tests. The same team that comes up with an idea should be the one that tests it.
- Embrace failure. Make sure employees understand that failure is not only OK, it’s the norm. If a company is going to experiment and set ambitious goals, teams must know that they may not make them all the time. Take the stigma out of failure by encouraging team members to view these occasions as an opportunity to learn. People will be more likely to take risks.
- Make data generative, not conclusive. If experimentation exists only to come up with formal solutions that can be rolled out on a wide scale, the benefit of the whole exercise is lost. Experimentation should be an ongoing process; it’s a value, not a tool.
These processes, combined with the professional development tools above, will create an environment that fosters curiosity and growth among employees. You’ll never need to say “think outside the box” again.
How to spot a learner when you’re hiring
If knowledge is power, then you’re best off with a team of learners. Darren Shimkus, VP and GM of Udemy for Business, suggests looking for the following qualities to identify a dedicated learner during the hiring process:
- Ask a question like “What skills have you taught yourself recently?” The answer will often reveal if someone is genuinely curious by nature.
- Assign interviewees a task and check how much effort they invest in it. Are they researching thoroughly and thinking creatively?
- Pay attention to the questions interviewees ask. Look for thoughtful and unexpected questions about the nature of the company and the role.
People want to work for a learning organization—they want to collaborate and engage with one another to solve problems and experiment. More important, they want to stay at an organization that puts them first. Companies win employee loyalty not with an iron fist but a helping hand. It’s good news, then, that we now have technologies that make workplace learning more convenient and effective than ever.