Tapping The Possibilities: 3 Ways To Build A Culture Of Learning

by Aaron Skonnard, co-founder/CEO of Pluralsight.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

When it comes to closing the technology skills gap, one solution seems obvious: keep learning.

Yet, making time to learn and convincing your entire organization that learning is a priority can be easier said than done. But it’s something every company must adopt if they want to close the skills gap — and stay competitive. A lot of companies throw around terms like “culture of learning,” but don’t really understand what it means.

We recently asked more than 2,000 of our customers about learning in their workplaces. Somewhat surprisingly, the number one thing employees told us their managers could do to help enable training was “make learning a bigger part of our company culture.” Why is this surprising? Because these are employees at companies that already value training enough to provide it to their employees. Yet, those same employees tell us that learning needs to be an even bigger part of the company culture. So, how do you create this culture?

What is a culture of learning?

In the simplest terms, your company culture is how people think and behave at work. It includes the things employees value and spend their time on and how present they are every day. So a culture of learning is one where all of the stakeholders (executives, employees, investors and others) strongly believe in personal growth and learning. And they act on that belief, taking the initiative to find solutions to business problems and seeking out new knowledge and skills.

Perhaps most importantly, to build a real learning culture, learning can’t be an afterthought. It can’t be a “set it and forget it” program. And it can’t be left solely to human resources to drive. It starts with the CEO and senior management. If they don’t buy in and participate, learning won’t survive as part of the culture for long.

Aaron Skonnard, co-founder/CEO of Pluralsight

How to create a learning culture

Now that we’ve established what a culture of learning is and who is responsible for building it, here are a few things you can do to foster it in your organization. These ideas work for startups as well as established companies — though older companies will have to work harder to change the already-established culture.

1. Encourage employees to always seek context with intention

A lot of leaders talk about asking the right questions and seeking context, but very few do the hard work required to get honest answers and act on them. Most of us would prefer to remain blissfully unaware of our weaknesses. But the idea that what we don’t know can’t hurt us is the first step down a very hazardous road toward failure.

Making matters worse, employees often avoid saying something that might be perceived as negative, threatening or hurtful — especially when those things might offend a manager who can impact their future career options. So even if you ask the right questions, you may not get the right answers.

When the now-retired Ford CEO Alan Mulally first joined the then-struggling company in 2006, he famously instituted a “red light” system, where he asked his leaders to assess the business using a “green,” “yellow” or “red” light. The first meeting he tried this at, their responses were overwhelmingly green, which he immediately doubted and urged the team for transparency. It worked. The next meeting, there were a lot of red lights. Surfacing problems were applauded because it enabled the organization to face issues head on. And today, Mulally is credited with turning the iconic company around.

If you haven’t established a culture where people feel like they’re safe — and even encouraged — to be inquisitive and upfront, you can’t expect honest answers to questions about company weaknesses and areas where learning can lead to improvement. A culture that’s built around seeking context requires not just asking for constructive feedback, but listening to the answers and using them as a starting point to create solutions.

So, the first step to building a learning culture in your organization is to create an environment where honest feedback is valued and acted on with integrity.

2. Cultivate an environment for learning

If culture is the shared beliefs and expected behaviors from the members of your organization, environment is where it happens. And if your environment isn’t set up to support learning, it won’t happen — no matter how much you talk about it as part of your culture.

Recognition and rewards for individuals who participate in training programs only create a culture of individual learning. Your organization’s focus needs to include sharing skills and training in ways that spread learning throughout the entire organization.

Here are just a few ideas for celebrating and sharing knowledge throughout your organization.

-Mentoring: Pair learners with more experienced employees on a project or team, and create mentor-mentee relationships within your organization. The value that mentors can bring is unmatched.

-Post mortems: Conduct group debriefs after projects to identify what went well and where both individuals and teams can improve. Which skills need to be added before the next project? How can you evaluate if your team already has those skills? What learnings need to be shared across the organization? Be sure to identify specific learning goals, so you don’t repeat the same mistakes in the future.

**Hack-a-thons or hack days: **Identify a day every quarter (or more regularly if your organization can support it) for employees to work together on new ideas that aren’t part of the company’s day-to-day, but will ultimately contribute to a more productive, healthy organization. Give them time to demonstrate their work and share their learning.

– Lunch-and-learns or book clubs: Encourage employees to get together every few weeks to study and share a common skill or subject. Leaders should participate, but not always lead these important learning sessions.

– Set aside time to learn: One of the best ways to create a learning culture within your org is one of the simplest — block out time. Decide how often and for how long you’d like to set aside time to learn. Be sure to create a recurring calendar event so coworkers know teams are busy during that time. For example, Pluralsight customer MasterControl has their dev team dedicate every Friday afternoon to learning, and they’ve seen some serious results. MasterControl developers have responded well to this culture of learning, and MasterControl has seen an incredible retention rate among these employees.

When you support and celebrate the sharing of knowledge — and not just participation in a training program — company performance and morale go up. Try it and see what happens in your organization.

3. Make learning a joyful part of coming to work

At Pluralsight, one of our core values is to “create with possibility.” We want our employees to all have a learner’s mindset and be fearlessly curious — without boundaries or constraints. This is where true learning happens. That means it’s not just enough to set a vision for learning and provide training opportunities. Learning has to be inspiring and fun. Organization behavior is strongly influenced by leaders. How the leaders in your business behave when it comes to learning will set the tone for everyone else. If the CEO is too busy to participate or they clearly don’t enjoy learning, employees get the message that learning and growing their skills aren’t as important as other work.

But when leaders actively participate in training, when learning is written into your organization’s values and is part of your management team’s daily behavior, that’s when your culture of learning will begin to take root and grow. And when it’s embedded in your organization, it means that employees will see their own skills gaps as not a challenge but an opportunity — an opportunity their company created with them.

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