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Marc My Words: Ten Steps to Building a Learning Culture

by Marc Rosenberg

February 9, 2016

Column

by Marc Rosenberg

February 9, 2016

“If you truly want your learning and performance strategy to have a positive and sustainable impact—if you really want people to want to learn and the organization to want to invest in learning—you must create an atmosphere of value, support, and appreciation for what you are offering. Without it, people may just be going through the motions.”

A learning culture is an environment that celebrates and rewards learning, incents people to freely share what they know, and helps them to change based on the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. We all like to think we work in a positive learning culture, but that’s not always the case.

There’s no question that learning is likely to fail if it’s poorly designed, the content is weak, or the technology doesn’t work. But learning will absolutely fail if the culture doesn’t support it. As I mentioned in The Three Laws of eLearning Failure, when great learning comes up against a lousy learning culture, the culture wins every time.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are 10 key steps to building a positive learning culture in your organization:

  1. Start with leadership. Culture begins at the top. If senior leadership doesn’t support a learning culture, no one else will. If you are looking for a breakthrough, find leaders who will invest in and champion your efforts, even if the project is smaller, or less visible or significant than you would like. You need some initial success stories to help spread your message.
  2. Expand the mission.You’re going nowhere if you simply equate learning with training. Learning—individual and organizational—is much broader than courses. Don’t make the mistake of talking “learning” but doing only “training.” Think more about a learning and performance ecosystem than simply a course catalog, and then act accordingly.
  3. Get buy-in from the front line. If you want employees to learn, make sure their supervisors learn first. You can’t expect them to get behind something they don’t understand themselves. Build support for learning into their appraisals and reward managers who put learning near the top of their team’s agenda.
  4. Get the content right. Putting lots of content out there does nothing to encourage learning if the content is confusing, inauthentic, biased, low value, hard to access, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Content curation may be the most important thing you can do.
  5. Get the technology right. It’s not just about making sure the technology works, but making sure it’s the right technology for the right use. Be careful the technology doesn’t get in the way of learning, or that you are not using more tech than you need. Technology is important; learning without technology cannot scale, but technology without learning is just a “shiny object.”
  6. Ensure readiness to learn. One of the biggest factors in fostering a poor learning culture is providing learning programs to people who aren’t ready for them or who don’t need them. This can be terribly demotivating. Make sure your learners have the right prerequisites, have clear learning goals, and have adequate time and resources to learn, and are not wasting their time. Provide them with valued incentives to learn, and be sure you understand why they might be resistant to your efforts.
  7. Communicate for the long term. Launching new learning programs can sometimes be more hype than substance. Of course you need to promote your efforts, but be sure your communications strategies are long-term, valuable in the learners’ eyes (“what’s in it for me”), and truly helps them develop their own positive affinity for the learning process itself—an affinity that can be contagious if enough people buy into it.
  8. Provide for learning transfer. Making sure that what they learn in class they can apply at work is critical. And it’s just not being able to do what you’ve been taught; it’s also recognizing that what you’ve been taught is actually helpful to you in doing your job better and easier. The connection between job performance and learning is a key to building a sustainable learning culture.
  9. Demonstrate success. Better to have a small success than a big failure. Demonstration projects, pilots, and proof-of-concept work are all essential in building support for learning. As was noted in step one, culture begins at the top, but it’s also important for rank-and-file to see how the new learning programs work, and how they might benefit. Showing success is much more powerful than just talking about it.
  10. Measure results and provide feedback. You want to measure how much is learned, but perhaps more important from a culture perspective, you want to measure the value people attach to learning. And, of course, nothing speaks louder than the positive impact learning has on individual and organizational performance. So go beyond measuring course-level learning. Find out the real impact of the program on participants and the organization.

Use these 10 steps as a checklist for your organization, if you like. How well are you doing?

Learning fails when nobody really cares about it. You can always mandate learning programs, or hype them incessantly, but that is not culture change. If you truly want your learning and performance strategy to have a positive and sustainable impact—if you really want people to want to learn and the organization to want to invest in learning—you must create an atmosphere of value, support, and appreciation for what you are offering. Without it, people may just be going through the motions.


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