Creating A Learning Culture: Can Workforces Be Taught to Learn?

The Challenge Of Creating A Learning Culture Within Your Organization

Uncertainty, ambiguity, and change in today’s global business climate requires exploration, invention, experimentation, and adaptation – all of which require learning. So writes Edward Hess in his book, 2014’s Learn or Die. But, he adds, “Organizations cannot learn unless the individuals within them learn”. But you already knew that. You’re reading this, because you know creating a learning culture within your organization is absolutely essential. When it comes to your organization thriving, sinking or merely floating, a workforce that learns could ultimately be the deciding factor.

Of course, learning requires teaching (whether someone is teaching the learner, or the learner is teaching himself), but it requires something else. In their book How People Learn, John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking write about a key element that drives learning in humans—motivation.

This is something we can probably all agree on: For information to be fully absorbed and for learning to firmly stick, the learner must be 100% engaged. Sure, some people are born with a higher capacity for learning than others. And some people seem to “get it” after barely paying attention at all. But for the most part, if you want to transfer knowledge to a worker, the worker has to want it.

So where can this motivation to learn come from? In the workplace, motivation might stem from one’s desire to be promoted. Or from a simple need for contributions to be recognized. But a person’s desire to learn often comes down to a natural desire to always be learning anyway. The challenge for organizations looking to establish a permanent learning culture that instills the ABLs (Always Be Learning) mantra across their workforces, then, is two-fold:

  1. How to motivate workers to learn.
  2. How to attract workers who are already habitual learners.

Here are my thoughts on both:

Motivating Learners

Your enterprise-wide learners could be divided into two camps:

  1. Those who want to learn, but have lost their motivation.
  2. Those who simply aren’t motivated – ever.

Organizations must know their workers. Otherwise, they might assign tasks that are too easy, leading to boredom, or tasks that are too difficult, leading to failure and frustration. You must identify the learning desire and potential of your workers by asking yourself a simple question: “Which of my workers want to learn (but aren’t learning much lately) and which of my workers don’t ever want to learn?”

Motivating Those Who Want To Learn

Even natural learners must be supported. If they find they are not learning within your organization, they’ll simply learn to support other interests and ambitions in life – which could eventually include a new employer.

As I wrote in a recent article (The 5 Newest Ways To Engage Learners), a 2009 Gallup State of the American Workplace report came out that showed organizations that were able to successfully engage both customers and employees could experience a 240% boost in performance-related business gains. But six years later, another Gallup report showed only 32% of U.S. employees were engaged.

That’s a third of your workers who have essentially checked out. And you think they’re going to show up at your next training session with an eager desire to embrace every bit of knowledge you hand to them, so they can parlay that knowledge into enhanced skills that benefit the business? Not likely.

Keeping your learners motivated is just as important as motivating your non-learners. So how do you keep them motivated? The challenges and goals must be made clear. The impact their learning has on their teams, the organization, and their own professional development must be known. Continue to challenge them. Continue to reward them. Surround them with other motivated learners. Give them access to the best tools and technology. Listen to their ideas. For it’s not about motivating an already motivated learner. It’s giving them a reason to continue learning for you.

Motivating Those Who Don’t Want To Learn

Every organization has people who do well doing what they do, but they don’t much effort into learning. For so many years they’ve been able to rely on core knowledge, instinct, and a certain set of skills. Why work harder than you have to?

As Bransford, Brown, and Cocking write, students in general tend to be either learning-oriented or performance-oriented. Those who are learning-oriented have a propensity for new challenges and push themselves to cover new ground, even if it means stumbling along the way. This would describe the first set of learners I mentioned – those who want to learn. But according to Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, there are the performance-oriented students who tend to let the fear of failure dampen their growth. “They are more worried about making errors than about learning”, they write.

How do you motivate them? You show them how learning to benefit the organization will benefit their own careers. But, a true learning culture will also show this set of workers that their value isn’t necessarily tied to their smarts as much as their ability to get smarter.

Some companies regularly survey their workforces to determine their drive to learn and overall level of engagement. WD-40, which along with other learning-centric companies like UPS and American Express, requires employees to take a “learning maniac” pledge. Google’s “Googler to Googler" program fosters employee-to-employee classes, which include business critical courses on management and coding but also such employee-initiated classes as dancing and beekeeping. But, workers who resist the learning culture and all the learning opportunities given them also need to be put on notice. Just as a competitor will inevitably rise up out of nowhere based on the strength of its ability to learn and adapt, so will new talent.

Hiring Motivated Learners

That brings me to the talent acquisition piece.

Here’s something I have learned: People who like to learn already know quite a bit. That’s because they’re lifetime learners. Regardless of the environment, task, or challenge, they will absorb as much as they can either for the simple sake of knowledge or some kind of professional or social advancement – for themselves, for others, or both.

One of the best ways to identify a motivated learner is to look at what they already know. What were the last couple of books they read? What magazines do they read? How do they spend their free time? Someone whose extracurricular activities include guitar, surfing, and ice sculpting had to put time into learning those skills. The more you talk to someone about their life, the more you pick up on how strong their desire is to learn. A job candidate may dismiss such softball interview questions as mere get-to-know-you chit-chat. But you will learn whether a candidate has what it takes to help drive the advancement of your business by asking them.

Training And Retention

Now that your workforce is eager to learn, train them with virtual classrooms, which are specifically designed for interactive engagement that increases knowledge retention. Incorporate gamification features into your eLearning program to trigger the worker’s competitive drive. And don’t forget, now that you’ve built it, you need to retain it. That means your learning culture as much as the motivated learners supporting it.

But that’s another article.

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