What is a Learning Culture and why is it important?

One of the best and most efficient ways an organisation of any size can get ahead of its competition is by creating a learning culture.

Working within an SME is all about trying to find that competitive edge. There is a need to continually innovate and be one step ahead of the ‘big boys’. A learning culture, if correctly implemented and carried out effectively, can result in your organisation moving to the next level.

What is a learning culture?

It is important to understand what a learning culture is before trying to implement one.  A learning culture can be achieved by embracing the ethos of learning as a continual process, where it is understood that learning opportunities happen at every stage of an employee’s journey within the organisation. A learning culture needs an agreed set of practices, processes or conventions. The aim of these conventions is to help the people within the organisation learn continuously. All barriers that could potential stop an individual from learning and developing are removed to help create an environment in which learning is at the core.

The differences between a learning culture and training and development

Some may suggest that a learning culture isn’t any different to that of an organisation that provides regular training. However, the subtle differences between a learning environment and that of an organisation that simply focuses on training can result in large changes to the whole organisation. A few examples of the differences are below:

Who leads the training or learning

Within a training environment a specific trainer will come into the organisation and train the employees in a specific area. However, within a learning environment the learning is lead by the individual employee. The employee should be able to understand the areas in which they need to improve or receive coaching and therefore they lead their learning.

How and when learning takes place

Within a training culture the emphasis is on specific workshops or courses which take place at scheduled times throughout the year. However, a learning culture views learning as a continuous effort, for example, through coaching, mentoring and social interaction.

The ‘carrot’ or the ‘stick’

In many organisations, training acts as the ‘stick’, occurring as a result of employees not meeting required outcomes through lack of skills or knowledge. Training in this context is seen similarly to punishment. Within a learning culture the learning is not a result of poor performance but a ‘carrot’ to encourage personal development through a continuous process.

Knowledge sharing

The training culture is often centred around isolation. Different departments are often kept away from one another. This results in some knowledge being warehoused by one department and depriving others of what could be valuable information. However, within a learning culture the emphasis is on collaborative learning. Ideas are shared, not just with other employees but across areas or departments to the benefit of the whole organisation.

What are the benefits of implementing a Learning Culture?

  1. Increased efficiency and productivity
  2. Increased employee engagement resulting in decreased employee turnover
  3. The organisation and its people are better able to react to change
  4. There is an increase in innovation
  5. Increased problem-solving ability within the organisation

How to create a learning environment

There are a few different tactics a manager can implement within their organisation to help it to develop a learning culture:

  • The first step is for the leader(s) of the organisation to commit to the ethos that learning is a continuous process and not one that can be set for a specific time. Therefore, they should treat learning as a resource to be used. This is the mindset needed before starting to create a learning environment.
  • The next step is to introduce the aspects of coaching and mentoring to senior management roles, setting out a plan to coach and mentor the employees that report to them. Some managers may need development themselves in these skills, which only highlights the importance of the learning environment from top to bottom.
  • The employee should then be encouraged to create their own personal development plan to ensure their learning and development needs are noted, understood and followed through. If an organisation is committed to developing a learning culture it must be mandatory for employees to create these plans.
  • It is imperative that once a new skill has been learnt that the organisation recognises and celebrates the achievement, for example, when an employee successfully masters a skill they were being coached on. It does not matter how they have learnt but what matters is that learning is celebrated and rewarded.
  • Regular feedback within a learning culture is very important. There are two main areas of feedback that are vital for the creation of a learning environment. Firstly, feedback from the manager to the employee that they directly manage, where the manager can suggest areas of their work which they could benefit from developing and improving on. Secondly, when the employee has begun to work on identified development areas, the employee should give feedback on whether the specific method of learning they are doing is helping them. This will help the manager be better informed for future development through the identification of preferred learning styles. In addition, the employee should give feedback on what, if anything, they have gained from the learning activity. This needs to be constantly assessed as to whether the investment in learning is worthwhile to both the employee and the organisation.
  • Developing blended learning methods. Not all employees learn in the same manner, some learn best in training courses, others prefer a hands-on approach, whereas other may prefer to learn by being coached. Read our blog about alternatives to training courses.

Are Traditional training courses still needed with a learning environment?

There is always going to be a need for training courses in the traditional sense. Training courses have improved and changed over the years and can often be extremely beneficial. Training courses are sometimes the best methods in which specific learning can take place. Within a learning culture, training courses are one of many tools to be utilised without becoming the main focus of the organisation’s learning and development plan.

The Best Ways to Upskill Staff for SMEs

Upskilling employees can be a secret weapon for SMEs against the larger organisations and allows them to punch well above their weight.

Upskilling isn’t about simply training employees to be competent in their current role. Upskilling is the continual act of enabling talent to develop skills that are not necessarily directly related to their current role. Take a look at our recent article: ‘The benefits of upskilling employees’ to read more about the multiple benefits to organisations.

For many SMEs financial budgets are often a concern, so devoting a portion of an already tight budget to upskilling talent that may not directly improve their current job function may seem like a gamble. However, there are ways to begin the process of upskilling employees that won’t cost a great deal, and we’ve outlined some these below to help you get started.

Free Courses

There are many free digital resources and courses that enable employees to learn alongside their job. This is a great way to enable employees to discover if they would like to learn more about a specific area. This doesn’t cost you anything and you will soon start to reap the benefits. For example, Hubspot’s Academy and Google Digital Garage both offer free courses. This is not considering printed resources such as books and case studies. We often neglect these types of resources, but they hold a wealth of knowledge. For the younger generation most of these resources can be found online and in PDF formats.

Mentoring

Often we overlook the amount of knowledge that we have within our own organisation. We often have devoted Marketing, Accountancy, HR and Sales teams that have a wealth of knowledge within their field. Any employee that has an interest within these fields can be linked to a mentor that they can shadow or have one-to-one sessions to pick up new skills. These mentors can even run mini training courses for employees that wish to attend.

Hire Curious People

One of the key principals to upskilling is having employees that wish to better themselves. When hiring new staff explore the idea of learning new skills that are not directly related to their role. Ask to see if they picked up new skills on their own and get a feel if they are curious to learn more. This is the sort of attitude that helps develop the talent that will enable your SME to compete with the ‘big boys’. Once you have this talent, nurture it by partnering individuals up with leaders or provide resources to help them develop themselves further.

Often we see rewards as monetary based, but this does not have to be the case. Rewarding the effort of learning can be as simple as allowing extra time on a lunch break for study, letting employees leave early on a Friday to complete a course or even giving them acknowledgement within the business that they have completed a course. These types of reward will help to improve engagement and reinforce upskilling within the business.

Personal Development Plans

Giving employees a personal development plan in which they can create areas of competence that they wish to work on brings the emphasis of upskilling on to them. Empowering your employees to develop their own plan is a key step in creating a workforce that consistently wants to develop.

Outside Experts

On a daily basis many of us are in contact with partners and suppliers that help us with certain aspects of our business. A great way of getting different skills into your SME is to invite one of those to come into your organisation and talk about their skills and give advice on what they do within their role. Many organisations are happy to send their top talent to speak with you because of the networking possibilities as well as the interpersonal relationships you have built up with them. These can take place over an extended lunch break and cost nothing, except maybe a free lunch! From these events your employees can discover if the areas discussed are something they wish to explore further.

We’re not ignoring the fact that many employers and employees will want or need to use accredited training courses to secure certifications for certain skills. For an SME, that can mean a big commitment in terms of financial investment. However, by encouraging upskilling, an employee can be given the opportunity to show that they are committed to developing their skills whilst remaining with the organisation, which could help their employer decide whether further training is a worthwhile investment.