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.

10 Alternatives to Training Courses for SMEs

With the business world being as competitive as it is, employers are discovering that the main thing that can help differentiate them is their people. Developing, or ‘up-skilling’, employees is now more important than ever. Gone are the days where training courses focused upon just the necessities and regulations of the job role; we are now seeing more forward-thinking employers who are looking to uncover talent within their people which, in time, will give them the advantage over their competitors.

We know that making sure your employees are up to speed with what is required of them is vital, so training in that respect will always be a necessity. However, with some training courses coming in at a high cost, SMEs could find it hard to find the budget for broader training and development, often having to weigh up the cost of training courses against other necessities in their annual budget.

With this in mind, we’ve put together some alternatives to training courses that SMEs could investigate that might help implement learning and development and nurture talent at a lower cost.

Coaching

This is effective if the employee has a specific objective or area of development that they need to target.

Mentoring

An effective technique when there is already an individual within the organisation with the expertise to develop potential. This enables transfer of knowledge and ways of working.

Shadowing

A great way of helping an employee explore different aspects of the business. It is beneficial to watch someone else demonstrating what is required of them, then reflecting on what they have learned. They can then discover the effectiveness of their ways of working and even make suggestions for improvements, which could be mutually beneficial. This could be a reciprocal arrangement whereby one colleague shadows another in turn, allowing for feedback on both.

Expanding Roles

By expanding an employee’s current role, they are likely to develop longer term aspirations and invest more into the organisation. Also, they will come to realise what areas they need to improve in and, given the opportunity and with support, can start to address these.

Project Roles

Putting an individual forward for different project roles helps to broaden their perspective, whilst encouraging interaction with new areas of the business can aid their development. It may even result in hidden skills being identified.

Practical Learning

If an individual has been given a new task or responsibility, they may be able to learn on the job providing they are properly supported. It is important however that they have the confidence to ask managers and colleagues for support and advice whilst they are learning.

Distance and E-Learning

There are specific college and online courses, some of which are free, where the individual learns in their own time and at their own pace. These can include accredited courses, which build towards a qualification.

Volunteering

Giving employees the opportunity and time off to volunteer may help to develop existing skills and learn new ones. Volunteering could help people build their confidence, as it is a less pressurised environment. It may also lead to networking opportunities.

Blended Learning

This is where the focus is not on one development area but a variety. By using Blended Learning, it gives the employee a mixture of different activities to develop many skills over a short space of time.

Media

There is a wealth of information available on platforms such as YouTube and watching specific programmes can help gain useful knowledge.

Books and publications

In the modern world there is a neglect of written texts. These books and other resources hold a valuable knowledge and theories that can help employees develop. However, for convenience and accessibility, there are often PDF copies of these resources available.

Other Notables

Membership of professional bodies, work placements, sabbaticals, sideways moves and job swaps.

 

People development will always be needed if SMEs are to stay ahead of their competition. But we also know that funding for all these development activities is often limited, therefore thinking outside the box and using alternative methods of learning and development are definitely worth looking into.