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Building a Learning Culture

As we head into a new decade, there are many exciting opportunities and challenges for U.S. employers.  Among those are the ways companies build the skills and knowledge of their workforce.  What used to be called “training and development” has evolved into a front-and-center business strategy in order to remain competitive in a global market and provide the heightened service level expected from customers.  No matter the size of the organization, it’s important then that all company leaders set aside time to define and sustain their learning culture.

An important first step is to make sure the company is clear on its reasons to build a learning culture.  Are you trying to attract the best candidates by offering tuition and certification reimbursement?  Are you trying to retain your employees who are seeking career development and ongoing learning opportunities?  Do you have a skills gap within your company that is holding back productivity?   Whatever the reason, the company must take the time to clarify how and why its learning culture connects to strategic goals.  If your strategy is to enter a new market based on a particular knowledge set among your employees, then make sure your certification reimbursement, for instance, doesn’t go beyond the scope of what you’ll need.  As another example, last year Walmart understood its growth strategy depended on the success of its in-store pharmacies; however, there was a skills gap that limited the pool of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.  For this reason, the company started a program to offer near-free college tuition to employees seeking training in health specialties related to its pharmacy operations.

Once a company ties its learning culture objectives to overall strategy, it can begin building the approach.  A learning culture often begins on a basic level with new hire training and orientation, and that’s often a good starting point to understand the organization’s commitment to employee development.  What are the topics you’re teaching to a new hire?  What skills are you tapping into?  What knowledge will be required in the next year?  Often new hire training is crammed with a lot of information in a short period of time.  If you are seeking to build understanding, it’s very important to map out learning objectives and how those may be delivered over a longer period of time.  Ultimately, what starts as new hire training should naturally evolve into ongoing learning for the employee.

Another important area to consider is your knowledge expectations for positions within your organization.  In years past, employers would require, for example, a four-year college degree as part of the position qualifications.  However, many companies are re-examining education requirements, partly due to college debt concerns in the U.S., and asking what skills are needed for a job and whether a college degree necessarily supplies those skills.  Amazon Web Services (AWS), for example, has a heightened need for employees to work in the field of cloud computing.  The company determined that neither a four-year or two-year degree is required for the job, and it instead promotes a certification program where an individual can learn the skills needed for the job without the burden of years of school or debt from borrowing for tuition.  Like AWS, companies should examine how they can control the knowledge or education needed for a job.  It could be as simple as a certification program or even an internal training program.  If possible, attempt to come up with a list of measurable skills for all positions within your company and find the most efficient method to teach those skills.

Developing and staying committed to a learning culture can be a challenging task, but the good news is the evolution of Learning Management Systems have become a critical support mechanism.  If you’re not yet familiar with a Learning Management System (LMS), it’s an online application that combines the best elements of a traditional company training library with the versatility of a “wiki”.  With an LMS, a company can organize a variety of training content such as written procedures, presentations, and videos, all of which can be sourced internally or externally.  LMS administrators can create assessments to confirm the learner understood the content, establish skill paths to ensure all topics are covered for a particular subject matter, and engage gamification elements to motivate and reward employees for ongoing learning.  An LMS also serves several key elements of a successful learning culture.  It can offer microlearning (typically five minutes or less delivered at the moment the learner is seeking knowledge) as well as a variety of content delivery methods, from written documents to videos to multi-media presentations.  The options within an LMS can be vast, so it’s critical to connect it with the underlying strategy of your learning culture.  It’s also very important that you designate an administrator to take ownership of the content and to make sure reports generated from the LMS validate your objectives.

Lastly, a learning culture can often become more engaging and creative when a company adds a social element to it.  How well a company communicates learning accomplishments among its workforce strongly reinforces the culture, particularly if peer recognition is part of the process.  Beyond that, a company should even think about incorporating learning into social outings, interest groups (book clubs, game clubs), and friendly competitions.  The point should be that learning doesn’t need to feel like taking a class or studying all the time but instead can be rewarding when employees discover it’s fun.

Within the scope of business and industry, a new era – whether a new year, decade, or century — often brings a time to reflect how we define ourselves and the work we do.  The new decade we have just embarked upon no doubt promises to bring some challenges together with important changes.  Among those will be the opportunity to bring heightened knowledge and skills to workers so when we look back ten years from now, we will see the learning culture we sought to create met the challenge of the decade and prepares our communities for whatever comes next.

By, Dave Furlan
Senior HR Business Partner, TPCHR