Companies with a strong culture of learning are more competitive, more flexible, and more efficient than their peers. And one of the hallmarks of a learning culture is that employees are always in “learning mode.” They are constantly pulling ideas from daily experience and collaborating with others to solve problems.
People have a natural curiosity about the work they do, but the work environment, focused on results over process, often drowns out that inquisitiveness. In other words, many of us have learned not to learn.
But companies can ramp up employee willingness to seek out knowledge by setting up some simple processes, like reflection and peer learning, and encourages curiosity-driven habits, like questioning and experimentation.
This short video offers six simple steps you can take. These won’t change your culture over night, but if you’re consistent with them and make learning a priority, they’ll have significant impact over time.
Regardless of how many inspirational posters claim there are no stupid questions, they are wrong. There are stupid questions, but there are also smart, inspiring, surprising, and insightful questions. Encourage them all – even the stupid ones – to get your team in the habit. When you support all efforts at inquiry, your team will lose their fear of looking dumb and open their minds to new possibilities that could lead to innovations for you.
Especially reward queries that start with “why,” “how,” and “what if” to invite deeper insights.
Encourage knowledge sharing.
Take a close look and determine if you have “knowledge islands” on your team. Are there people keeping their know-how close to the chest? If so, start asking them to open up, teach and mentor each other, and share their experience.
Reward their efforts so they don’t lose status by sharing knowledge which once made them feel unique and valuable. And set the example by learning from others yourself. Ask your direct reports to share what they’re doing or show you how they solved a problem. Make sure they understand you are there to learn, and again, recognize their contributions.
Create peer learning groups.
Developing a culture of continuous learning requires you to strike the right balance between autonomy and support. In other words, you have to let employees take the initiative in growing their skills, but you need to support their efforts so they don’t get frustrated.
You can use peer learning groups to help balance these two needs. It’s a group of 3-4 teammates who share their learning goals, hold each other accountable, and support each other over challenges. These work best as volunteer groups, but you can encourage them by providing work time and space for their meetings. They can meet once or twice a month depending on how aggressively they pursue learning goals.
Research published by the Harvard Business School found that people learn from their experiences better if they take time to think about them. Even if you do nothing else from this list, ask your team to take 5-10 minutes at the end of each day to note down what they achieved and what they learned from the day’s experience that could help them in the future.
You don’t need to read the notes, but if you hold regular one-to-one meetings with employees, you can ask them to summarize their conclusions. This is an easy step anyone can take regardless of your work environment, and it can pay off big time.
Hand out stretch assignments.
We learn most of our jobs by doing our jobs, so if you want people to grow in their skills, give them work that challenges them. This strategy requires you to assign work strategically and ensure your employees have the support they need to succeed. You also have to gauge whether a challenge is hard enough to be interesting but not so hard that employees will get frustrated.
You’ll have the most success with stretch assignments if you explain to team members why you’re giving them the task, give them strategies to get help from you or a colleague when needed, and let them know it’s ok to struggle. That’s the point of the assignment, after all.
Once your team is asking questions and pulling knowledge from their experience, they’re going to come up with new ideas to try. This is the time to experiment.
Give your team the space to put new processes in place, measure the results, identify the successes and failures, and use that information to determine how to proceed. Let them know that failure is ok as long as the experiment is conducted with a clear purpose and results can be measured. In that situation, you can identify the causes of failure and use them to learn more about a better way to move forward.
Experimentation can be great fun, which the whole team can share. It can inspire others and stoke the coals of innovation that so many businesses cannot thrive without today.
It’s very likely that your company doesn’t have a culture of continuous learning right now. The Society for Human Resources Management cites research findings that only 1 in 10 companies has a learning culture and only 20% of employees know how to learn. But you don’t have to change your whole company at once. Start with your team. You’ll find that success spreads like wildfire.