Everyone wants to be a learning organization, and for good reason. Who wouldn’t want to work for a company that has created a culture of learning from and even embracing mistakes as opportunities to gain knowledge? Or pushing innovation through bold experimentation? Or fostering and investing in development for its employees?

The value proposition of being a learning organization extends beyond employees to shareholders as well. Shareholders can often expect better products with more innovation resulting from the company’s freedom to try new things and its unrelenting focus on building the core capabilities of the people who work there.

It’s no surprise, then, that a lot of companies are either talking about being or trying to become a learning organization. Often, though, being a learning organization is more aspirational than current reality. Many companies are constrained by tight operating margins and limited resources. These companies often feel as though those realities limit their ability to become learning organizations. In addition, truly being a learning organization requires different mindsets around success and failure as well as recognizing the less immediately tangible value of consistent investments made in people over the long term.

Getting there isn’t something that can be driven just by learning and development leaders. It often requires leadership alignment and sponsorship at the highest levels to create that culture. Whether that top level of sponsorship and alignment is in place or not, though, here are four key ways that L&D can help build the foundation for a learning organization to emerge.

1. Work with the business to ensure that learning directly supports strategy and objectives.

Even if there are limited resources for learning, one of the best ways to help leaders feel good about its value is to ensure that it is a key driver of business strategies. This alignment is often done through an annual, if not more frequent, needs assessment that is directly focused on business needs.

The key is to ask the right questions, such as:

  • What are the core capability gaps that, if not solved, are barriers to achieving our strategies?
  • Where are we continuing to have skill gaps that are negatively impacting our business’ current performance?
  • What are the skills we will need in the future to meet our long-term business aspirations and vision?

Directly tying a learning program to a key business imperative or initiative shows business value.

2. Provide learning for employees in innovative ways.

Move beyond traditional learning, and think about how to bring learning to people in different ways with high frequency and low costs. The kinds of strategies that fit into this category are limitless. Some examples include:

  • Implementing “one-minute daily learning bite” videos with calls to action
  • Weekly emails from leaders with management best practices encouraging learners to try them out during the week
  • Regular forums for employees to learn from each other

These kinds of strategies begin to embed learning as a daily practice and require minimal administrative support.

3. Customize learning for the company’s culture.

This isn’t to say that canned training programs aren’t effective (especially if they reduce the need to re-invent the wheel for tried and true learning needs), but they often feel foreign to the company’s culture. Tailoring them makes them feel highly relevant, which helps learners feel higher levels of ownership.

4. Work with the business to find ways to reward and recognize people for learning.

This is the ultimate low-cost, high-return approach. If the company acquired a new competency as a result of learning from something that didn’t work, finding ways to recognize that learning not only allows the new competency to spread but also reinforces the learning culture. The key is to ensure that the organization is rewarding the development of new capabilities through learning.

Transforming to a true learning culture takes time, but these four tips can help lay a foundation for getting there.

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