Large, global companies often have notoriety for sophisticated learning and development (L&D) efforts. Companies like Amazon, Eaton, AT&T, Marriott and McDonalds, among others, have the staff, budget and space to provide a variety of learning interventions for nearly every population in their enterprise. It is a resource-rich framework that many small businesses simply cannot emulate. But smaller organizations can still create thriving learning cultures for their employees.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data shows that companies with over 500 employees account for less than 1% of all registered companies, 99.7% of all U.S. businesses employ less than 500 humans, and even more astonishingly, 89% of all U.S. businesses employ less than 20 employees each. While the L&D opportunities available in large businesses is enviable, the outcomes and successes of such infrastructure isn’t limited to those with a Fortune 500-level bankroll. What small businesses might lack in L&D sophistication, they often make up for in agility, generous and diverse experiences, and pragmatic approaches. Many have the raw makings of a true learning culture that simply needs to be structured and organized to reap similar the same rewards as their larger counterparts.

How to Get Started

Creating a learning culture in your organization can be more powerful than constructing a formal L&D department, regardless of your company size. Learning cultures within businesses value continuous learning, voracious curiosity and take time to analyze failures of all impacts. Coaching is commonplace, feedback is generous, and is expected up, down and peer to peer. Cultures create a collective momentum of progress where employees are committed to improving their performance — and helping their peers do the same.

You don’t need a large L&D budget or department to build a thriving learning culture. Here are four ways to get started, no matter where you’re starting from:

1. Announce and Model Your Intentions

Explain that continuous development is an expectation of every employee. Describe what that means and give examples that would satisfy the expectation. Discuss the philosophy during interviews with potential employees, in one-on-one dialogues with current employees, and at company-wide meetings. Share the content that you personally read, watch, attend, or listen to along with your key learnings. Your employees know what’s important to you by what you share regularly with them.

2. Commit to a Structured Talent Development Process

Have a well communicated expectation and rhythm for basic talent development processes such as employee assessments, feedback, performance evaluation, development and career dialogues. You don’t need to have a mammoth technical system in place, just a disciplined system to ensure frequent, ongoing improvement.

For instance, you may focus on job-specific skills development continuously, have formal development conversations with learners every six months, and do company values assessments, performance evaluations, employee engagement surveys and have broader career dialogues on an annual basis.

3. Invest in your People Leaders

Most businesses still promote employees to management roles based on good technical performance. The logic usually being that if they have done the job well, they should be able to lead other people to do that job well, too. Such logic does not always fair well for the employees or the business. The smaller the organization, the more detrimental bad people leaders are to the business.

Here are some tips to develop effective people leaders:

  • List and advertise the top five expectations for successful leadership at your company.
  • Assess and evaluate all people leaders accordingly at least once per year.
  • Create L&D opportunities for leaders whose skills are lacking and are not meeting current expectations,
  • Ensure your management training has a core curriculum of building trust, employee coaching, feedback, accountability and engagement.

4. Offer Small and Simple Opportunities

Building a learning culture takes time and consideration. It does not require a complicated approach or massively innovative aspirations. A bit of forethought and discipline can help employees across the enterprise make learning a habit in mere weeks. Here are a few simple, quick opportunities to support ongoing learning:

  • Explore relevant content: Encourage employees to read one book about a professional development topic per quarter and host dialogues about the content once per month (e.g., Q1 – goal setting or habit making, Q2 -performance development or feedback, Q3 – team work or trust and Q4 – strategy).
  • Leverage talent: Sponsor “lunch and learn” sessions led by your own Leaders that put your top talent to work. For example, have your chief finance officer host a session on “how to read our balance sheet” or have your chief human resources talk through how to conduct an effective candidate interview.
  • Fail Fest: Encourage employees to share their most recent failure with the larger group. Ask them to summarize the effort, their intended outcome, what went wrong, what they learned and how they plan to course-correct .
  • Team Meetings: Start every other regular team meeting with a 10-minute development opportunity. Review an article, watch a TED talk, dissect a case study, explore a customer problem or unpack an industry trend. Exploring contemporary topics that matter to your team and business will build a common understanding of opinions and approaches to be leveraged later.

Budgeting for Employee Development

Learning has become commoditized and democratized over time with the resourcefulness of the internet. Most content (un-curated) is available for free to everyone. For those needing a bit more structure, businesses can certainly purchase membership licenses for their employees to have access to a learning management system (LMS) or portal.

We all know that one leader who practices the above as a passionate hobby with their team. But, to grow leaders at scale, every leader has a responsibility to proactively grow the talent in their organization until every employee naturally behaves in ways that make those around them better. Learning cultures are achieved in companies that make it safe to fail and encourage (and expect) all employees to play the roles of both student and teacher when the time is right.