Organizations comprised of lifelong learners adapt more quickly to dynamic exigencies and innovate solutions for previously unrecognized markets. Here’s why learning must be an enterprise priority and how to build a workforce of lifelong learners.

Why Should Continuous Learning and Development Be a C-suite Priority?

From both the employer and the employee perspective, there are a number of reasons that the C-suite should make learning and development (L&D) an ongoing priority.

For established firms, the ability to learn and adapt to change is at the core of business success. Otherwise, upstart firms will identify and service formerly unrecognized needs and markets and replace incumbent firms. Workforce development is critical to maximizing the value and impact of organizational change management efforts.

Storms, stumbling economies, social upheaval, earthquakes, pandemics like COVID-19 … these black swan events are impossible to predict but still happen and can upend business as usual. Lifelong learners can quickly recognize changing situations and adapt, experiment and find success during unforeseen events.

Lifelong learners also tend to be more engaged employees, and effective employee development and corporate training are quickly becoming a key differentiator among companies competing for talent. Potential employees want to work for companies that value lifelong learning, and employees experience higher satisfaction and workplace happiness when working in a learning environment.

From the employee perspective, it’s clear that individuals desire and need to continue learning new skills, knowledge and capabilities. Employees should ask themselves if they’ll be ready when their opportunity arrives to shine. If they work for an organization that encourages, empowers and rewards lifelong learners, they’ll easily be able to answer “yes” to that question.

While university and college degrees have merit, lifelong learning is essential to an individual’s professional success and survival. The world continues to change, and learning is the only antidote to quickly evolving economic and technological disruptions.

How Can You Establish a Culture of Lifelong Learning in Your Organization?

Leaders must listen to how employees talk about learning and about the time they spend on it. Lifelong learners often talk about how they applied concepts from their learning programs, failed, iterated and tried again. If leaders don’t observe employees talking about what they’ve learned and about the skills they’ve tried, or if they hear employees using terms like, “I don’t have time for that training,” they should be concerned that they have a cultural problem.

To create a culture of lifelong learning, leaders should:

  • Make learning an organizational priority: Enterprise strategy and goals should include tactics that emphasize and require learning.
  • Demonstrate the value of learning by recognizing and rewarding employees who take advantage of and apply what they learn through training and learning opportunities.
  • Provide formal and informal opportunities for employees to learn and grow.
  • Create frictionless learning opportunities, many of which occur in the flow of work.
  • Invest in formal L&D efforts that teach employees how to learn: Most employees are used to being spoon-fed information they need for performance improvement and top-down process modifications. Lifelong learners drive their own learning and understand their learning options and how to leverage them effectively.
  • Create learning paths to help people move closer to their short- and long-term professional aspirations, based on organizational skills and future market needs.
  • Model learning behaviors and invest in the development of learning processes and tools.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps General Jim Mattis wrote in his memoir, “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.” This philosophy is an invaluable attribute of lifelong learning, but organizations can leverage the following practices to build a workforce of lifelong learners:

  • Provide opportunities to learn in the flow of work. The future of learning is not in the classroom; it’s in discovering ways to work more effectively.
  • Provide microlearning for frequent nudges that build learning habits.
  • Reward employees who take calculated risks, learn from their mistakes and celebrate failure.
  • Encourage leaders to model desired behavior by learning, sharing what they learn and visibly participating with others in learning.
  • Reward learning; highlight employees who complete both formal and informal training and education programs.
  • Build a culture where learning is the default state, not something that requires professional sacrifices.
  • Promote informal learning, including self-directed and social learning.
  • Make learning interesting, and create awareness of training opportunities.
  • Change the role of the L&D team to “the guide on the side.”

Lifelong learners adapt more quickly to dynamic situations and evolving business needs. They’re also more capable of incremental and disruptive innovation. Organizations that cultivate lifelong learners are more successful, profitable and anti-fragile in the face of today’s volatile business environment.

Want to know how to drive continuous learning outside the formal training environment? Download this e-book to learn how to create a connected learning solution where you can support formal training with informal learning opportunities. This e-book shows you how to leverage social learning, just-in-time learning and job aids, and other strategies to sustain continuous learning.