Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Leading organisations cultivate a culture of lifelong learning—and that means embedding learning into the way that people perform their work.

Shell is an international energy company that operates in more than 70 countries and employs more than 82,000. One of its learning focuses is to help people learn with, and from, each other and communities. Digital Skills@Shell provides a portal for all Shell staff to easily navigate through content that’s curated for them. Approximately 15,000 people take part in these communities.

These programs have helped Shell grow its internal capabilities: 98 percent of learners reported learning a new skill or enhancing an existing one, and line managers felt that learners were able to transfer skills to the rest of the team. Learners said their network increased and 72 percent agreed that completing a nanodegree increased their job satisfaction.

In addition, its Digital Centre of Excellence has over 280 digital initiatives in progress that stretch across the business. The core team consists of 350 people in four hubs across the globe who have developed a culture that is conducive to data science projects.

With the demand for skills rapidly evolving, organisations need to develop a culture of lifelong learning—not just to survive but to thrive. It’s not enough to specialise in a single skill for the trajectory of your career. The new life script: learn, work, repeat.

What is learning culture?

Learning is an observable behaviour that’s displayed by leaders and teams, and supported with time and investment. Learning happens all the time in the flow of work as we encounter new challenges and solve new problems. It can also happen in a more formal, deeper learning period, such as at conferences, or via higher education or certification courses.

Learning happens at key moments that matter—a concept that many businesses are used to thinking in context of their customers, and are starting to extend to the employee experience. Consider an employee’s onboarding experience, their first week on a new team or project, or the last week before a leave of absence. Effective learning experiences at these moments can go a long way to strengthening the employer-employee relationship.

The nature and flow of learning has also changed. Increasingly, learning stems from curious individuals foraging for information, and they may learn from experts, peers, or team members, both inside and outside the company. This is a marked difference from sending people away to learn from a single oracle of information. Learning is pulled to the learner, not pushed.

All of these aspects are part of a learning culture, as well as the underlying idea that learning is something that is valued and important. While we learn to acquire new skills, learning itself is a skill. And as we learn to learn better (through neuroplasticity), we can become more curious and learn more. The virtuous circle of learning reinforces itself. And organisations would be well-served to take advantage of it.

Learning at multiple levels

To better understand learning cultures within the UK, let’s look at recent research from Accenture and the CIPD. The good news: 79 percent of organisations say learning is aligned to organisational goals and they have easily accessible resources to support learning. The bad news: just two-thirds say they have a clear vision for learning. In other words, one-third of organisations need to align their resources and learning programmes to meet their business goals.

The report looks at learning at multiple levels of an organization.

Organisational learning

The report shares that 42 percent of organisations have practices in place to enable employees to share their ideas, and 35 percent develop and maintain an organisational climate of trust.

In addition to having structures and systems that support learning, you need a shared vision for learning and how it will enable business transformation, as well as responsible leadership that encourages people to speak up, ask questions, and share ideas (even half-baked ones). Psychological safety and trust are essential so that people feel comfortable asking for help or admitting to mistakes.

Team learning

Teams are where the rubber hits the road for learning, and managers play a key role. In 43 percent of organisations, line managers support informal learning (such as through coaching) and in 39 percent of organisations, line managers are involved in defining learning needs.

The CIPD found that in organisations with satisfied employees, managers are twice as likely to facilitate continuous learning and be involved in determining learning and development needs. They are also much more likely to support informal learning, learning transfer and help assess the impact of learning. These capabilities align with the agile idea of the retrospective, in which teams work in shorter cycles, and inspect and adapt to get better.

Individual learning

In 34 percent of organisations, employees understand why they are engaging with learning, and 32 percent are encouraged to reflect on what they learn in their day-to-day work. Again, in organisations with highly satisfied or satisfied employees, people are more than twice as likely to have clear development plans and goals and understand why they’re engaging in learning and development.

What leaders are doing

What actions are helping leaders close the gap between intent and action to create a culture of learning?

  • Leaders nurture a learning culture. In a learning culture, learning is valued, supported by leaders, and people help each other learn constantly. A learning culture supports people to design their own career paths, allowing them to establish feelings of connectedness and engage in meaningful work.
  • Leaders understand that effective learning is immersive and contextual. They are embedding immersive learning experiences into key moments in life, work and career.

What you can do

What can your organisation do to close the gap? Here are some recommendations.

  • Create an environment that embeds learning into the way you do things. Creating an organisation that supports learning requires enterprise-wide vision, buy-in and action. Importantly, learning teams are key in shaping this vision.
  • Ensure that your people managers have the knowledge, skills, behaviours and resources to support learning. Learning professionals can support line managers by helping them understand the key role they play in supporting learning, supporting them to prioritise time and resources for learning, advocating for learning support as part of management objectives, and encouraging managers to be role models in learning.

Learn, work, repeat

The very nature of work is changing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increased focus on personal and professional development, with many taking advantage of online content to learn on their own time. It remains to be seen whether this behaviour will continue after the pandemic. Regardless, you should ask whether your organisation’s learning environment supports self-directed learning. 

Leading organisations will increasingly provide personalised and engaging paths to curated content, experiences, and experts. As for organisations that don’t, the damage is two-fold: failure to unlock the potential within its people, and potentially losing employees to organisations where lifelong learning is a priority.   

To learn more: 

  • View the infographic for the study’s key findings—and what they mean for your organisation. 
  • Read the full report, including nine recommendations to help learning professionals close the gap. 
  • Read the case studies for examples of different approaches to transform learning. 
  • Get in touch with me here, or @andyyoungACN on Twitter. 

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