How to build a learning culture - from those who’ve done it

Among the answers: lead from the top and don’t be afraid of failure

How can you create a learning culture inside an organisation? More than 50 executives, consultants and academics responded when Raconteur asked this question. Here are an edited selection of their answers.

Culture comes from the top

When shifting the culture of any company, it’s important to first identify a clear sense of purpose beyond profit. There’s also an important role for leaders to play in creating a learning culture. Put simply: if you want to see change adopted within your company, you must first start exhibiting the mindset and behaviours you’d like to see from those around you.
Sue Siddall, partner and European managing director of design and innovation firm IDEO

Creating a learning culture can be difficult, and requires the endorsement of senior leaders. Investing in broader transferable skills, such as management and digitals skills, is still a crucial part of future-proofing businesses. If organisations can look past teething problems with the Apprenticeship Levy, they will find that it supports the creation of a learning culture, benefitting employee retention, motivation and productivity across the board.
David Willett, corporate director, The Open University

As Managing Director, I think it is essential for the team can see me reading every day, experimenting with new ideas and sharing what I’m learning. My job is to inspire… and to push. Working in digital marketing, the industry is changing at a rapid rate, so it’s important we lead as well as keep up with current trends. And there is of course the heavy hand of appraisals, where demonstrable learning is a prerequisite to career progression here at Hallam.
Susan Hallam MBE, managing director of digital marketing agency Hallam

Role models matter

Clare Barclay, Microsoft COO

Microsoft research finds that less than a quarter of businesses are undertaking any form of major programme to change their workplace and organisational culture. This is a real concern; if organisations are to capitalise on this new era of digitalisation, it’s vital that employees understand the value that automation can bring and how it can free them of repetitive tasks to focus on more creatively-charged activities.

At Microsoft UK we have role models across the organisation who engage people by demonstrating the tangible benefits of digital transformation in the workplace, which speaks much louder to our employees than words ever can.
Clare Barclay, chief operating officer, Microsoft UK

“The world won’t stop for you”

As hard as it can be to accept it, change is the best teacher. One big change we will all be facing soon is artificial intelligence - this will have an enormous, disruptive impact in nearly all aspects of work. While the prospect of change on this scale can be daunting, it can also be an opportunity to change yourself for the better. In your work, you could look to embrace automation, and in doing so expand the judgement-based, human interaction-dependent and creative components of your job. The world is speeding up, and it certainly won’t stop for you.
Vinod Kumar, chief executive, Tata Communications

Employees will need to work alongside technologies like AI, and should expect to change jobs and even careers multiple times throughout their lives. The ability to adapt will be critical. Businesses should begin to adopt an agile learning culture today, promoting the value of ongoing learning at work and encouraging workers to gain new skills. Business leaders and HR teams should work to develop a forward-looking workforce strategy anticipating the needs of the near future.
Duncan Tait, corporate executive officer, senior executive vice president and head of Americas and EMEIA, Fujitsu

Inspire the team

We invite academics, tech luminaries, and others, to deliver inspiring TED Talks-style presentations. We want to raise awareness of digital technologies, methodologies and ways of working – looking at things from different angles. This has a business benefit and we’re seeing that, through these sessions, people are coming across new ideas and then bouncing these ideas off colleagues. Tangible business ideas are being taken forward.
Ella Jakubowska, digital innovation and culture manager, Rolls-Royce

Be prepared for failure - and learn from it

 As children, we learn from our experiences, and the strongest way of learning what is safe and what isn’t is often driven more from painful events rather than any warnings our parents give us. While we would like to think that we’ve become much more intelligent and logical over time, as adults we also tend to learn in the same way. The leader of an organisation has to not only give permission for their teams to fail, but also admit failures of his or her own, and demonstrate how the learnings from any failure have been used.
Carl Reader, business advisor and author of The Startup Coach

Professor Vikas Shah, University of Manchester

It’s important to realise that failure is just part of the normal course of operation for an organisation, and yet something which can be monitored, proactively minimised, and learned from. Most crucially, organisations need to create an environment where failure is not instantly punishable. Learning from one’s mistakes is important, but this has to be done as a team and an organisation, not just as an individual. Ironically, the “swinging axe” above any potential failure can increase stress levels to the point where people are so scared of making mistakes that they end up making mistakes.
Prof. Vikas Shah MBA, honorary professor of business at the University of Manchester and serial entrepreneur 

Having the appetite to learn is essential – especially in the tech industry

Rather than trying to teach everyone everything, we cultivate an environment in which employees have the headspace to learn what’s right for them, whatever their age or experience. This is especially pertinent in the technology sector, an industry that is moving at a million miles an hour. We encourage staff to use new technology, always ask questions, take risks and perhaps most importantly, not be afraid to show vulnerability.
Anne Allen, director of People Experience at online accounting software company Xero

Kirstie Donnelly, City & Guilds

First, get comfortable with not everything being about the bottom line, all the time. It’s a tough message – particularly in uncertain times, when training is liable to being deprioritised. But when devising a development plan, we simply cannot be governed solely by numbers.

Secondly, get comfortable with being surrounded by employees who are better than you. The characteristics of organisations who have achieved a good learning culture are remarkably similar. Authentic leaders will drive it, both by encouraging others and making sure that they themselves are continually learning – and are seen to be doing so. They’ll take risks, demonstrating their commitment to the cause by investing in new technology that enables the most effective learning. And ultimately, they won’t call time on learning; it’s a continued cycle of learning to learn as well as learning to improve.
Kirstie Donnelly, MBE, managing director at the City & Guilds Group, responsible for the City & Guilds, ILM and DigitalMe brands operating globally

No employee left behind

There are two types of employees: those that are driven and take the initiative to learn new skills themselves; and those that are happy enough as they are or don’t think they have enough time. You need to ensure that your learning culture caters for both camps. Each employee should have a yearly allocated training budget and line managers should help and encourage employees to use it.
Jonathan Richards, chief executive at breatheHR

Create the right learning environment

 Make your employees forget they’re learning. By creating an immersive environment that stimulates true learning and conditioning – one that accepts “failure” as part of the learning process – employees will naturally be part of a learning culture. For example, telling someone not to click on a suspicious link in an email is unlikely to be effective if they can’t identify what is suspicious in the first place. Instead, by gamifying the learning process and creating simulations designed to change user behaviour and empower change through reporting, employees become much more skilled at recognising genuine malicious activity and buying into becoming a part of the solution.
John “Lex” Robinson, anti-phishing and cybersecurity strategist at PhishMe

Help employees learn from across the firm

 Allow every employee to have full access to the company, so they are not “boxed in” to their role or department, and therefore can learn from the rest of the company.

Our 700 employees are invited to board meetings, allowing employees at any level to get an “all access pass” to the rest of the company and see how the board operates, along with how and why big decisions are made. At the board meetings, no topics are off the table – and people do ask uncomfortable questions. This expands all our thinking, it improves each individual’s skills and makes everyone a better leader.
Bipul Sinha, chief executive at cloud data management company Rubrik

“No idea is too weird for us”

 We tend to hire a lot of interns with a view to bringing them on full time and we like them to grow and develop quickly by giving them autonomy and their own projects. This ensures that they work hard, learn quickly, and want to prove themselves, so are always thinking outside the box.

Another thing which feeds into our learning culture is our flat hierarchy and how we get teams to work together. People aren’t scared of getting it wrong and that means they are more likely to try out new ideas and learn from their mistakes. No idea is too weird for us – and we want everyone to be part of the conversation.
Simon Douglass, chief executive and founder, Curated Digital