A CEO’s strategic guide to fostering a learning culture

Investing in digital upskilling is vital for organisations to survive and thrive in the modern age, but how can leaders create a culture that encourages and rewards learning?

The future of work depends upon our ability to successfully develop, upgrade and grow the skills of our people. Don’t believe me? Ask the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which says that 1 billion people – nearly a third of our global workforce – will need to be reskilled by 2030 to meet the demands of digital transformation. 

Or listen to the experts at the World Economic Forum, who predicted that 133 million new jobs would be created by 2022 to meet the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with a raft of data analysts, machine learning specialists and software developers required to keep businesses evolving. 

Crucially, both these claims came before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, further transforming our working processes and speeding up the pace of digital transformation even further. While employees engage in the ‘great resignation’ by finding employers better suited to their needs, business leaders are engaged in the ‘great reshuffle’, desperately moving talent around to fit the skills gaps in their organisations. 

Start simply

Amongst this chaos, it can be hard for talent leaders to know how to create the skills they need in their organisation and foster a learning culture that rewards and engages employees. So what are the starting points?

Begin by providing people with the right resources and space to adapt to the changing needs of their jobs at their own pace, rather than forcing learning on them. This can be a simple checklist or a step-by-step guide to a new procedure. If you decide to introduce more formal learning, start by analysing your audience to understand what is driving their learning, otherwise you risk designing ineffective programmes. 

Focus on the social, experiential and practical elements of learning, rather than simply conveying information, says Nick Shackleton-Jones, HR director, learning at Deloitte UK. 

“Since COVID, the pointlessness of sitting people in a hotel room to look through PowerPoint slides has been magnified. Learning events have to be worthwhile and give employees the chance to get together and network. They want an experience that is fun and a sense of accomplishment or progression, such as a certificate of achievement,” says Shackleton-Jones.

In our new hybrid working world, this doesn’t have to be in person. Many digital learning platforms now offer interactive elements such as gamification, the chance to communicate and collaborate with other learners, and certified credentials.

Breaking learning into levels

Knowing that you want to create a positive learning experience and actually doing so are two very different things. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Professionalising Learning and Development report found that although 98% of L&D professionals wanted to develop a positive learning culture, only 36% had actually achieved it. 

According to the CIPD, doing so requires breaking down learning into three categories: organisational, team and individual. 

At an organisational level, businesses need to define how learning links to strategic imperatives, before setting out a clear vision and strategy for achieving this, taking into account employee feedback and analysis of existing systems. 

The team level is where social learning can take place. This is where managers need to build in time and support to allow employees to build or update skills, reflecting the importance of learning to the entire organisation’s development. It’s also where feedback and debate can help to create a culture of continuous improvement, as employees feed off each others’ experience. 

Finally, the individual level is where employees apply and experiment with their learning. Employers can provide different types of learning to widen the appeal of training and emphasise personal development. It’s also where mindset comes in, with the need to encourage employees to adopt a positive attitude to change and reskilling. 

Learning as collaboration

Rebecca Robins is global chief learning and culture officer at brand consultancy Interbrand. She believes that the pandemic has shown executives the importance of learning in bringing employees together and building rapport – that team level engagement that has been missing through remote work.

“Learning has needed to be ever more adaptable and agile through the pandemic and has played a crucial role in bringing people together, particularly through social learning. Creative Fridays are something we experimented with in the early weeks of the pandemic and have now become a much-loved ritual and destination for social learning and community,” she says. 

However, as employees move to a more hybrid way of working, Robins believes that learning programmes will need to evolve again, with more value placed on different learning styles. Interbrand will continue to use micro-learning platforms and gamification tools, but will again look to in-person experiences and programmes to make its learning as accessible as possible. What won’t change is the organisation’s desire to bring people together when learning. 

“At Interbrand, we made a commitment to emerge from the pandemic more collaborative, more co-creative and more connected. As part of that ambition, we established a collaboration network – a cadre of people across disciplines, offices and neurodiverse backgrounds who act as a rapid test and learn for training programmes and who then train the trainers within their local offices,” says Robins. 

Making the time

While collaborative and social learning are key components of getting employee buy-in when creating a learning culture, there is one non-negotiable element that all companies need to get right if they are to encourage employees to spend valuable time learning – and managers to provide the space for them to do it. Leadership teams need to embody the learning culture they’re trying to create. 

“Leaders are the key when it comes to influencing learning culture. They need to talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to learning,” says Shackleton-Jones. 

“Executives need to talk about learning on a daily basis, whether that’s starting meetings with learning moments, talking about what people have learned in one-to-ones or sharing their own learning so that people can see their leaders are learners too,” he adds. 

At a time of high stress and uncertainty for a business, it can be easy to let learning and skills development slide in the face of high turnover, workloads and change. However, with the need to build skills for the future and attract and retain talent, creating a learning culture should be a key component of any organisation’s strategy.