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How to Foster a Learning Culture among Employees

In 2013, SilkRoad, a cloud-based talent management solutions provider, asked 2,200 global clients, “What are the best mechanisms to foster employee engagement?” Not surprisingly, four of the top seven answers pertained to career development and learning opportunities. The power of career development, learning, and growth opportunities in improving engagement was also confirmed in the Dale Carnegie research.

It's quite simple: If you help your employees develop their skills by offering them learning opportunities, you'll increase employee engagement. Employees become engaged when they see a line of sight between where their career is today and where it's going. Managers who help employees get there will see a spike in the engagement of those being developed.

There's an old training adage that perhaps says it best:

Non-enlightened manager: “If I train my employees, they might leave.”
Enlightened manager: “Would you rather not train them and have them stay?”

Managers who build a culture of learning understand that investing in employees today pays dividends tomorrow. A culture of learning can encompass many forms of education, including traditional classroom training and workshops, conferences and seminars, stretch assignments, job rotation, tuition reimbursement, internal transfers, and the growing trends of e-learning and web-based training.

Not only does a culture of learning improve employees’ skills, but it also increases their engagement. Think back to your favorite job. Did you love it because you had a great boss? Possibly. Was it because you adored your colleagues? Maybe.

Or was it because you weren't bored? Probably. The fact is, it's impossible for employees who are bored in their jobs, who feel they aren't advancing, or who aren't learning new skills to maintain high levels of engagement.

Organizations that invest in creating a learning culture are more likely to sustain high engagement. There is a reason General Electric has been a market leader for more than a hundred years: It invests millions of dollars in its various training and development initiatives.

It isn't surprising that GE was again listed by Fortune as one of the “World's Most Admired Companies” in 2012, or by Chief Executive as one of the “Best Companies for Leaders” the same year.

In creating a culture of learning, it helps to assess the following:

  • Are employees challenged in their day-to-day work? What would provide more challenge? In some occupations, continually thinking of new ways to challenge the troops is a constant struggle.

    Managers who oversee call centers or manufacturing environments often wrestle with challenging their employees. These managers need to introduce job rotation, incentives for process improvements, and task team involvement to minimize the boredom that often comes with these types of positions.

    Job rotation is particularly critical for Millennials, who are especially prone to changing jobs. If they're going to quit sooner rather than later anyway, why not let them “quit” but stay in the company? Job rotation allows them to do just that.

  • Are employees receiving the right amount of training? To find out, conduct stay interviews. Employee engagement surveys are another great way to gauge how your employees perceive their development — especially if you benchmark your results against others in your industry.

    If you see that your competitors are investing more in the development of their people, that's a strong indication that they may be doing a better job than your firm of building their workforce of tomorrow.

  • Where do you see your employees in two to three years? What about in three to five years? These questions are simple, yet powerful. Ambition is a competency that you should measure. Managers can often gauge their employees’ level of ambition and whether they're being challenged in their current roles by asking these forward-looking questions.

    Note, however, that some employees don't seek or need new challenges and opportunities in order to be engaged. These employees find enrichment in their current job, see no need to change, and have no hunger to take on new challenges.

    A perfect example is an enthusiastic and helpful receptionist who, despite 25 years on the job, is always engaged. This person is fulfilled by meeting new people, helping them as best she can, and being the “first face” of the company!

  • What nomenclature are you using to describe training in your organization? Companies should swap the phrase training and development for the simpler learning to better describe the way employees develop in today's workplace.

  • Who else should employees be learning from within the organization? Companies should communicate to all employees who their internal functional, technical, market, customer, and/or geographical experts are, and encourage those smarty-pants to host “lunch and learn” events. (“If you feed them, they will come” is a popular training adage that always holds true. Springing for pizza is a sure-fire way to increase attendance.)

  • Would a certain employee be a candidate for a company committee or task team? Is there a national or international initiative in which an employee is interested in participating? As I've said, a great by-product of employee engagement is discretionary effort. Inviting employees to join internal task teams and/or committees is a great way to tap into this discretionary effort to solve a company problem or launch a new initiative.

Avoid appointing or assigning people to committees. Instead, have them volunteer. An employee is far more likely to be engaged in a committee if he really cares about the committee's charter.

Also, avoid inviting the same people (a.k.a., your very best employees) to join every committee. If you do, you risk committee fatigue, which will tax their engagement. Chances are, they're already your busiest employees, and they may not positively perceive their nomination to your committee!

That said, when seeking volunteers, do validate their capabilities by having their boss endorse their nomination. Nothing is more deflating for a committee than having fellow committee members be fired for performance issues or quit the company before their committee tenure is up.

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