If you ask them, many organizations will readily say they support and encourage learning as a priority–sometimes even as one of their core values. But, the reality can be different, despite employees, particularly millennials, communicating their clear preference for employers who give them lots of opportunities to learn and grow.

Too many companies pay lip service to learning and development (L&D) and consider it “nice to have,” rather than a business imperative. They’re mired in dated misconceptions about employee development or they base their assessments on clunky, old-school learning management systems. They may even be scared to invest in educating employees, who could turn around and find new jobs.

But, the benefits of a learning culture are real, especially as the modern workplace demands continuous learning to keep up with ever-changing business needs and technologies. Learning-driven organizations tend to be more efficient, create more customer value and market leadership, and report higher customer satisfaction too, according to Bersin & Associates’ “High-Impact Learning Culture” report.

Recognizing the value of a thriving learning culture is the first step. But, how can companies, especially those without a dedicated L&D team, put that idea in motion?

Build the framework

Whether you’re in L&D or you’re leading HR or another business function, start by connecting with employees and teams to understand who they are, what they struggle with and what they aspire to. Make it clear you’re there to help them succeed, not to give orders.

Employees have to trust that the organization has their best interests in mind, so you need to make it clear that employees are in the driver’s seat of their learning and development. Nothing drains enthusiasm like the words “mandatory training.” You also need to facilitate a safe environment where employees can admit where they need more training, even when skills relate to their current job function.

Group learning, mentoring and blended learning are just a few approaches, and none is “better” than the others. The secret is not to treat all learning needs and students the same. Let them tell you what they want and shape your programs from there, not the other way around. This may be a radical reversal of how you’ve thought about learning, but it’s the only way learning becomes an integral part of your culture.

Make it flexible

No one knows better than front-line workers what skills and knowledge they need to bone up on, and learning is most effective when it can be applied right at the moment of need–something L&D can’t keep a pulse on from their corner of the organization. But, L&D can be there to make sure employees get what they need when they need it.

At PayPal, a Udemy for Business customer, the L&D team used to send out surveys asking employees what training they needed. But, learning needs can change fast, and learning content has to keep up. PayPal employees now “shop” a curated collection of courses to find what they want. Often these are technical course topics a chief learning officer wouldn’t know about and couldn’t have proactively identified as a learning need.

Self-service course libraries can go a long way in getting employees to live out the value of a learning culture. When people can choose what, when and from whom they learn, they’re more likely to stick with it and recommend the experience to others.

Variety is the spice of life

It’s also important to feed people’s curiosity and go beyond technical, hard skills used on the job. At my company, for example, we schedule monthly DEAL hours (Drop Everything and Learn), host learning fairs, get together for deep discussions during “learning jams,” and have “lunch and learns,” all of which allow our learners to access various kinds of learning at different times.

And when L&D does hold instructor-led training? It’s important to set the tone from the start. Any messaging I send to participants is carefully crafted to be both positive and informative. I apply marketing techniques to promote upcoming sessions and get people excited to attend. I like to play music as people arrive to get them energized and set the mood. I also strongly recommend infusing your training sessions with fun and personality to get people engaged. I work relevant humor and clever jokes into my content and try to leverage cool technology like virtual reality to add interest. But, all this has to be authentic, not forced.

And you should participate, too! Show you’re excited to learn along with the group. Be honest about your own experiences and weaknesses; it’s not your job to know all the answers, but instead to facilitate the learning. So, admit to your own struggles and show you’re invested in improving by embracing continuous learning for yourself.

Walk the talk

I like to say companies need to “learn by example,” meaning the behavior has to start at the top. From the CEO down, leadership has to communicate that learning is a fundamental value and a worthy use of company time. They should demonstrate an awareness that we all have more to learn and it’s okay to say so.

You can’t foster a learning culture when it’s not safe to raise your hand and ask for help or when others don’t view learning as “real work.”

A learning culture doesn’t mean serving up tons of training content. In fact, a culture where L&D creates and assigns training unilaterally is just the opposite. Let go, trust your team, and prepare to be amazed at what happens when people are empowered to drive their own learning and development.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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