How to build a culture of learning for employee engagement

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

By Kevan Hall, below, CEO of Global Integration

Learning is an important element of employee engagement and business performance; it helps people improve their capabilities and take on more challenges, it enables them cope with change and be more productive.

It’s also an imperative for individuals. Lifelong learning and seeking proficiency are powerful drivers of self-esteem and engagement. Without the capacity and motivation to learn it’s hard to navigate life changes and to have a fulfilling life and career. Most of us spend about 40% of our waking hours for around 40 years at work, so learning at work is a major element of lifetime learning. However, a study of EU adults aged 24-64 found that only had participated in “lifelong learning” in the last 12 months.

We are in an environment of rapid technology-driven change, the impact of AI being a major example. In this environment, failure to learn for individuals and organisations is a sure path towards obsolescence. So how do we systematically build a culture of learning to enable people to develop and to improve employee engagement and performance.

Share the accountability

Learning isn’t something you can do to your people. As leaders we can create an environment that encourages it but we can’t force people to learn so an important part of building a culture of lifelong learning is to set the expectation that it is a joint accountability.

In business we should “expect what we inspect”, If we don’t measure it, track it and reward it, it tends not to happen.

Does learning sit in your goals, key metrics and rewards? Should learning certain skills or techniques be a precondition for promotion?

Stimulate curiosity

Staying curious is key to initiating learning. As we age, inquisitiveness tends to fade; our ability to learn does not. Curiosity is often sparked by uncertainty or novelty. We tend not to be curious about topics we have not been exposed to already, so stimulating our curiosity usually means looking into new areas and trying new things.

Expose your people to the technology and other trends that are going on around them in your industry and organisation, encourage them to visit other companies on to explore new areas of interest.

When I was a manufacturing director, I used to pay for a minibus for shift workers to visit other companies on their days off. It was often a brewery they wanted to visit, but the deal was that I would pay for the minibus (not the beer or their time), provided they brought back one good idea they had seen in the other organisation that we could apply in our factory.

What do you want your people to be curious about, and how can you create that initial curiosity?

However, momentary curiosity is not enough. Things do not become interesting until we allocate time and attention to them. If we do not start to find out something more about it, we will forget about it – curiosity wanes without action.  So get your people to set a learning goal and allocate some time to pursuing it.

Be active – curate the experience

Many organisations today have invested heavily in e-learning resources or access to huge libraries of online training courses. They then make these available on their learning management systems (LMS) and feel their job is done because now the learning is “available”.

I found in my career that there are 10% of people who will develop themselves no matter if you tried to stop them, there are another 10% who will not develop whatever you do. The skill is in motivating and directing the 80% who need a little help.

“Making learning available” is not enough in itself. People are not experts in what they need to learn or in how to learn effectively. We need to offer curated learning paths that people can follow to develop a skill that’s needed in the business.

At the same time, we should encourage people to go broad. One of the companies I used to work for would subsidise individuals on any learning they chose to pursue from pottery to electronics, on the basis that keeping people in the habit of learning was the important thing.

If we have formal learning available, we should be expecting people to do self-development around it.

In my factory the most popular learning experience was an opportunity to be assigned to maintenance for 12 months to learn new skills. There was always a waiting list of people criticising us for not providing more opportunity, and it was a major investment on our part.

I learned that there were many self-development modules available in our learning centre and online catalogue that gave the foundational parts of these skills, from pneumatics to aspects of programming. I also learned that almost nobody ever used them.

I made getting a maintenance assignment conditional upon having completed these self-development modules. It meant the assignment could assume higher levels of skills and be more effective and it got individuals to commit to learning.

When I was asked why I did it I replied, “why would I invest in your learning if you’re not prepared to invest in your own?”

Involve line managers in embedding the learning

Nearly all the value of learning is in the application, and the single biggest thing we can do to encourage application of learning is to get line managers to sit down with the learner after their experience and ask them what they’ve learned and what they’re going to do differently as a result.

This also means we get more value out of the learning investment as people are more likely to embed the learning and do something different.

If it is new information or a new skill that would be valuable to other colleagues,  getting the individual to train others is a great step in deepening their own understanding of the subject. You never understand something so well as when you have to explain it to someone else.

As senior leaders we need to model that we are learning too, and that we pay attention to the learning of others. Bob Galvin who was CEO of Motorola famously used to ask two questions at the end of any presentations he received “what did we learn, and who needs to know”. You can imagine what the last two slides of every presentation he received would focus on.

Building a culture of lifelong learning is a win win for individuals and organisations, but as with anything worthwhile in business it takes time and effort to create the culture and to encourage people to pursue their own self development. The expectations we set as leaders are critical to this process.

Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration and author of Find Your Purpose: Redesign your life and career. Global Integration offer programs to help people understand their purpose and meaning at work, own their own engagement, and help them connect their organization’s purpose and values


SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024