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Learning to survive: building a culture of learning at SME's

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

When you’re working for a global company, chances are, you have access to a sophisticated and rather complete library of digital learning content. More often than not, this online learning is paired with live workshops and one-on-one coaching opportunities. A recent McKinsey survey shows that 90% of companies “either face skill gaps already or expect gaps to develop within the next five years”. 30% of these have begun hiring for relevant human skills and technology skills, but this is only the start.

But what about regional, mid-sized companies that are realizing now, through the pandemic, through a lack in skilled labour, that a shift in the companies learning mindset is needed to achieve strategic company goals?

If you’re in Human Resources or have just joined as a new CEO wanting to bring about that shift in mindset, here are a few best practices I’d like to share.

Learning starts at the top

In the absence of a learning culture, employees worry that learning at their desk or building up too many learning hours makes them look bad. Does it create the perception that I am not busy enough? Or even worse, does it expose my skill gaps?

A learning culture starts at the top. Starting with the CEO, each department head should speak about the importance of learning actively. New courses should be sent around to teams by their managers and leaders should share what courses they’ve recently enrolled in and why.

Tie learning goals to individual development, not time

Some companies try to reinforce a learning cúlture by creating goals around time spent learning. It’s all too easy, however, to skim through online course material without being truly engaged in it, plus the neuroscience of learning shows that we retain knowledge better if we’ve selected the topic ourselves.

Your better choice is to tie learning goals to individual performance management. Rather than putting out a general offering for your leaners, ask people as part of their performance review processes what they think their learning & development plan should entail over the next 12 months. This creates an ongoing conversation around how you’re doing against your learning plan and embeds it into your culture.

Create a positive learning psychology

Leadership should be open to colleague’s ideas, suggestions and feedback. If employee’s attitude through past experience is that “noone will listen” or that “nothing will happen anyways…”, a learning culture will not anchor.

Build learning transparency

By encouraging employees to share what skill they are motivated to build or improve, you also create channels for constructive feedback. Say a sales associate is working on improving their proposal e-mails and is copying their manager into the thread - the manager might respond with detailed, useful suggestions. That’s how learning happens a lot faster.

Focus on learning retention

Training in some teams has a negative reputation. What behaviour shift is really going to come about by my team sitting in a two day workshop?

Well, that depends on how the learning journey is designed and how key takeaways are being reinforced by managers and leaders. Hybrid programs with live, interactive elements combined with digital learning are best. Also, there is a lot you can do, even in small companies, to ensure that what is learned is being retained:

  • Learning through social interactions: create learning buddies at work or during a live training and invite each buddy to explain their take-aways in their own words. By reflecting on what we have learned, we also memorize it.

  • Learning Ambassadors: each team or department in your company should have learning ambassador. They keep the conversation about learned practices alive by bringing knowledge snippets to each team meeting or distributing articles on a topic of focus.

  • Learning app: today's employees like learning on the go. They want to choose when they learn and thrive when being given "learning snippets" in the form of micro-learning. Products like Iprendo or SmartUp are intuitive and interactive tools that are designed to help knowledge retention.

  • Learning Loop: ideally, once a month or so, schedule a “lessons learned” meeting. Each employee should feel comfortable to openly share what obstacles they face, but also what good practice or behaviour has led to success. Draw up lessons learned and you might have a great resource to inform you what topics need to be added to your learning library next!

In essence, setting goals, enlisting others, talking about what you’re learning and continuously getting feedback are core building blocks in creating an company that continuously learns and hence can be agile, resilient and innovative.

I’ve once had the good fortune to work in an organization that’s world renowned for investing into skill building. To me, the training I received helped me succeed at my job (generating revenue for the company), motivated me to stay with the organization and made me feel valued. It’s an investment worth making.


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