How To Create A World-Class Learning Organization

By Jovana , Consultant

In a recent talk by FastCompany Co-Founder Bill Taylor, he posed a provocative question to the audience:


“Are you learning as quickly as the world is changing?”


Without a doubt, organizations are realizing that learning is a race against the clock. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2020, 35% of the must-have skills for the workforce will be different than they are today . This means that keeping your people trained and up to date on future workplace trends is only going to become more challenging.


In addition, we are seeing a huge change in the generational makeup of our workforce, which has profound implications for our learning. Baby Boomers will be retiring in large numbers every year from now on, and with them leaves a huge amount of institutional knowledge that organizations are scrambling to pass on and retain. Millennials and Gen Z will be 60% of the workforce by 2020 , and they place a high value on an employer that can develop them for the future and incorporate more sophisticated workplace learning cultures and learning technologies into their every-day work (Future Workplace Research, 2016).


The fact remains that even without the upcoming Baby Boomer retirement, most organizations can’t learn as quickly as the world is changing  because most of the knowledge about resources, processes, and best practices is in people’s heads or in their email inbox.


So what would a world-class learning organization look like? How can organizations start developing a learning culture of their own? 


The good news is that the future of learning and the practices needed to become a world-class workplace learning culture are clear and well established.


The Foundation: A Culture of Learning


The foundation of any world-class learning organization is an embedded workplace learning culture. No amount of scheduled trainings or sophisticated social learning systems can help an organization start building a learning culture that does not already reflect this embedded workplace learning culture. This means that, as a whole, the organization recognizes and values growth as well as excellence, and supports people in being self-directed in their learning.


An organization with a workplace learning culture is the kind of place where leaders can openly share their mistakes and what they learned from them. It is a place where performance reviews are not just once a year, but rather just one component of a continuous conversation around development. Without a culture of learning, nothing else can happen. Excellent training programs will not be applied to the daily work, and the organization is left without a way to sustain the dialogue after meaningful learning experiences. Put simply, if it is a mistake-averse and siloed organization where people feel their ticket to success is hoarding knowledge, nothing else will help. If you want to build a learning organization, you need to focus on this component first.


Aside from building a learning organization, your company needs the right training for your workforce. Experts are referring to the future of learning as bifurcated learning, meaning learning will have two forms. The first is the already-familiar approach of in person, scheduled trainings. The second category of learning will be on-demand, socially-enabled virtual learning and resources. Some of the on-demand learning will be micro-learning and materials to complement the in-person workshops, while the rest of it will be crowdsourced from your organization and constantly updated by your entire workforce.


High-Quality Trainings Build a Buzz Around Learning


When it comes to in-person trainings, there is no doubt these experiences are important and will still comprise around 20-30% of the learning approach of most organizations when building a learning culture. Best-in-class training programs are level-appropriate, interactive, and experiential. Increasingly, companies also want to ensure that training programs are designed to facilitate relationship-building, not just learning. As more and more of the workforce is virtual and globally dispersed, in-person training programs are sometimes a rare opportunity for face time that the organization needs to leverage. Skill-building remains the primary goal, but emotionally impactful training experiences are the new standard in building a learning organization.


Finding the right in-person trainings can have a profound effect when it comes to transforming into a world-class workplace learning culture . As soon as the “buzz” around the initiative changes and people realize the training is targeted and actionable, your entire workforce will make developing a learning culture a greater priority. The reality is that most people are eager for high-quality training, but are often disappointed by the training content that is actually delivered. If you can change the reputation of your training programs, the word will spread and your organization will become known for how it approaches learning.


On-Demand Social Learning Keeps You Agile


The final component of becoming a world-class workplace learning culture is the most difficult to master, embed, and champion. On-demand learning is the way of the future, but it requires the entire workforce to generate and curate knowledge as a part of their daily routines in order to continue developing a learning culture. Many companies attempted to create this through their LMS system, and were disappointed by the results. The future of on-demand learning goes beyond an LMS—it means finding a system that is as easy to use as Facebook, and that encourages and rewards people for sharing expertise and educating others. As difficult as it may be to find and embed a system that encourages workplace learning cultures like this, it is the only way to get more information out of emails and people’s brains and into a place where everyone can leverage it.


When developing a learning culture, there are many things to be learned from companies that have successfully incorporated a social-learning system. GE uses BrilliantYou, a platform where people can answer each other’s questions, and write posts and articles to share insights. The platform also houses micro-learning and e-learning assets and can even recommend new assets for you to review as it learns what you are trying to learn! This ability to curate a vast amount of content and create tailored suggestions means that employees can find what they need quickly, and do not have to search through a sea of options. Carefully curated content should be an absolute requirement for all organizations with workplace learning cultures searching for a system to house on-demand learning. With an intuitive interface and leadership support, GE was able to create a platform that ensures everyone can maintain learning inside—and outside—the classroom.


Aside from making sure the platform is as easy to use as Facebook, the most important thing organizations can do when developing a learning culture is find a way to recognize the benefits of this platform. Some platforms are gamified and allow for the system to tally “leaderboards” so that top contributors can be recognized. Everyone knows that only what is measured is rewarded, and the best-in class workplace learning cultures tie continual learning to performance reviews and to compensation. The expectation should be that everyone contributes and shares knowledge from their area of expertise so that the workforce has the best information possible even as the market changes rapidly.


Yes, You Can Learn as Rapidly as the World is Changing


When companies talk about what it would take to start developing a learning culture in order to become a truly world-class learning organization, the subject of technology comes up and considerations around cost and usage will derail the conversation. There is no question that finding and embedding a social learning system is extremely difficult. However, once your organization has a culture of learning and top-notch training programs, the natural next step will be to find ways to sustain the conversation and share expertise via in-demand content.


Learning is not an isolated event, it is fostered and encouraged (or discouraged!) by every other aspect of the organization when developing a learning culture . It is possible for organizations to learn as quickly as the world is changing, and leaders have to be confident in painting a picture of the future of learning and in supporting the high-tech and low-tech components of the future landscape.