Care and Maintenance of Your Learning Culture
We have now established that learning cultures are living organisms populated by real humans. They need everyone’s participation and support, or they’ll stagnate. At the same time, learning cultures require freshness and renewed energy to avoid stagnancy. In other words, a learning culture is not a “set it and forget it” initiative:
■ There are always new employees cycling into your organization. Ideally, they’ve been hired because they have demonstrated learning agility and a growth mindset, and they’ve been introduced to your learning culture and their role in it during the onboarding process. L&D team members and managers need to keep an eye on newcomers to make sure they understand 186what learning is available to them and how important it is to stay actively learning.
■ Your existing employees may be having awesome learning experiences today, but they’ll need new inspiration and motivation over time. Even the best programs can become stale if they’re not revisited and updated. Your trainers and facilitators will tire of delivering the same thing indefinitely, too. Posttraining surveys and other feedback can help you identify opportunities for ongoing improvement and reinvention.
■ The most sought-after hard skills are always changing; today’s hot programming language is tomorrow’s obsolete code. Soft skills, such as leadership or problem solving, might seem like they would stay fairly consistent over time, but that’s not true either. As your organization grows, you may need different types of leadership, and as your business evolves, you will have to solve different kinds of problems. Your learning culture needs to adapt to these changes.
■ We’re seeing advances in technology all the time, from AI and machine learning to virtual reality and augmented reality. Those tools might not fit your learning culture today, but your team should stay abreast of the latest developments and be ready to act when a new technology emerges that can help you deliver learning content in more effective, engaging ways.
■ Remember Chapter 2? We are still learning about learning. I know that’s true of me as an L&D leader, but it’s also true of our entire industry. One of the coolest parts of attending so many industry events and conferences is getting to see how knowledge is shared among professionals. What one company has been doing for years might be a brand-new concept to a start-up. And our assumptions about brain science are always being refined (if not outright debunked).1 There’s always new insight into how we can get better in our jobs.
I hope this book has left you itching to get out there and implement new strategies and programs for launching and growing your organization’s learning culture. But before you put it back on the shelf, here’s some advice for the longer term.
You should be on the lookout for a few areas of caution as your learning culture gains steam. I love when people are so inspired by the work of the L&D team that they want more learning programs and content and start organically creating meaningful learning experiences on their own. To me, this is a hallmark of a true learning culture.
But keeping tabs on duplicative or misaligned initiatives is also important. Enthusiasm is a good thing . . . until it isn’t. When anyone and everyone is developing learning programs independently—for their specific teams, around a specific 188company initiative, in support of a new tool or process—it can occasionally add up to duplicated, misspent time and effort. It can lead to inconsistencies in how a program or initiative is perceived and delivered across the organization. It can make it hard to access the learning you need at the moment you need it. Many large organizations struggle with this challenge. And it can also undermine the principles and values upon which your learning culture is based.
Rather than play an endless and counterproductive game of whack-a-mole, you’ll need to establish a philosophy and strategy around supporting democratized learning activities. At the least, you need to stay visible and approachable. I know I’m repeating myself, but this is another situation where your early investment in relationship building will pay off. When people trust you and have seen how you add value to their work, they’ll be more likely to come to you with their ideas first—not to ask permission, necessarily, but to get your help and advice. Or they may be more likely to check and see if something already exists that could be used. Conversely, if your L&D team has a reputation for always saying no, pushing people to conform to process, standing in the way, or slowing them down, that has to be addressed first.
Most of the time, these employee-led initiatives are exciting, positive signals of your culture. But there are occasionally times when you’ll want to step in and get involved. For example, at Udemy, my team was working on a companywide interview training when I caught wind that a team was building its own workshop on this topic. This particular workshop was pretty significant to the company—we had huge growth 189plans for the coming year and knew we had to support the company in effective hiring. This other team was innocently working on the same problem because their department was feeling the same pain. Luckily we heard about the initiative early and were able to partner to make sure we were taking into account the recruiting team’s best practices.
But L&D does need to intervene in plenty of instances. I want to be clear that our job isn’t to police behavior, control others, or give permission but rather to ensure these activities are aligned with our strategic plans and priorities, don’t overlap with our own work, and make sense as part of our learning culture. You may even find that a “rogue” idea would be better if it were expanded more broadly around the organization, so it makes sense to get involved. The L&D team knows how to make these programs succeed.
I can almost guarantee where you’ll find lots of employee-led initiatives: in satellite locations. Especially if your company has L&D staff only at headquarters, you shouldn’t be surprised when people in other offices do their own thing. Your team needs to be thoughtful about communicating with remote workers or global offices. Consider making more frequent visits to their locations to strengthen those relationships. The fact is, it’s the L&D team’s responsibility to develop all employees regardless of their location, and I suggest approaching it in the spirit of partnership. That’s what we’ve done with Udemy’s workforce in Dublin, Ankara, Denver, and elsewhere. The best way to get yourself excluded from L&D discussions in those remote offices is to stifle everything they want to try.
Here’s an example of where L&D and employee groups can work together. Udemy’s Culture Crew is a group of employees who have volunteered to plan fun, engaging events and activities that support and promote our company culture. They had the idea of trying an internal mentorship program, something that was already on the L&D road map. We didn’t ask them to stop; we partnered with them to test it. We provided up-front guidance and advice and worked with the Culture Crew to lead a series of pilot workshops with employees. We’re using the results of this pilot to move mentorships into a companywide initiative. This was a win for everyone: the voice of the Culture Crew was heard and valued, and the L&D team got a jump start on work we would have done anyway.
Building Out Your Learning and Development Team’s Offerings and Services
One aspect of thinking like a marketer is keeping your content fresh. When things stay too much the same, we stop noticing them (like that bag of clothes I’ve been meaning to donate, which has been sitting by the front door for months and doesn’t even register with me anymore).
When thinking of opportunities to broaden your services, don’t be tempted to forge ahead with new content and changes without doing your strategy work. You need to keep your learners’ needs and interests as your guiding light. A good place to start, especially for newer L&D organizations, is the employee life cycle itself. Consider the arc that starts with recruiting. It’s hard to identify rigid career paths anymore, but we can still equip people with appropriate skills as they take on new responsibilities, move into management, embark on a different kind of project, or start working with a new team. That’s why we’re building a specific So, You Want to Be a Manager? workshop available to anyone. Our leadership content is targeted to people who’ve already risen through the ranks, those who still aspire to leadership, and others who may not even be sure what their options are. We’re doing this because, even if someone has stayed in the same role for a period of time without complaint, a conversation with L&D or a manager can reveal areas ripe for development, especially around soft skills.
Leadership development was an area PCL targeted when it looked at places its L&D culture needed to grow. “Originally, it was geared to the top 1 percent of the company—our highest performers and high potentials,” Mike Olsson explains. “Now, we have leadership development programs for all PCLers at all levels of the organization. And they are not cookie-cutter. They are big-time investments into creating an opportunity to help people be better leaders, better managers, better citizens, better parents and spouses.”
Sometimes the updates will be obvious: a new or revised course that captures the most recent iteration of the Python programming language or training around a new tool being deployed for product prototyping. You should also be culling your L&D programs regularly to remove any obsolete content so employees don’t use it unwittingly.
Soft skills, of course, are always in style, but employees will be at different stages of mastery. Leverage your relationships across the organization to keep abreast of where soft skills are too, umm, soft. You may find that what had been sufficiently addressed in a self-paced course now needs more hands-on facilitation and guidance. If your company is growing superfast or experiencing other big changes, a new needs assessment yearly or even more frequently is a good idea.
Speaking of growing head count, the size of your company could create different learning needs. Employees who came on board when you were a scrappy 30-person start-up might need extra support finding their purpose when head count numbers are in the hundreds or thousands. Growing companies often have to reorganize themselves at the department or team level, and that can be nerve-wracking. Managers need to be trained to lead people through transition periods. If you’re not already offering change management workshops, trainings, and role-playing, you should give it serious thought.
Maintaining Your Culture’s Health
Having solid, trusting relationships around the company is the best way to get honest feedback on how your L&D team and programs are doing. You know you’re doing it right when people come to you voluntarily to talk about a learning experience they’ve had—good or bad—and to share ideas about new training they would love to have available.
But many, perhaps most, employees aren’t going to approach you with unsolicited feedback. You need to go to them. At Udemy, we send out a survey after every workshop and webinar. Our online courses, too, have mechanisms for students to provide ratings and share comments. We look at all of this, regularly and with open minds. As much as I and my team know about instructional design and learning science, we never presume to know better than our students what works best for them, where they’re hitting challenges, what topics need deeper treatment, and so on.
I’m not saying we’re awesome just because we send out surveys. I get why surveys are denigrated as “smile sheets” if they’re only used to validate where we were right or did something good. I assure you, however, my L&D team really listens to feedback and strives to address people’s concerns and suggestions.
In fact, I credit my husband, Tom, for helping me instill a continuous improvement mindset in Udemy’s L&D team. Tom is a software engineer, and he taught me all about how he runs his teams by following an agile software development approach. The agile methodology is a collaborative and iterative process that encourages flexibility, which is no small matter in a fast-moving, always-changing workplace.
We don’t apply every aspect of the agile methodology to L&D, but some of its foundational concepts have been helpful to ensure we’re headed in the right direction and to maintain that forward momentum.
Specifically, I urge everyone to embrace the maxim that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” None of us is ever perfect. Better to accept it and move on rather than get bogged down while other projects languish on your to-do list. This can be frustrating for people who like to check things off and know they’re finished. With agile development, nothing is ever “final.” We are always improving, reinventing, and iterating—because conditions are always changing.
Another agile methodology concept that tends to get universal agreement is that quality is our brand. We constantly strive toward doing better. Because we’re in service to the organization, we’re committed to delivering experiences that satisfy our growing and changing workforce. What we’ve done before might have been suitable then, but it might not be right for today. And the L&D team does not decide alone whether we’ve hit our quality standards; it’s our learners.
I find it interesting that this attitude is reflected among the most successful instructors on the Udemy platform. Although many create online courses hoping to earn substantial revenue (and lots of them do), the most popular instructors are actually those who have a passion for their subject and an authentic desire to help others by sharing knowledge. They’re also the ones who are most engaged with their students by answering questions, giving extra advice, and making sure their content is up-to-date. Instructors who are mainly in it to enrich themselves, who think they can publish a course and then sit back and watch it grow, often come away dissatisfied.
To build and maintain a learning culture, your L&D team members had better love what they do and embrace constructive feedback on their performance. If you’ve started by defining your goals and key performance indicators, you can design surveys to surface exactly the type of information that will help you understand where you’re doing well and where opportunities for improvement exist.
Hiring for Agility and Growth Mindset
To maintain the integrity and strength of your learning culture, it’s important to evaluate potential new hires through a learning lens too. Basically, you want to be on the lookout for agile, adaptable learners who will add to your culture and who won’t be at odds with your expectations that all employees continuously learn and grow. Without a doubt, screening for potential and not simply reviewing a candidate’s past accomplishments can be difficult, but competency-based interviews are becoming more common in direct response to the upskilling imperative.
At PCL Construction, Mike Olsson told me, “We do look for lifelong learners but don’t really look for evidence of ‘education’ in the résumé. Instead, we focus on the candidate’s different experiences and exposures and specifically ask for examples of that.” By asking behavioral interview questions, PCL aims to identify those “who have had the right mindset, approach, and attitude that’s gotten them through a challenge and over an obstacle.”2 These types of hires are receptive to the learning culture that’s instilled when they join PCL and are eager to take part in the mentoring and career development that’s core to what the company is.
What are some good behavior interview questions that might help you spot an agile learner? I’m glad you asked because I keep a running list:
■ Tell me about a time when a project or idea didn’t work. What did you do? What did you learn?
■ What skills are you hoping to develop in this role?
■ What skills did you develop in your last role?
■ What do you see as your top skill, and how did you learn it?
■ Tell me about a time you took on a role or project you weren’t 100 percent prepared for. What did you do? How did you set yourself up for success?
■ What have you learned from your current teammates or manager?
■ Tell me about a time when you were given feedback you weren’t expecting. How did you handle it?
■ Tell me about a time when you successfully implemented feedback from others into your work.
As you can see, these questions don’t let the interviewee get away with recounting past events or skirting the issue of exactly how and what they contributed. You have to dig a layer or two deeper to get at the candidate’s mindset and attitude and determine how they react to setbacks as well as successes.
A Few Thoughts on How Diversity Fits In
I’m a firm believer that diversity initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum; they have to be woven into everything happening within an organization. Negative forces like unconscious bias can undermine work at any juncture, so mindfulness and sensitivity need to move to the fore at all times.
What does that mean in a learning culture? Of course, mindfulness and sensitivity mean delivering training around relevant topics, such as the aforementioned unconscious bias, as well as psychological safety (how managers can foster this in their teams), allyship (building relationships that promote an inclusive culture), and self-advocacy (helping people get comfortable speaking up and expressing their needs constructively).
Although I have previously written that it’s counterproductive to make training mandatory, DEI (diversity/equity/inclusiveness) is an area where I think all employees should be expected to complete the programs. On the tactical side, learning content and activities themselves need to reflect inclusive values. Instructional design should take into consideration a diversity of participants and not simply “obvious” demographics like race or gender. Think about the kinds of people you show in presentations or tell stories about. Have you included all kinds of people and not just those who mirror your workforce? Think about the format of your learning programs. Have you accommodated the needs of people with disabilities or who speak other languages or who are simply introverts who shy away from speaking up in a group setting? Are there any messages in the training, implied or explicit, that could alienate, offend, or disturb a learner? When these situations do arise, they’re rarely malicious, which is why I prioritized unconscious bias so deliberately at Udemy. Without that baseline awareness, your otherwise great training can fail to produce the desired outcome.
Finally, within the context of diversity and inclusiveness, I’ll return to something I brought up earlier in this book: democratizing learning by making it available to your entire workforce. I wish I could remember who said it, but I often think about a line I heard at a TED-Ed talk that went like this: “Access to education should be as available as access to an elevator.”
That’s an excellent note to end on. Maintaining the health of your learning culture is about expanding the importance and role of learning in your organization, not shrinking it. Anything you do as an L&D practitioner should start from a place of inclusion, empowerment, and service to the organization—the whole organization.
Companies aren’t static entities. They’re made up of living, breathing humans. Business can be unpredictable; people can be unpredictable. Grounding your culture in learning and development is the surest way to navigate through changes, whether they originate inside or outside the organization.