How to Prepare Your Employees for the Future by Building a Learning Culture Now

Start first by abandoning static training systems in favor of a culture of continuous, individualized learning that encourages people to admit what they don’t know—a culture that fosters and rewards intellectual curiosity.

Fast-moving technology changes are driving big shifts in the way everyone works and learns. To keep up in an age of artificial intelligence and robots in the workplace, workers must constantly learn new skills. New roles are emerging that we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Tesla and Uber are looking for “automotive occupant engineers.” Amazon needs “culinary product developers.” In PwC’s 21st annual survey, 78 percent of CEOs said they are concerned about availability of key skills.

It’s clear that automation is a critical disruptive force. By 2020, $150 billion will be spent on AI —$83 billion for robots, $70 billion for AI-based systems. Organizations will fall behind—and quickly—if they’re just trying to backfill today’s staffing needs.

And it’s not just robots and automation. A new report from Institute for the Future, in partnership with Cornerstone OnDemand, highlighted capabilities that modern workers need to navigate in the new skills-based economy. Social and managerial skills, in additional to new digital proficiency skills, will have tremendous impact on how we work with each other and with machines.

For employees, learning how to learn must be the new mindset. For leaders, fostering a culture with learning and skills development at the core will grant strength and adaptability to meet whatever challenge comes next.

To prepare employees for the future, start first with abandoning static training systems in favor of a culture of continuous, individualized learning that encourages people to admit what they don’t know—a culture that fosters and rewards intellectual curiosity. Empowering employees to take control of their career development and learning can and should be a natural part of their daily workflow. Here are four key ways to institute a culture of learning in your organization:

1. Drive learning from the top down.

Creating a learning culture should be a communal effort—and one that starts from the top. The actions, values, and language of company leaders shape how everyone in an organization operates and can make or break a learning program. I tell company leaders to “be the professor” in their organizations. As an executive, you’ve worked hard, you’ve failed, you’ve learned lessons—sharing that journey can forge stronger relationships, build trust, and encourage resilience.

It’s also important for leaders to welcome knowledge themselves. The CEO and other C-suite executives should take time for internal workshops—demonstrating by example that taking risks and stretching yourself is valuable. If you show your investment as a company leader, both personally and through commitment to training programming, you’ll create an organization where employees naturally seek and share knowledge.

2. Encourage inside-out development.

Creating a company culture that encourages employees to develop new skills doesn’t just involve bringing in outside experts—it requires tapping into the existing knowledge and expertise of employees. This inside-out approach encourages employees to teach one another. Success results from being flexible, starting slow and, above all, making learning and teaching fun. To make sure there are opportunities for everyone, create strands based around a diverse range of opportunities.

The C-suite, for example, can offer Leadership Lessons where executives have informal conversations with employees. Skill Sessions delivered by employees could include anything from how to use Photoshop to how to use Python programming language—fostering a sharing culture that encourages everyone to sharpen tech skills. For fun, try classes such as cake pop making, wine tasting, or meditation—chances are someone on one of your teams is an expert in something. At my company, those experimental just-for-fun classes morphed into opportunities for people to de-stress at work, get to know other employees, and build community. Understanding that expertise resides in every corner of an organization is an incredibly empowering concept as part of a learning culture.

3. Curate the right curriculum.

The biggest challenge facing your employees isn’t finding information for learning new skills, but finding quality information. In our personal lives, we consume information by listening to podcasts or subscribing to newsletters. Learning at work should be no different.

A learning management system (LMS) or program with built-in curated content may be a larger upfront cost, but the ability to handpick training content from existing curricula will save you time and money in the long run. There are also plenty of free resources to tap online: Lecture series such as TED Talks feature experts on workplace dynamics, leadership, and more, and industry-specific publications offer insightful commentary and research. It’s important to provide employees with a starting point.

4. Celebrate and reward employees.

Digital technology enables employees to access information anytime, anywhere to get jobs done. But access doesn’t always equal “learning.” A culture of learning is one in which every person is dedicated to improving themselves and others. It’s important to share, welcome, and celebrate knowledge.

 “Gamifying” learning through leaderboards and badges is a popular and highly social way of giving employees and teams credit for all they do—whether progress against a goal, collaborating on a cross-functional team, or diving into self-directed learning. Consider creating an achievement board on a company intranet or education site that showcases performance successes. This creates positive support for the education process and correlates learning to performance successes.

To thrive and prepare for what’s ahead, organizations must evolve into a dynamic, learning-driven culture. The one piece of advice I’ve always shared with fellow executives: Never, never institute training for the sake of training. Train because lifelong learning and skills development is the right approach for your organization and your people.

Jeff Miller, Ph.D., is the associate vice president of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness at Cornerstone OnDemand, where he oversees employee engagement and motivation, learning and development, tech enablement, career mobility, and the company’s executive leadership development program. Prior to Cornerstone, Miller led training and development for Anna’s Linens and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. He also worked in education for 25 years as a tenured professor of educational psychology, an academic director for Santa Monica College, an owner of a consulting firm that helped struggling urban schools, and a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Miller has a B.A. in Communications from the University of Southern California, an M.A. in Education from Pepperdine University, and a Ph.D. in Motivation and Learning from the University of Southern California. He is also a published author of two books on motivating adolescents, as well as several articles on workplace trends and corporate learning strategies.


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