What serves as rocket fuel to your company's future success? While your initial response may be "profitability," if you dig deeper, there's an even more intuitive answer. That answer is "learning."

To quote Dr. Arie de Geus, the former head of strategic planning for Royal Dutch/Shell Oil, "The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage." Learning quickly is central to lean thinking and the lean startup mentality. It requires throwing out your master plan to increase your understanding of your customers and improve how you deliver value to them.

While continuous learning is important for individuals, it's also important for entire organizations. To foster learning companywide, you need to create a culture of learning that infiltrates every aspect of the business.

Here are five ways to encourage the type of culture where learning thrives--and so do employees and the company:

Make learning a part of your core DNA. Your core values represent the best traits in your people and what they bring every day. These values reflect what you collectively care most about as an organization. If you want to create a culture that prioritizes ongoing learning and growth, you should make it a core value and only hire people who are passionate about learning.

That's what we did at Pluralsight when we selected "truth seeking" as one of our company's three core values. Truth seekers challenge fundamental assumptions. They spend time talking to people who know more than they do. They listen to alternative viewpoints to increase their understanding. They do their homework and ask a lot of questions before making a decision. They embrace candor and don't shy away from conflict if it helps bring the group closer to the truth. By including a truth-seeking component within our trio of core values, we created the space for continual growth, learning, and improvement to flourish throughout the company. And now we stick to it by only hiring people who embody our truth-seeking value.

Budget for learning. While prioritizing learning as a core value is a necessary starting point, you next need to put your money where your mouth is. To do so, leadership should provide opportunities within the company for everyone to take advantage of specific education and training that will help them do their jobs better. In other words, the leadership team needs to channel financial resources into supporting the goal of employees getting smarter and smarter.

You can tell if leaders really care about learning by whether or not they are willing to pay for it--and also to give people the time they need to foster it. So at Pluralsight, we allocate a portion of our budget for employees to take advantage of learning opportunities that will inspire them and help them grow, whether through online training platforms, attending a conference, going to a professional workshop, joining a community user group, or buying books. What's more, we trust individuals to select the opportunities that they believe will be most helpful to them, because the person doing the job will know better than any centralized training manager or chief learning officer what will be most effective for their specific needs.

Provide in-house opportunities to learn. Not every form of education requires an outlay of cash to purchase outside training resources. There are things you can do for free to inspire a culture of learning within the walls of your organization. For example, position auditions and job swaps can facilitate understanding across teams and divisions. When we hired our VP of engineering, part of the process involved letting a few engineers on the team "try out" for the job by actually doing it for a few months each. This gave the leadership team a chance to get to know both candidates and understand their fit for the position--and at the same time helped those auditioning for the job learn a tremendous amount about what it really entails.

A temporary role swap can also be educational for everyone involved. If two functions work closely together, such as the sales team and marketing team, why not let sales professionals sit in the marketing chair for a day and vice-versa, or have them shadow their counterparts on the other teams? Literally standing in the shoes of your colleagues can help improve your understanding of their processes and responsibilities, which can lead to new insight on better ways to collaborate going forward. And don't underestimate the value of starting a simple book club in your company. At Pluralsight, when our employees noticed that the leadership team was reading business books that were helping to shape the direction of the company, they decided to join in. Now everyone in the company is invited to read and discuss a book that's relevant to the business each month, and reap the benefits of group learning while improving their value to the organization.

Demonstrate your passion for learning. When the leadership team takes time out of their hectic schedules to prioritize their own learning, it sends a message that they value continuous education and professional growth. If you want to create a culture of learning, then leading by example is critical. Leadership should embody the keystones of a learning culture: experimenting to discover what works, engaging in healthy conflict, and seeking higher truths.

If the leadership team fails to participate in professional learning opportunities by taking online courses, reading books that align with the company's culture and product strategy, and attending industry events, then the principles of a learning culture are not going to cascade across the organization effectively. To set the tone for the company, leadership needs to become an example when it comes to learning--and it's increasingly easy to do so with the explosion of innovation in online education and training available in every industry today.

Value the lessons learned from failure. In order to learn, you have to fail first--sometimes a lot. As Thomas Edison said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." So a culture of learning encourages experimentation. At our company, we like to say that while quick recovery from mistakes is essential, errors are not life-threatening in our business--and that's the case in many other industries as well. In any creative-inventive market, staying lean and agile requires moving quickly and conducting frequent experiments to figure out what the right product is that your customers are going to value, and what the right path is toward optimum growth.

So embrace failure if it leads to greater knowledge, and celebrate derailed attempts that help you understand more about how to succeed down the road. By doing so, you'll sustain a competitive advantage by building a culture of learning that empowers people to make the organization stronger every day through their own growth and increased understanding. Ultimately, the alignment of all truth seekers on your teams will serve as fuel to everyone's future success, aiding individual career growth while moving the company one step closer to its vision.

Published on: Dec 16, 2014
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