4 mins

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Establishing a genuine learning culture takes time and attention, from all levels of the organization.

When you think of your organization, what do you see? What do you feel? What do you know to be true? I’ve been fortunate to be part of a few organizations where I knew that learning was important. I could see it in the way we approached our work, and I knew it to be true because we celebrated learning as an outcome, both internally and in our customer engagements.

Cultivating a culture of learning like this doesn’t happen overnight, however. It requires an organization to constantly demonstrate a commitment to continuous learning.

Making learning happen

The seeds of learning cultures are often planted in special events that are separate from daily work: internal or external training classes, hackathons, or meetups and conferences. The goal of these events is to give people focused time to learn. However, because  everyone doesn’t learn the same way, we may need to plant learning seeds in other places.

In addition to these more traditional offerings, these seeds can also grow in learnathon events, where the organization dedicates an entire chunk of time to take people out of their daily work to focus on learning. The most successful events I’ve participated in have various elements aimed at encouraging engineers to share what they know, learn from peers, and create a deeper connection with others across teams, groups, and departments.

As teams learn together, they gain a shared experience that can strengthen both the team and the organization. While learning events may typically focus on building technical skills, organizations may also need to focus some effort on developing skills like collaboration, communication, teamwork, empathy, and leadership. These have been branded “soft” skills, but for people who enjoy achieving technical excellence, these skills are usually way harder to learn, intentionally practice, and apply. Exploring and trying out facilitation techniques, for instance, can pay huge dividends and make meetings much more effective. Learning, like teamwork, is an indicator of an organization’s culture.

Learning out loud

Dedicating time to learning is vital, but all too often taking the time to practice, apply, and share that learning gets left by the wayside. Sometimes people learn tools and techniques that they need time to think about how to implement. Beyond dedicating the time for learning, we also need to cultivate environments where that learning can be safely applied and where findings and impacts are shared with others “out loud”.

You can cultivate this behavior and embed learning into daily work by asking your team questions like:

  • What did you learn yesterday?
  • What do you hope to learn today?
  • How can we support your learning

You can also practice learning out loud by sharing learnings as part of sprint reviews and demos. Take the time to demonstrate working software and share what you learned in the process of creating, updating, and testing that software. To keep your learnings alive, don’t only share at the end. Bring things that you’ve learned into planning events, all staff meetings, refinement sessions – anywhere there’s an opportunity to demonstrate the impact of learning.

Leadership commitment

Focusing on learning and development must be demonstrated in the actions of senior leaders. When large events are happening, an engaged and supportive executive team shows both acceptance for learning out loud, and an expectation of participation. It’s also important that senior leaders publicly praise organizers, internal presenters, and participants, endorsing the time and effort invested in improving the organization through learning.

Leadership can go a step further by incorporating learning into annual goals, performance plans, and even bonus payouts. Organizations set business goals based on hypotheses and forecasts. If we apply that same mental model to learning within your specific context, what could you do? What could you learn about your systems, your processes, and even your interactions, if you were formally incentivized to do so? By answering the questions, “what did you learn?” and subsequently, “why does that matter?”, we can incorporate learnings to support individual and organizational learning goals alike. 

Sustaining a learning culture

To sustain your learning culture, engage in regular retrospectives. Take the opportunity to step back, account for learnings, and learn about how the team is working and learning together. Committing to the practice of effective retrospectives and bringing discussions about learning into the existing norms of your organization is hard, but it will significantly help with the cultivation of your learning culture.

Try something…and learn!

Learning will ebb and flow, both at an individual and organizational level. You may find yourself not intentionally focusing on it for a while, but you can always come back to it. 

People need both the physical resources (learning platforms, training budgets, etc.) as well as the time, energy, and environment to take advantage of the plethora of ideas around them to learn, grow, and thrive. If nothing else, 

I would encourage you to do what my mom always said to me when she wanted me out of her hair: “Just go do something. Even if it’s wrong…” I promise, you will learn something. And that’s the goal.