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Creating a company culture that values lifelong learning

By: the SkillRise Editorial Team

Lifelong learning is a vital skill for all of us, and having the ability to manage and find opportunities to upskill is particularly crucial for working adults. As organizations double down on skills-based hiring and internal growth, adult workers need the support and skills necessary to be lifelong learners in order to grow in their careers, have access to livable wage jobs, have a better sense of their purpose and path, and have a greater feeling of life satisfaction. As an organization, supporting your team with upskilling opportunities can create a healthier workforce, thus supporting company growth and a strong company culture.

Recently, the Harvard Business Review shared that most working adults, “divert considerable energy” every day to preserving their reputations and hiding their challenge areas from their teams and employers. Rather than employees feeling the need to work this second shift, what if instead they were encouraged to learn from inadequacies and weaknesses?

When employers create a culture of lifelong learning they transition the feeling of angst most feel when they start to think about the skills they lack into a feeling of empowerment to move towards personal growth. HBR calls these organizations “deliberately developmental” and defines them as operating on “the foundational assumptions that adults can grow; that not only is attention to the bottom line and the personal growth of all employees desirable, but the two are interdependent; that both profitability and individual development rely on structures that are built into every aspect of how the company operates; and that people grow through the proper combination of challenge and support.”

Organizations that are committed to lifelong learning for their teams have the following in common. They:
- seek to actively support employees' professional and personal growth,
- give opportunities to be creative and innovative,
- encourage risk-taking and experimentation,
- offer training and coaching for employees,
- provide ample opportunity for regular, effective feedback in all directions,
- actively nurture individual, team, and organizational learning,
- have supportive leadership and coaching models,
- exhibit a growth mindset throughout all levels of and across the organization, and
- foster emotional safety within the organization.

In order to prioritize lifelong learning and build a company culture around it, organizations need a strong commitment from their leadership teams as well as every employee to move beyond the status quo, practice and support vulnerability, and provide the tools and resources necessary to put ideas into action. This goes beyond traditional professional development and doesn’t always require a hefty investment.

We looked close by in the adult education space and were excited by the engaging learning opportunities the Outreach and Technical Assistance Network (OTAN) provided to their employees on a smaller scale. OTAN is the California Department of Education’s adult education organization that is not only supporting lifelong learning through their partners but also practicing what they preach with their own internal teams. OTAN supports their employees in a variety of ways including Google certifications, bringing in subject matter experts on an hourly basis to further learning for their team members, providing subscriptions to LinkedIn Learning and Hoonuit, as well as access to courses to help with specific programs and certifications to better each employee’s expertise.

After our conversation with OTAN, we wanted to find examples outside of the traditional adult education sphere to see how this works elsewhere and got the opportunity to talk to Heather Currier Hunt, Global Head of Learning & Development, at IDEO. An award-winning global design and innovation company, IDEO builds time for learning together into every project they take on. Through a process called “Flights”, IDEO teams meet at the beginning, middle, and end of each client and internal facing project.

The first meeting sets the team, and by extension the project, up for success, by clarifying roles, setting individual and group expectations for the project outcomes, and giving ample opportunity to share needs and what team members hope to learn along the way. Midway through they check in to see how things are going, what could be optimized and built on, what needs to be addressed, and where adjustments need to be made. At the “post flight” meeting, teams dig into knowledge sharing and reflection. They ask things like “how did that go”, “did we accomplish what we wanted”, and “did we do what we thought we would when we started”? Each member of the team also gives and shares feedback. These meetings are just one example of a powerful rhythm to support learning.

KRAFTWERKS is another great example of IDEO’s support of internal lifelong learning. These making sessions bring teams together to get creative and learn a new skill.  It could be time to make a small machine, experiment with new formats of writing, or draw. It’s all in an effort to stretch their understanding of different disciplines. Since the pandemic has forced a majority of IDEO employees to work remotely, they’ve created opportunities for remote teams to invite an expert in to share about their craft. Through these experiences, teams are able to collaborate and brainstorm together even from afar. While IDEO teams thrive on in-person design sessions, they’ve become creative with their virtual environments to continue learning and growth while working from home.

Performance & Coaching
If you have an organization that is not desirous of a growth mindset and doesn’t cultivate the conditions of psychological safety, nothing will blossom. Organizations committed to an always learning company culture live out their values every single day, Heather says.

At IDEO they emphasize the value of learning from failure. This isn’t just foundational to their work but also to their learning culture internally. If their job is to have ideas, try new things and to imagine new solutions but have a team that is afraid to have an idea fail, or are unwilling to stretch their learning, they won’t find success.
Heather also shares that being intentional about performance management and learning and development go hand in hand. Every organization has goals they set for their teams, but are those goals a checklist or are they developmental in nature? Review meetings and check ins should help employees recognize their strengths and skills gaps, then set goals for the year that both build on those strengths and close gaps.

Creating a culture that supports lifelong learning doesn’t always mean focusing on what you should be teaching your teams. If you are clear about your values and objectives, you can begin to concentrate on the creation of relevant and valuable learning experiences. A commitment to this culture will help sustain and grow your business by supporting employees in acquiring, and transferring knowledge within their teams.


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The SkillRise Editorial Team consists of:

- As Director of Research at ISTE, Brandon Olszewski brings experience in educational research, edtech, and adult professional learning to the project. He leads the SkillRise initiative. Find Brandon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

- Lea Downing is an ISTE SkillRise Project Manager, bringing to the project experience in adult education, community college education, edtech, and nonprofit management. She is also the Curriculum Designer for the Adult Education Program at Delgado Community College. Find Lea on LinkedIn.

- Joey Lehrman is a SkillRise Project Manager with ISTE and the Program Effectiveness Coordinator for the Adult Education Program at Delgado Community College, where he brings over 10 years of experience as a classroom teacher and administrator in adult education and career pathway programming. Find Joey on Twitter or LinkedIn.