“Continual learning” is a buzzword in the training and development world right now. It’s easy to write off as just another way of describing the training you already do.
But continual learning is more than that.
It’s a shift in the culture of your company that helps employees improve their performance. And that, in turn, helps your company grow.
Let’s take a look at what continual learning is, how it helps your company, and how you can use it right now to improve performance.
(Note: from here on out, I’ll be using “continuous learning” and “continual learning” interchangeably.)
What Is Continual Learning?
As you might expect, continual learning is exactly what it sounds like—ongoing learning and development.
That means people undergo all sorts of training (on- and off-the-job, formal and informal) to build new skills on a consistent basis.
But isn’t that what all learning and development programs do?
Not exactly. Companies that place an emphasis on continual learning have a strong learning culture. Employees are encouraged to learn and grow at all times. Not only during training events.
There are lots of ways to do this; setting up social learning platforms, encouraging informal training, starting coaching programs, and providing the resources employees need to learn are just a few of those methods.
But none of these things are enough on their own. A continuous learning culture is what motivates employees to continually improve themselves.
It can be, especially if your company doesn’t currently emphasize training and development for employees.
But it’s absolutely worth taking the time to put in place. There are significant benefits.
Benefits of Continuous Learning
First and foremost, continual learning helps improve employees’ job performance.
Rowold, Hochholdinger, and Schilling (2008) found that career-related continuous learning programs “are highly useful for both employees and organizations.” Employees build skills. And that’s important.
Continual improvement of skills is crucial in the modern workplace where change is constant. New technologies and best practices mean employees need to be able to change their behavior quickly.
But that’s not all. Your employees will see higher job satisfaction, decreased turnover intention, and non-job-related skills (like social competencies).
Less turnover is a huge benefit for your company, as recruiting and training new employees is significantly more expensive than retaining veterans. Your investment pays off in the long term.
And there are benefits beyond individuals, too. Continuous learning helps foster a learning culture in your organization.
The combination of a learning culture and more competent employees helps your company become more innovative, adaptable, and responsive.
That’s what investing in your employees is all about.
There’s no downside to continuous learning in your organization. You may have to make some cultural shifts. And getting set up to foster this sort of environment requires up-front investments.
Let’s take a look at a few of the things you can do right now to foster continuous learning in your organization.
1. Reward Continuous Learning
Continuous learning doesn’t happen on its own. You need to show your employees that you value it.
That means providing real rewards for people who learn new skills, value learning, and help others gain new knowledge.
But you’ll need to go beyond that, too. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Josh Bersin say that “rewarding curiosity is not just about praising and promoting those who display an effort to learn and develop; it’s also about creating a climate that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up are encouraged, even if it means creating discord.”
And it’s important to offer multiple types of rewards, says DeakinCo. Intrinsic rewards like a sense of accomplishment or positive feedback should be combined with financial or other extrinsic rewards for successfully applying new skills.
This means managers need to be on the lookout for employees who are learning and applying new skills. And you may need to give them the authority to decide on rewards quickly so they can respond when they see learning in action.
What you can do today: think of one employee that you know has sought out learning and knowledge. Recognize them in an email or a meeting to show your appreciation. Then think about a long-term reward system (either intrinsic or extrinsic).
2. Offer More Formal Learning Opportunities
Social and informal learning are important for making development a constant at your company. But offering lots of formal learning opportunities has two important benefits:
First, employees are given more opportunities to learn. That’s obviously important when you’re building a culture of continual learning. It also helps you direct their learning if you have some specific KPIs that you’d like to improve.
Second, and maybe more importantly, it shows employees that you value learning.
And that’s crucial for building a culture of learning. When employees feel supported and valued in their learning, they’ll go out of their way to continue building their skill sets. And that’s exactly what you’re aiming for.
What you can do today: ask your employees if they’d take advantage of additional formal trainings and which areas they’d like to see more trainings in. Get in touch with your training team or an outside group to find out what you need to make it happen.
3. Make Coaching and Mentoring Part of Your Culture
“Managers across your organization should be talking to their employees about their development on a regular basis. This gives managers a better understanding of what their employees want, the strengths they want to build on, and areas they want to improve,” says Joanne Wells in an article for ATD.
Frontline managers should emphasize the importance of learning, help employees seek it out, and praise them for success.
That goes a long way toward building a strong culture of continual learning. It shows your employees that learning is not only encouraged, but expected.
Offering mentoring programs also sends the same message, but adds to it by helping employees develop and apply new skills.
You don’t need to start with a complicated, multi-level mentoring program. Get started by letting people know that senior members of your company would love to connect with more junior members to foster learning.
Then connect people and let them take it from there.
Eventually you may want to institute a more formal system. But start with something simple and easy is a great way to kickstart learning at your company.
And because mentoring is an ongoing process, it contributes specifically to continuous learning.
What you can do today: send an email or ask coworkers in a meeting about who would be interested in mentoring junior employees. Get in touch with junior employees within the next week to start making connections.
4. Encourage Social and Informal Learning
We’ve talked about social and informal learning in the past—but it’s especially crucial when fostering continual learning.
Because employees can only attend so many formal trainings. No matter how many you offer in-house and how much time off your provide for approved training, employees can’t spend a ton of time away from their jobs.
Social and informal learning help employees find the knowledge they need quickly and apply it immediately.
The best way to foster social and informal learning is by putting the right tools in place. A knowledge management system with social features is a great start.
These systems let employees store and find knowledge when they need it. And if they can’t find what they’re looking for, they have the tools to find it.
In short, knowledge and learning management systems make it possible for continual learning. And because they’re generally pretty easy to set up, you can put one in place right away.
What you can do today: find one person who’s willing to host a learning lunch. Ask when they’d be ready to give a short presentation and start letting other employees know that this opportunity will be coming.
5. Monitor and Assess Continual Learning
Because of the emphasis on social and informal learning, it can be hard to track and assess continual learning.
But it can be done.
Before you try to assess continuous learning, though, you need to be clear on your objective. Here are a few questions you might consider and what you could do with that information:
Which skills are employees learning? You can use this to find out where your formal trainings are falling short or determine which skills your employees find most valuable in their daily jobs.
How does the knowledge gained in continuous learning affect employees’ on-the-job performance? If certain types of informal or social learning are especially effective, you can encourage more employees to take part in them.
What kinds of information are your employees regularly seeking out? This gives you an idea of where your employees’ passions and interests lie, which is great for boosting engagement.
All of these are viable questions. But you may not want to explore them all in every assessment.
So how do you go about assessing employees’ continual learning?
In many cases, your best bet is to just ask. It’s difficult to quantify many of the factors involved in continuous learning.
You might, for example, email these questions out on a quarterly basis (this is a great way to remind employees regularly that you value continuous learning).
You could run a survey on which sources of learning your employees have found most valuable. Do they get the most out of formal trainings? Pre-recorded trainings? Chatting with coworkers? Outside sources?
Or you may use a more traditional framework where employees rate their competencies on a standard scale. You could then track changes in competency outside of formal training. (This is a great place to use the assessments tool built into your knowledge management system.)
Assessment and evaluation are difficult even when the trainings are formal and straightforward.
Start with determining what you want to measure, and build up your assessments from there.
What you can do today: make a list of five questions that you’d be interested in asking about continuous learning in your organization. But don’t stop there. Make sure each question has a purpose—what are you really getting at?—and a follow-up action listed as well.
Continuous Learning Starts Now
Your employees are probably already engaged in continual learning. But if you make it a part of your company culture, you’ll help them learn even more effectively—and that has all sorts of benefits for your company.
Because it’s less discrete than some other training activities, it’s easy to put off fostering continual learning. But it’s absolutely crucial. Start today.
Continuous learning looks different at every company, so it’s not easy to follow any sort of template. But if you want to see what a learning culture looks like in action, check out how Yelp created a learning culture with lots of the methods listed above.