Inside Learning: How Yelp Created a Successful Learning Culture

Strong companies understand that a culture of learning allows teams to create immense value with the adoption and sharing of new knowledge and ideas.

A strong learning culture can also have an enormous impact on bottom line: According to The Engagement Institute, disengaged employees cost organizations between $450 and $550 billion annually.

What exactly makes a strong learning culture? Top-performing companies leverage learning in their own workplaces in a variety of ways, and often the strongest find new ways to crowdsource tactics from individual employees while also incorporating a “lead by example” model from the top down.

“A learning culture gets set from the top, leaders set the tone,” says James Balagot, who leads learning initiatives at Yelp. “Are they biased towards learning? Are they reading, learning, attending workshops? Do they believe in this concept that everyday is a school day? Are they finding opportunities to enhance themselves?”

“A learning culture gets set from the top, leaders set the tone” – James Balagot, Yelp

Companies like Yelp that invest in learning tend to stand out in the way that they value personal growth. For Balagot, the question; “How can we make sure every day is a school day?” is one that he asks consistently. At Yelp, Balagot and others are tasked with conceptualizing and leading “programs that go across all departments…where we invest in our managers and make sure they are paying it forward to their employees. We are always seeking ways to further develop our managers so they can become better coaches and guide the careers of their teams. The expectation is someday employees will be able to do it for themselves,” he says.

“One size fits one”

To best accommodate how personal learning can be for employees, it’s best to let the individualism rise to the top and drive efforts, rather than trying to formalize or over-process a learning experience. At Yelp, Balagot points to two departments for examples of this approach: engineering and sales.

“On the engineering team, they have a learning lunch every Friday,” says Balagot. “What better way to bring people together, through food? They usually have a guest speaker – typically an internal guest. Some of the topics may be surprising. I’ve seen everything from the art of shaving, to using machine learning in your project… all the way all the way to having a guest professor come in and talk about the value of sleep. Other times, it’s a deep dive into one of our newest departments that engineers are curious about like Yelp Wifi.” This approach, Balagot points out, is so valuable because it comes from the people. “It’s something that they are passionate about – it draws a full crowd every time. It’s stronger than bringing in someone from the outside every time.”

On Yelp’s sales team (the largest department in the company), Balagot notes that the formalization of learning has served them well. “We hire a lot of people on a monthly basis that have entry level experience, so we’re always asking: ‘how do we groom them, support them as they’re ramping up?’” he says. “There’s a Yelp sales certification program…so employees are recognized as they complete different modules. It gives them a track to follow, and it’s extremely specific to that organization.”

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Organization-wide learning

Individualization of learning is critical, but so is an element of horizontal learning that applies to company culture at large. At Yelp HQ, for example, a group of engineers created Yelp Beans, an opt-in offering that pairs employees for a cup of coffee.Yelp Beans affords each employee the opportunity to learn from someone new, gain a new perspective from a different team within the company, and simply the chance to connect with a new person without adhering to an expected outcome. In addition, Yelp offers a “leaders who teach” concept. “Our leadership team is always paying it forward — if they’re passionate about something, they will lead a topical discussion,” says Balagot. “We started to invite leaders from outside the organization as well, who we call our ‘Yelp Extended Faculty.’ While our own leaders are the core of who is teaching sessions, outside leaders from Stanford or Berkeley or other companies bring a lot of value into the organization when they lead sessions that resonate with our management and leadership teams. Learning initiatives are inspired by our people.”

“Learning initiatives are inspired by our people.” – James Balagot, Yelp

Balagot also points to the success of company hackathons. “We have a strong history of hackathons. We’ve been doing them quarterly and have over 20 under our belt,” he says. “We dedicate two days where engineers can form groups, propose topics, and work on whatever they want. The opportunity to propose a topic, work with new people…there are a lot of hidden benefits that aren’t obvious. Learning to play well with others, inspire a group of peers, push beyond barriers, etc.”

How a learning culture retains top talent

Top hires are typically drawn in by strong cultures — and for many companies (if not all), that means having a successful learning aspect that is relevant for all employees. “People come to Yelp for a few key reasons. One is the career and development opportunities,” says Balagot. “We know that new hires are coming in with the expectation of growing and being challenged. We strive to create an environment and learning opportunities to make that happen so that employees will look back at their experience and be proud of how far they’ve come.”

“Managers know the needs of their employees better than anyone.” – James Balagot, Yelp

Key Takeaways

  • Invest in managers so they can ‘pay it forward’: “Managers know the needs of their employees better than anyone,” says Balagot.
  • Hire people who want to grow: “We hire people into stretch roles, roles that will challenge them daily. This will give them the best opportunity to accelerate their development,” says Balagot. “You want people who invest in themselves.”
  • Focus on the individual: “Learning is rooted in the individual, in the department – and that helps things iterate a lot quicker,” says Balagot.
  • Learning starts on day 1: “Learning culture starts on day one, and over time you have to change the platforms and process as you grow and scale,” says Balagot.

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