Bake Learning Into Culture

Written by Dana Murn-Kohal on July 10, 2018

I am lucky to work for an organization that values lifelong learning. For me, keeping on top of my field and enhancing my skill set does not come second to my day-to-day work—it is an integral part of it. How can organizations make professional development a part of their culture and the air that they breathe?

Strategic priorities

Some organizations include culture and professional development in their list of strategic initiatives. This prioritizes these issues internally and for the board, who get regular updates on the progress of the strategic plan. You also have to educate your board volunteers about the internal learning culture. For example, we’ve all known boards that are uncomfortable with the prospect of failure. However, failure is a natural side effect of the learning process—people learn from trying things and working out what went wrong. When such an experiment is underway at your organization, it’s important that the board are prepared to let this happen.

Hire for culture

Make sure that people you’re hiring are lifelong learners who believe in a learning culture. From the first impression you make on a potential employee, ensure that they understand your mission statement and that you’re upfront with what your culture stands for. Incorporating the language of learning into your culture statements can help with the hiring process.

Learning at all levels

Everyone in the organization has something to offer. Do people below management level feel comfortable pitching ideas to leadership, or questioning ideas coming from the top when they have concerns? Creating a space where that’s not seen as threatening allows for checks and balances. Reverse mentoring is becoming more celebrated. Major CEOs of companies are being coached by millennials because they have fresh perspectives to bring to the table.

Share the learning

Co-learning can be horizontal as well as vertical. Sharing knowledge and skills between jobs and departments is an effective and low-cost way to encourage professional development and break down silos. When I come across content that is relevant to my coworkers, I send them an email. In my organization, that gesture is warmly received.

What do staff want?

Staff surveys help to understand where individuals are on their own learning journey. Everyone has a unique style of learning. If you can pinpoint what individuals need through data, it helps you to offer tools and opportunities to help them thrive. These surveys can happen quarterly or biannually, so you can follow up on the success of your efforts.

Personal learning plans

I’m a process-oriented person. I enjoy using self-paced educational resources, like Coursera, that I can find online for no or low cost, and work on anywhere, anytime. As a millennial, it is totally in my comfort zone. I try to reserve half a day per week for learning, because it gives me time to focus and achieve more. In our busy lives, it’s easy to pop in and out of activities without keeping a steady routine. Structure allows me to implement the lessons I learn in different projects while they are fresh in my mind. This can be hard for people to get their head around.

“You take half a day of your working week to… not work?”

The idea that learning is not work is untrue. It takes a shift in culture to accept that even if I am not working on an immediate project, what I am learning will come into play for the organization later. As an individual, I advocate for myself and identify what areas I need to improve upon and what steps I need to take to reach my goals.

Dana spoke in the “Five-Star Professional Development Results on a One Star Budget” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by on May 2nd-4th. Click here to register to watch the sessions on demand.