6 Tips to Create a Company Learning Culture Like Google – Without Resources

Companies with a learning culture are popular employers. In fact, how well a company supports the personal development of its employees is one of the main criteria for making it into 'Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For'.

Still, it’s a point many small businesses ignore. Part of the problem is the idea that they can't afford it. That it means sending your employees on MBA’s and expensive training programs. But that’s not what a learning culture is about.

To use a stiff definition, a learning culture is, “a collection of organizational conventions, values, practices and processes that encourage employees and organizations develop knowledge and competence.” No mention of an MBA in there.

You can start a learning culture almost for free. And although you might not end up in Fortune’s list, it will bless your business in a number of other ways.

  • Boost Productivity. In mental labor, productivity doesn’t depend so much on the quantity of working hours. Learning raises your team’s mental assets. It enlarges their set of tools for tackling day to day tasks. What’s more, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report concluded that learning leads to employee engagement.
  • Nurture Homegrown Leaders. Football clubs like Manchester City or PSG spend hundreds of millions each year on new star players. But if you’re a small club without an oily sugar daddy, your only option is to invest in the training of your own youth teams into the stars of tomorrow. At Userlike, we see our team members as the leaders of tomorrow. But to rise up to the task, they need to invest in themselves.
  • Attract Talent. Harvard Business Review showed that personal growth is an innate desire for 'high potentials'. So to attract such talent, you need to offer growth opportunities.
  • Retain Talent. According to Inc, the number one reason for employees to leave a company isn’t salary, but a lack of advancement. As long as they are growing, it makes sense for your prodigies to stick around. Once they hit the ceiling, they will leave.
  • Stay Up-to-Date. Today’s pace of developments is too high to be left to management only. Britt Andreatta shows that in a learning company, all employees have their eyes open to relevant developments. This minimizes the risk of missing the boat on critical developments.

As a bootstrapped company, we never had the budget to compete with expensive, corporate-style training programs. Instead, we set out to create a learning culture without resources. Here are our tips.

1
Learning goals

Our learning goals are the first building block of our educational plan. Every quarter we set up our goals for the coming period. But besides operational goals (e.g. raise organic website traffic to 100.000 unique visitors), we have a section in our Asana for learning goals.

Our asana learning goals section.

Team members settle on these goals together with their team leads. The goals should be…

  • Aligned with current/upcoming projects. To gain deep knowledge that sticks, you need to apply what you’ve learned in the workplace. That’s why we align our learning goals with current or upcoming projects. A nice learning goal to the raising organic web traffic target would be, say, to finish a course on SEO.
  • Specific. ‘Master SEO’ is too vague. Not only is it difficult to aim for, it also foregoes the satisfaction of reaching your goal. A specific goal would be, ‘summarize Udemy course on SEO’.
  • Realistic. Like their operational counterparts, learning goals are as susceptible to the planning fallacy. If the Udemy course is 100 hours long, I won’t be able to wrap it up in one month.

Our departmental leads check in on the process of these goals throughout the quarter. They act like Google’s personal development coaches, supporting our team members in realizing their full potential.

2
Educational Budget

We said almost free, right? You can find plenty of free material online, but we also wanted to offer our team a budget for premium content – books, courses, industry magazine subscriptions, etc.

Currently our yearly budget stands at €250 per person. That’s not much compared to some other companies, but for the type of deep learning that we’re aiming for, it seems to suffice so far. More on that later.

3
Company library

We have the ‘Userlike Library’, through which team members share their favorite books and magazines. It started out with some of us bringing in their favorite books – e.g. Behind the Cloud, the Hard Thing About Hard Things, The Pragmatic Programmer, Rework, etc.

We encouraged others to also take their own relevant books and make them available to the team. What’s more, after finishing a book bought through the educational budget, it goes in the Library.

Library.
And look at what the Userlike Library has grown into today! Well, no… ours is more the size of a cupboard, really.

The library fulfils both a practical and a symbolic purpose. Practical, because it offers easy access to high quality learning material. Symbolic, because it reflects our culture – our values of personal growth and following best practices. Besides that, having your own collection of field-specific books in the office reinforces a sense of ownership, a pride of your craft.

4
Holiday compensation

If you ask people to study 'in their own time', it'll be pushed aside by family time, sports, Netflix, etc. In our busy lives, it’s darn challenging to free up time for learning. It’s one of those high importance - low urgency activities.

What's needed is a carrot. For this, we came up with is holiday compensation. In essence, it means that the time you invest in your work-related eduction will be compensated with extra holidays.

So how do we make this work? We are still in beta with this one, but the current process looks like this:

  1. Settle on a learning goal with your team lead. E.g. “Read and summarize the book ‘Influence’”.
  2. Calculate consumption time. Most (online) courses give a time indication. For books, we make a rough calculation by taking average reading speed (200 words per minute). This consumption time is what you get compensated through holidays. If according to this WPM the book investment is 10 hours, these are the holiday hours you'll earn for completing the goal.
  3. Offer proof. We need some proof before compensation. Some courses offer a certification. For books, we ask for a summary. This means that the time investment doesn't run 1-1 with the holiday compensation. We think that's fair. You're investing in yourself as well as the company. What’s more, it guarantees the deep type of learningthat we're aiming for. It also means that not all formats are suitable for compensation. You can use your educational budget for industry events, for example, but not for holiday compensation.

To prevent our team from turning into full-time information junkies, we've put a cap of five days on what you can earn.

5
Notebooks

We encourage our team members to keep notebooks to write down their thoughts and learnings. Paul Jun shows how a world of benefits flows from the habit of regular writing, with wins in clarity, creativity, and improved learning.

Notebook on a desk.

Ask any writer and she'll tell you that her craft is her biggest source of learning. But even though it’s a good habit, it’s one that is hard to install on others. Our next point will help you with that.

6
Learning sharing

A learning culture is a sharing culture. We offer two outlets for our team to share what they’ve learned: team blog posts and Userlike Thursday presentations.

Besides offering tips and best practices on sales, service, and communication, our blog is a platform for our team to share their knowledge. While taking notes from a course or a book, you might get ideas for topics that'd make for a good blog post. the completion of a blog post marks the completion of a learning track – a celebration of what they've learned.

Userlike Thursday is the quarterly event during which some of our teammates present on a topic of their interest. We’ve had machine learning, the benefits of writing, carnaval, personal motivation, and many more. It’s also a perfect opportunity to share some of your learnings from the educational plan.

Jan presenting at Uselike Thursday.
Jan's talk about the connection between machine and human learning.

I'd love to hear how you stimulate your team to invest in themselves. If you feel like sharing, let me know via Twitter!