7 Tips to Create a Company Learning Culture like Google – Without Resources

"Ordinary people seek entertainment. Extraordinary people seek education and learning."  –  Benjamin Hardy

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' list.

Still, it’s a point that most small businesses ignore. Part of the problem is the idea that small businesses can't afford it – that it means sending your employees on MBA’s and expensive training programs. We used to think so at Userlike as well, 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.” Sounds fancy enough, but no mention of an MBA in there.

It really doesn’t have to be expensive – like us, you can start one almost for free. And although it might not get you into Fortune’s list right away, it'll bless your business in a number of ways.

Boost Productivity

In mental labor – and I presume that’s what you’re doing – productivity doesn’t depend so much on working hours. As Gregory Ciotti put it, productivity = focus + energy. Repetitive work drains you of your energy. Learning, on the other hand, releases an energy boost.

Daniel Pink shows how motivation is made up out of three building blocks, the so-called trifecta of motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. All these elements are present in the act of learning.

When you dedicate some resources to learning, you're actually taking a bit of focus away for the benefit of energy – lifting your overall productivity. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report came to the same conclusion, finding that learning leads to employee engagement.

Cultivate Best Practices

There’s an obvious alignment of interests between employee and employer in a steep learning curve. For the company, the more the employee learns, the better she will do her job. The employee, on the other hand, will get more satisfaction out of her work by doing a better job and growing as a person.

Paul Jun: "Learning hones us like wind over sandstone; it sharpens our craft and removes the impurities in our misperceptions."

Grow Your Employees into the Leaders of Tomorrow

Working in a fast growing company means you’ll be taking in a lot of new people in a short period of time. More people means more hierarchy – perhaps even full time managers. Just like a feeling of injustice will strike when people cut in line at your daily supermarket trip, it’s extremely frustrating to see new team members starting out higher on the ladder than you.

To prevent this situation, we explained our team members that we see them as the leaders of tomorrow, but that they’ll have to invest in themselves to rise up to the task.

Rich football clubs like Manchester City or Chelsea spend dozens – sometimes hundreds – of millions each year on adding top players to their teams. But if you’re a small club and you’re not blessed with an oil sheik sugar daddy, your only option is to invest in training and nurturing your own youth teams into the stars of tomorrow.

Attract Talent

Harvard Business Review showed that personal growth is an innate desire for 'high potentials'. Therefore, to attract such talent, you need to offer growth opportunities.

Back to the football analogy. You often see teenage prodigies choose a modest salary at a smaller club over a royal salary at a top club. Why?

At smaller clubs, players are given more time to develop themselves, while in larger clubs the young guns stay out of sight on the bench or in the youth teams. It’s a story of performance versus growth culture.

At a small club – or startup – talents can be important at the frontline from the start, while at a top club – or corporate – they'll start out as glorified minions. So instead of aiming at their wallets, compete with the corporates for the best talents by addressing their desire to learn and be important.

Retain Talent

According to Inc, the number one reason for employees leaving a company is not salary, but a lack of advancement. As long as they are growing, it makes sense for your prodigies to stick around. Once they've reached their plateau, however, they’ll get bored and leave.

Ambitious people want to be important, successful, and make an impact. By keeping the focus on personal growth and challenging projects, you'll retain your star employees for much longer. What’s more, by making their personal growth one of your main objectives, you'll secure their loyalty.

In the end, your company will have to grow to ensure growth opportunities for your top performers. Now this part, as they would say in academics, is ‘outside the scope of this paper’. But there’s one sure way you won’t ever grow – when you let your best people leave.

Stay Up-to-Date with Critical Developments

The present-day pace of development is so high that you can’t leave its tracking to management only. Britt Andreatta shows that in a learning company, all employees have their eyes open to relevant developments – minimizing the risk of missing the boat on critical developments.

Around one year ago we set out to develop a learning culture at Userlike – without resources. Here are our 7 tips.

1. Make Learning a Fixed Point on Your Discussion List

picture of group meeting

Employees interpret the culture and values of a company through the focus points of its leadership. You can tell people to invest in themselves, but if you don’t get back to it – if you don’t repeat it over and over again – it won't stick.

In the words of late Aristotle: “it is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency”. So after your upcoming team speech about your move to a company learning culture, include personal learning and growth topics in all of your one-on-one’s. Start acting like one of Google's personal development coaches, supporting your employees in realizing their full potential.

2. Set Up Relevant Topics to Learn About

One of the reasons why our education system is so darn inefficient is because 90% of what is taught won't be used ever again – or not anytime soon, anyways. To reach deep knowledge, you should deploy what you’ve learned in the workplace.

To get to this stage we discuss upcoming projects with our team members and look for learning topics that relate to them. Some weeks ago, for example, we decided to set up a more structured process for our public relations. So we discussed what would be helpful areas to learn more about – with influencer marketing the first topic to focus on.

The knife cuts both ways: the quality of learning improves because of its relevance to the current project, and upcoming projects are executed better.

3. Set Up a Company Library

picture of classic library
The Userlike Library. Well, no, ours is more the size of a cupboard, really.

Since a few months we’ve set up a company library in our office. It started out with the founders bringing in their favorite books related to our business or their field – titles like Behind the Cloud, the Hard Thing About Hard Things, The Pragmatic Programmer, Rework, etc.

We encouraged others to read these books as well, and then to take their own relevant books and make them available to the team. What’s more, each employee got a budget for buying books related to their specific fields – books that advance their professional development.

The library fulfills a practical as well as 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 certain pride of your craft.

4. Online Course Allowance

Not all online courses are free, of course, but on platforms like Coursera there are many great, affordable options out there that your employees can learn from. Most employees would rather spend those few bucks on another beer at their favorite bar than to spend it on an online course, so it’s a good idea to set up a yearly allowance for this purpose.

5. Dedicate First 30 – 60 Minutes of the Day to Learning

If you ask people to learn 'in their own time', it'll likely get pushed away for family time, sports, Netflix, etc.

So we told our team that, even though we recommend investing in themselves outside of working hours, they should start each working day with 30 to 60 minutes of related studies. Some managers will worry about a loss in precious productivity. But remember that productivity doesn’t depend so much on the number of hours worked. Productivity = focus + energy. Take away some focus for learning to make motivation and energy levels surge.

Another benefit is that what you read about in the morning, your mind will be focused on throughout the day. So if your employees dedicate this morning hour to learning about their craft, they will perform their tasks better throughout the remainder of the day. This is why Benjamin Hardy advises us to read uplifting content in the morning, since “it puts you in the zone to perform at your highest.”

6. Encourage the Use of a Notebook

picture of notebook

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 better learning.

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.

7. Write Blog Posts About your Learnings

The best blogs on the web, the ones providing the most value and deepest insights, come from people who write about experiences and learnings very close to them. This is nicely visualized in Teri Watson's post “How to Find Your Content Marketing ‘Sweet Spot’”.

graphic of sweet spot content by Teri Watson

Blogs reaching this sweet spot go beyond your standard, brainless listicles. They spit knowledge. Some of my favorite examples from other SaaS companies are Help Scout and Intercom. Their entire teams seem to be activated in the creation of content – with the insights and experiences of the company overlapping with the interests of their target groups.

Look around at your teammates. Look at all this potential, all this invaluable knowledge locked up inside their heads. Harness that knowledge and you can create some high value content.

We set up quarterly goals for our team members to come up with a number of post topics related to their learnings. These suggestions are then discussed with the content team, turned into a tight and edgy post topic, after which a collaborative blog post is created.

Again, the knife cuts on both sides. There is immediate relevance for the learnings of your team members, who need to think of topics for posts while they are reading, and apply them for the content. It's also stimulating, because the completion of a blog post marks the completion of a learning track – a celebration of what they've learned. On the other edge of the knife, the value of your blog will rise immensely.

A company learning culture is too valuable to ignore. Guide your employees to success and they’ll return the favor. Do you have some more bootstrapped tips for promoting a learning culture? Let us know in the comments below.