How to Create a Culture of Learning at Your Association

“We don't know everything that we need to know today to accomplish our mission.” How’s that for refreshing honesty? Tyler Palmer believes his colleagues at Patreon must “evolve and adapt to a never-ending stream of new problems to solve.” The only way to do that is to cultivate a culture of learning.

At Patreon, a membership and patron-development platform for creatives, their culture deck describes the company’s seven core behaviors. One of those behaviors is: “Seek learning. We want to surround ourselves with people who are obsessed with learning and development.”

Good things happen when an organization adopts a culture of learning. Patreon, founded in 2013, is already valued at $450 million. It’s been named a top place to work and its employee turnover rate is 67 percent below the national average.

How Does a Culture of Learning Help an Association?

The numbers are in favor of organizations with a strong learning culture, according to HR research firm Bersin by Deloitte:

  • 37 percent greater employee productivity
  • 46 percent more likely to be first to market
  • 58 percent more prepared to meet future demand

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) agrees. Employees want to work where education is supported. The best ones will find jobs elsewhere if it’s not. Millennials don’t just want learning opportunities, they expect them.

create a culture of learning

If you want to prepare your association for the future, you need lifelong learners to take you there—that’s the only way to stay competitive and agile enough to solve today’s problems and face tomorrow’s unknown challenges. A culture of learning will help you fulfill your mission and make a positive impact on your members’ careers and companies.

SHRM says:

“Companies with nimble learners can react quickly to disruptions, adapt to meet the demands of a changing business climate, and harness a wealth of ideas for new products, services and processes.”

As a bonus, by showing your members how your association is developing a culture of learning, you can encourage them to do the same. By sharing this “best practice,” you’ll also increase the audience for your online learning programs.

How Does an Association Create a Culture of Learning?

Culture change takes time. Set some goals and sketch out a roadmap of small steps to take you there. Here are the principles you must have in place.

Get leadership buy-in. Culture change has to be supported at the top. However, staff leadership must do more than just support a learning culture, they must model the behavior they wish to see. Leaders should talk about their learning experiences—their challenges, successes, and failures.

Embed learning into strategy. Everyone—leadership and staff—must acknowledge learning as one of the association’s strategic assets. Learning is built into the culture and budget. Obstacles to learning are removed. Learning practices are agreed upon and adhered to. Make no exceptions to the learning mandate.

Link learning to job performance. Learning is a job requirement. Professional development is a major component of performance reviews. Every quarter, employees meet with managers to discuss skills and knowledge gaps, their learning pathway, and how they can apply what they’ve learned. Employees have the responsibility and resources they need for their own professional development.

Dedicate time for learning. If time isn’t set aside for learning, people will be too busy to make time. Employees need time to read, watch webinars, attend events, or take online courses. At TED, every other week on Learning Wednesday, employees can do whatever they want as long as it involves learning. Other organizations allow staff to dedicate one full day a month to learning.

create a culture of learning together

Budget for and support formal and informal learning. Provide funds for formal learning, but also provide resources and support for informal learning.

  • Host weekly staff discussions on hot industry topics and lessons learned from projects (both successes and failures). Open up the conversation by inviting staff from neighboring associations.
  • Dedicate library space in the office where employees can read, find books, and gather for book club discussions.
  • At Patreon, employees receive a reading stipend to spend on one or two books per quarter. Another component of their collaborative learning program, Team Reads, is internal software that facilitates book purchases and allows employees to share what they’re reading. “The shared experience of reading also gives people common ground to start conversations, deepen bonds, or even shape their worldviews.”
  • Help employees find mentors by working the networks of senior staff. Palmer said, “Mentorship is often a privilege enjoyed by those who don't really need it or don't have time to make the most of it.”

Hire learners. Ask interview questions that help you identify who has a growth (not fixed) mindset. Look for people who are already self-directed learners.

Encourage skill sharing. At Patreon, employees with specialized skills or knowledge teach informal courses to others. Palmer said, “Learning from a teammate is a great bonding experience and helps break down silos between departments.”

Use your learning management system (LMS). Starting with employee orientation, get people into the habit of using your LMS. Tag resources, such as articles, videos, on-demand webinars, podcasts, and your own online courses, by topic. Encourage staff to audit your educational programs. You can track how employees are using the content in your LMS and identify those who aren’t dedicating sufficient time to learning. Use push notifications if people stop visiting the LMS and when you have new resources to announce.

Provide psychological safety. Palmer said, “A culture of learning is the opposite of a culture of fear.” Learning isn’t only formal training and education, it’s also on-the-job trial and error. He said, “To a team of high-performers who are accustomed to getting things right on the first try and collecting accolades like it's nothing, fear of failure is very real.”

Staff leaders and supervisors need to send out the cultural signal that dissension and experimentation is okay, and failure is understood as long as lessons are learned. Employees can’t worry about being shamed or blamed when they disagree, ask a “stupid” question, take a risk, or don’t succeed.

Spread the word. Preach what you’re practicing. Talk about your new learning culture with members and others in your professional community. Remind them how critical a learning culture is for an evolving, sustainable organization. Back up your message with research data and articles.

A culture of learning will prepare your staff and association for whatever the future holds. Encourage your members to adopt a culture of learning at their organizations and you will go a long way toward fulfilling your mission.

professional development
Social Learning
See what we can do for you