How to build a culture of continuous learning: 3 ideas to borrow

Unless we can outlearn our competition, we will not be in the race. Consider these ideas to foster an environment of continuous, enterprise-wide learning
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In 2008, our company, Futurice, hit a roadblock: We exceeded 50-60 employees and transitioned from a startup into a “real” company.

Although we knew that this would happen, the consequences were frustrating – nothing worked anymore. People seemed to make bad decisions and lose accountability. They complained about a lack of information, lack of trust, and so on.

We had prepared for this transition by studying the traditional wisdom of how “real” companies operate: We established clear roles, control mechanisms, budgets, a hierarchy to keep the company under control, and ensured that people did not do the wrong things.

But after a couple of months, things felt even worse. We lost energy, people felt demotivated, and we didn’t have trust, autonomy, or transparency. It was not fun anymore.

[ Read also: IT Leadership: How to build a learning culture. ]

Then someone asked, “How come we succeeded for eight years by believing in people – trusting and empowering them – and now we consider people to be stupid and irresponsible? Have people really turned from good to bad, or is something else broken because of our growth?”

Build an organization that maximizes energy and strives to balance order and chaos.

That’s when we realized that the traditional organizational wisdom is based on the wrong driver – it seeks to ensure the top management’s feeling of control. This is understandable, but the cost of this driver is reduced performance, innovation, and organizational effectiveness.

We concluded that it is better to build an organization that maximizes energy and strives to balance order and chaos. That is where innovation is born – and it is where the soul of a company resides.

3 ways to encourage continuous learning

How do you build this energy? A key ingredient is the journey – setting an ambitious but reachable target. When individuals and organizations are on a journey, they have high energy levels. This journey is also very much about learning, and learning turns into a competitive edge.

Our quality as a workplace and our competitiveness in the market depend on how quickly we learn as an organization. Unless we can outlearn our competition, we will not be in the race.

Here are three ways to ensure that your people are continuously learning:

1. Break your bubbles

Knowledge management has long been one of the most challenging problems organizations face. Most companies contain huge amounts of knowledge that people have no access to. Employees operate in small bubbles, with easy access to knowledge from close contacts but little access to anything outside their bubbles.

Many organizations operate more like groups of small companies than one company with multiple knowledge resources available. This leads to problems in performance, efficiency, and effectiveness. It also makes it difficult for individuals to learn, because one of the most effective ways to learn is from colleagues – or better yet, from situations in which knowledge is added to the workflow at the right time.

The inability to tap into organizational knowledge and the skills of others also affects how your employees are assigned to projects: People work harder and have more energy when they are working on things that they feel passionate about. Manual knowledge management systems are often used to address this problem, but people often fail to provide the specific information necessary to make these systems effective.

Taxonomy is another challenge: Many companies try to create pre-set knowledge areas and skills that apply to everyone, but these ignore unique, potentially beneficial values in exchange for greater access and clarity. These taxonomies are also often either too simple, too complex, or immediately out of date.

One idea: Build a bubble burster. At Futurice, we chose a different route: We built a data and AI-powered knowledge search called Bubble Burster. It taps into our employee’s digital footprints, including public Slack messages, project allocations, and hour reports, and automatically generates knowledge profiles of them.

The footprint we use is public only inside the company, and we do not use any private information or personal messages. Any employee can search for knowledge across the entire company and tap into a broad knowledge base to expedite their learning. In contrast to manual inputs or complex taxonomies, we do not require any manual user input – even very niche knowledge is searchable, and knowledge is freeform, searchable, and not restricted to a predefined taxonomy.

2. Revisit, re-evaluate, and share your retrospectives

The current global crisis does not mean your company can ignore productivity. In fact, the situation can create an opportunity to drive exponential growth through learning. So how can you ensure that your teams are learning in both normal and extraordinary times?

Most learning activities are related to personal growth and focus on personal capabilities such as subject skills. Studies from NASA and Google, for example, show that high-performance teams are not defined by the individual skills of its members, but rather by the amount of trust and empathy found in the team.

High-performance teams are not defined by the individual skills of its members, but rather by the amount of trust and empathy found in the team.

When your team is able to overcome problems and find the best possible ways to act, its members end up trusting and understanding each other. You create empathy and psychological safety, which fosters a high-performance team.

When you apply agile techniques, this work is done by running recurring retrospectives. The team meets at regular intervals and figures out what is working, what they should stop doing, and what they should start to do. It’s a proven method.

But what if you want to go beyond just individual teams and create a learning organization? How do you create exponential growth for team skills?

As a consulting organization, we face this problem regularly. Our project teams’ life spans vary widely, depending on the type of project. Teams help a client, and individuals then go on to new projects, so it is easy for valuable learning to be lost.

We recognize that our skills, knowledge, and capability to work as a team are our most valuable assets. We must learn fast to perform well. A successful project with a steep learning curve is an asset for us and the clients we serve, so when the project is over, we must keep that learning from being lost.

One idea: Identify your retrospective diamonds. We tackle this problem with a concept we call “retro diamond.” The team runs their retrospective, makes change suggestions, and executes the changes as experiments. In the next retrospective, they evaluate the changes made in the previous round. If the changes worked, they look at the initial problem and the solution and decide if it’s something they should share with other teams, as a retro diamond. These retro diamonds are made visible throughout the organization. It’s an easy way to give visibility and kudos to the teams that are truly pushing for renewal.

When all teams share their diamonds, the learning curve shifts from linear to exponential. You have created a learning organization that taps the skills that define high-performance teams.

3. Tap into the power of informal social networks 

Social networks, or groups of individuals who are not necessarily connected through formal organizational structures, are a hidden gem for organizations. These networks include the people we turn to for help and feedback and who help us get things done across silos. Their roles are not always defined by title, and they often serve as unofficial thought leaders. They are highly influential but difficult to control.

Many studies show that these networks play a major role in organizational performance, whether it is project success, innovations, retention, or sales success.

One idea: Balance your knowledge networks. At Futurice, we use data to explore whether our social networks are balanced across sites, functions, tenure, and organizational levels, to ensure good knowledge flow. We can see, for example, when our project teams are unbalanced, either with too many experienced workers or too many newcomers, and data helps us address that imbalance promptly.

Social networks also impact an individual’s ability to learn and succeed. Building these networks not only enables immediate knowledge but also builds assets that can be applied to future needs. To help people build their networks, we run a “lunch roulette” program that connects people who do not know each other for a virtual lunch. We are also working with an ego-network solution that helps people become more conscious of their network, which allows them to balance their own networks.

Building a learning platform

We often call our company “the ultimate learning platform” because learning has been at the core of the company since its beginning – and we’ve worked to embed it into everything we do. Like any organization that is striving to innovate and grow, we have faced challenges big and small and evolved our approaches over time to adapt. We are driven by the understanding that in order to be the best at whatever you do, you must help everyone in the company learn and share to create success.

We hope these ideas inspire your own company development, and we encourage you to use the current global crisis as your own ultimate learning platform. For all its difficulties, the pandemic has forced us all to innovate and learn new things. We encourage you to harness that learning to build a more resilient future.

[ How does your talent strategy measure up in 2020? Download the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Tuomas Syrjänen is currently the Chief AI Officer of Futurice, and formerly CEO between '08-'18 and one of its founders in the year 2000. Futurice is a 650 person-strong digital innovation and engineering consultancy in Berlin, Helsinki, London, Munich, Oslo, Stockholm, Stuttgart, and Tampere.
Hanno Nevanlinna is the Director of Culture and one of Futurice’s founders. He has walked the path from a startup to an international company. During the years between 2004-2009, he innovated, planned, and built Finland’s largest photo-sharing service, Kuvaboxi.