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Building a learning environment at work

by Fauve Delcour

June 27 2012 - As the government tells us that we need to work harder for longer in order to pay for retirement, it is clear that we must be even more ready to adapt and change our skills and knowledge throughout our working lives. 'Lifelong learning' is a mantra for many companies - and the intention is good - but lifelong learning requires not only high levels of goodwill and the capacity to adjust, but the availability of sufficient learning opportunities as well.

Learning takes a central position in organizations that have successfully developed a positive learning climate. Employees, HR managers and other managers share the responsibility to establish this situation. However, a positive learning climate still seems to be something rather intangible to many companies and individuals.

In essence, there are five key building blocks that come together in a positive learning environment:

  1. Accessibility: the opportunities that you receive from the company for following training programmes and the degree of openness within the company to new ways of working.
  2. Support: the recognition and encouragement that you receive from colleagues and management for following a training programme and learning at the workplace.
  3. Autonomy: your ability to direct your own learning processes independently.
  4. Sense of connection: between the training and the training need, as well as among colleagues themselves.
  5. Transfer: the degree to which learning is embedded in daily practice.

There are also two types of learning:

  1. Formal learning entails structured and explicit training initiatives.
  2. Informal learning involves learning on the job.

To develop a truly positive learning climate, both approaches must be prominent and fully supported by the company. In practice, however, we often see that the balance leans towards one or the other: in smaller organizations, informal learning often scores well; in larger companies, formal learning initiatives are more fully developed, and learning on the job often lags.

Based on a response rate of 1802 employees spread over 12 organizations, we are able to share some additional tips to make sure your organization has a positive learning climate.

So what should companies focus on in order to develop the kind of environment where employees value, and benefit from, on the job education?

Sense of connection

Training demands effort (time, extra work) and this investment only delivers real value when the lessons are relevant to the job. Of the five building blocks, it seems that companies are heeding this one relatively well; over three-quarters of employees responded that what they learn does actually help them to perform their job better.

Another important aspect within this 'block' is solidarity among colleagues. Again, this was an area where the research indicated that employers were doing well - 87% of respondents said that colleagues were always ready to offer guidance to someone who is experiencing difficulties in their job.


On the other hand, Transfer - the degree to which training is imbedded in daily practice - seems to be the most difficult aspect for companies to uphold. Under a third of employees said that their managers discuss the objectives of training beforehand, yet goal-setting prior to training increases knowledge transfer substantially and can greatly improve the overall effectiveness of training. If companies are serious about building an effective learning platform, this is an essential element.

Support and challenge

Our research showed that three-quarters of employees receive encouragement from their management during training. This style of leadership is known as 'servant leadership' and has 5 main facets:

  • Empowering and developing employees - nurturing employee autonomy and a proactive, self-confident attitude
  • Humility - setting an example by acknowledging that you are not perfect and calling on the expertise of others
  • Authenticity - being yourself, aligning what you say and do with what you truly think and feel
  • Empathy and tolerance for mistakes - Creating learning opportunities by talking openly about mistakes and difficulties encountered on the job
  • Providing direction - Making expectations clear and gearing working circumstances, including training, to the needs of the employee

However, being a supportive leader is not enough. In addition, you need to challenge your employees. This can be realised by goal setting and giving clear feedback.

Goal setting is an ideal strategy to challenge employees and stimulate them to grow. However, learning will only occur when these goals meet some specific characteristics. Goals need to contain a challenge for the employees. Goals that are too easy to attain will not stimulate learning.On the other hand, goals that are too difficult will frustrate them. Leaders need to set goals that stimulate employees to stretch themselves, but that are ultimately achievable.

Feedback is another tool managers must use when challenging their employees. And the way in which it is given will have a major impact on the extent to which the training succeeds.

It is tempting for managers to only focus on the positive aspects when giving feedback to an employee. Yet, pointing out the learning points and where an employee could improve is critical. Acquiring information on the effect their behaviour has on colleagues can be a valuable way to encourage employees to change their behaviour.

There are two ways to achieve this. First of all, the feedback must be given immediately after the observation of the behaviour the leader wants to change. Secondly, a feedback conversation is a two way discussion.Give the employee the possibility to explain why he or she acted in a certain way. By talking about it, the leader can share tips and stimulate learning.

Building a learning environment at work is a challenge. Our research shows that employers are trying, and succeeding in many areas, to develop the right framework. But putting it all together is more difficult than it may seem at first sight. Nevertheless, with many of us looking at working lives stretching into our 70's, it's a challenge that needs to be met.

About the author

Fauve Delcour

Fauve Delcour holds a Master degree in Industrial & Organizational Psychology from the University of Gent. She works as a researcher at the competence centre People & Organisation of Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School. Her research is focused on the human side of open innovation and learning climate in organizations.

Contact: +32 9 210 97 38

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