How COVID-19 has led to an evolution of learning culture

Lynsey Whitmarsh

Managing Director, UK

6 Minute read

22 April 2021

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According to research from King’s Business School, almost six million small businesses are at risk of closing permanently because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though larger businesses have generally fared better, the uncertainty and volatility of the current climate mean all organizations have – and will have – to change and adapt in order to survive and thrive.

Adopting a learning culture is one way that businesses can become more agile and responsive to the changing needs of their markets. Indeed, creating this culture is thought to be the number one challenge for HR and L&D professionals, according to insight from the LPI. Learning culture is now so intrinsic to the success of organizations, and they must ensure they have the right building blocks in place.


A broader meaning post-COVID

Let us first define what we mean, now, by a ‘learning culture’ or ‘culture of learning’. Previously, learning professionals may have used the term to discuss how best to encourage, deliver and ensure engagement with self-service on-demand learning. However, the term has expanded to take on a broader meaning. This was occurring pre-COVID, but the need for organizations to respond with agility has been accelerated by the pandemic.

To be agile, organizations must be in a ‘learning mode’, primed to learn new products, services and markets for the changing environments. As a result, businesses are now thinking about a learning culture as something which can enhance the performance of the entire organization. Quite simply, it involves taking stock of all of the available information and knowledge and making the most of it to adapt quickly to the challenges and trends. When the entire organization moves in this way, combining communication, learning and technology to drive the enterprise forward, you have successfully created a learning culture.

It’s a process we, Hemsley Fraser, have undergone internally, transforming our business from one which delivered a large volume of physical learning experiences to an online-first organization. We’ve also helped clients to do the same, enabling them to use learning as a tool to achieve business goals. So, while increasing engagement with self-directed and just-in-time learning is still a step towards building a learning culture, we must also think about the broader impact.


Focus on output over input

As we adjust to increased remote working, many find themselves working longer hours, sometimes with additional or changed responsibilities. Almost half of UK employers said they feared their workers would experience burnout, with many guilty of ‘e-presenteeism’. While some have seen the extra time as positive, allowing for increased productivity, we must also consider the impact on mental health, stress and anxiety.

In order to reduce the likelihood of burnout, leaders should focus on energy management over time management, considering the objectives they must achieve and working backwards to determine how best to do so. The pandemic has led many of us to reconsider the ‘why’ behind the work, the most obvious example being the motivating factors behind strict in-office working. Leaders should apply this way of thinking to other aspects of work, focusing on tasks which will assist in achieving overall goals.


Make the best use of technology

Digital tools for learning and communication, such as content libraries, digital hubs, video calling and instant messaging, have become absolutely vital to our new working environments. Though important pre-pandemic, the impacts of COVID-19 have accelerated our dependence on digital tools.

However, just as important as having the right tools is knowing how, when and why you should use them. Part of this involves practical concerns, making sure that all employees are comfortable using the technology, but this also plays into the culture. Leaders must encourage communication by demonstrating this themselves.

One thing missing in virtual environments, for example, is the natural learning and sharing of information which happens in physical offices – but there are ways to replicate this using technology. This informal communication is just as important as formal messaging, and organizations must find a way to continue this stream of information away from the office environment.

This example highlights the need for interoperability and a user experience of virtual and digital tools which supports effective and productive output. If systems are disconnected, there will be a considerable amount of lost time and opportunity for people to connect and collaborate virtually. Creating the right user experience for employees is intrinsic to building a productive learning culture, the technology must be connected and intuitive, as easy to use as we have become accustomed to in other areas of life.

And, as capable as the technology must be, we must also bear in mind the need to excite and engage users. It is not a simple case of ‘if we build it, they will come’, employees must be guided towards the digital tools with a clear understanding of how this will benefit both the organization and the individual. To maximize the impact of combining learning and communications, organizations must prioritize employees, considering their learning needs holistically, moving from the what to the when, how and why.


Move with agility

When looking at the business landscape, it is possible to observe organizations at different levels of recovery from the initial shock of the pandemic. Many businesses – either through government-forced closure or fear of the unknown – paused activity, choosing to ‘batten down the hatches’ in the hope they would avoid the worst of the storm damage. However, as has always been true, it is those who are most adaptable to change that are the most likely to survive.

Though COVID-19 will not always be a factor, the takeaway for businesses should be the importance of moving quickly in response to all changes in their markets. This agility and ability to move at pace ensures a competitive edge, whereas those that move more slowly risk losing ground. In turn, agility builds resilience, and this will protect the organization from existing and future threats.


Share the impact

Learning is all about the sharing of information, turning that knowledge into actions that make an impact on business performance. Yet, many HR and L&D professionals struggle to communicate the impact learning can have upon the success of the business. Often, L&D is among the first thing to be cut when budgets are tightened, but when aligned with the goals of the business it is intrinsic to the organization’s performance. HR and L&D leaders must communicate this to the C-Suite, gaining a place in board-level conversations.

As organizations have had to quickly adapt to the accelerated rate of change, many have adopted a new culture of continual training and learning. Businesses can capitalize on this, pairing employee desire for learning with the organizational need to upskill and reskill in order to create a learning culture – and, by extension, a business which is agile, responsive and resilient.

By building a learning culture, the enterprise can protect itself from future threats and ensure its ability to grasp potential opportunities. Organizations who prioritize building a learning culture will surely be those who survive and thrive in the years to come.