Learning is crucial for growth, but how can organisations create space for it? I talked to Chris Davenport, a Senior Enterprise Account Executive at Udemy, about how to build an effective learning culture and measure its success.
This article is a summary of our interview with Chris in the Playing the Culture Game podcast, a fortnightly interview series where we dive deep into the people & culture space.
Jump to a topic:
Why does a learning culture matter?
Chris: That’s a great question, and there are so many answers. To pull out a couple, I think first, it’s about how quickly the world is changing. On the one hand, the number of new skills we need is increasing — not just in tech and software, but for people like managers who suddenly need to manage remote teams. And on the other hand, we’re seeing a kind of reduction in the shelf life of the skills we have.
“If we’re not investing in ongoing learning and development in organisations, we’re going backwards, and that has a compounding effect.”
A second answer is that it’s really hard to hang on to talent at the moment. Learning and development are obviously a weapon in your arsenal for retaining that talent.
Making learning a business priority
How can companies make learning a priority?
Chris: It’s true that time is often the number one barrier to starting a learning culture. Everyone’s busy.
“Businesses are usually looking for quick wins, and learning can be seen as something more long-term. Actually, you can certainly get quick wins out of learning. It’s about reframing the problem.”
To give an example, not too long ago I was talking to a customer whose key problem was that their staff were overworked. It was a tech consulting firm and they had a backlog of open customer tickets. They said, “Look, learning’s just not the priority right now. We need to keep knocking over these tickets to keep our revenue stream running.”
In situations like this, as a business, you just need to dig a bit deeper. What’s causing that backlog? Is it that you don’t have enough staff, or that the staff don’t have the skills they need to handle the challenges? For this customer, it boiled down to the fact that there were only a few people on the team who could handle certain requests about cloud-based applications. So the solution was to build that knowledge across the team.
That was a quick win from learning: it met a front-of-mind, business priority. Not all examples are going to be that relevant, but it’s still about understanding the context and digging deeper.
How can companies create time for learning when there are so many other business challenges?
Chris: To start with, the right culture has to be driven from the top. You’ve got to have buy-in at the senior level, and you have to create a learning agenda from an operating perspective.
Flowing on from that, you need to carve out time in people’s diaries for learning to happen.
At Udemy, we have something called DEAL hour, where DEAL is an acronym for Drop Everything And Learn. It’s one hour in people’s diaries each month where they can’t do anything else other than learn.
DEAL hour learning doesn’t have to be a Udemy course: it can be anything that’s related to personal or professional development. Recently, we had a couple of team members who were headed to a conference, and they used their DEAL hour as their talking point to prepare for that.
The important thing is that the hour is there for you. It’s built into the operating rhythm. We back up DEAL hour with a Slack channel, which is like a book club. Everyone posts the courses they’re spending time on or the podcasts they’re following, so they’re always sharing what they’re learning or doing. And that builds accountability. No one’s going to call you out if you’re silent or not posting, but having that activity encourages people.
“At Udemy, we’re really about driving the right behaviours and rewarding those. There’s no stick involved.”
We use DEAL hour and the Slack channel to create our learner spotlights, where someone is recognised as, say, the top learner for that week. There are rewards and prizes, but again, it’s more about highlighting people who are driving the right behaviour.
What should learning and development focus on?
Chris: There’s both push and pull when it comes to learning.
Obviously, there’s going to be some learning that’s more pushed out. That could be for compliance reasons, or it could be more strategic, where an organisation wants to drive certain capabilities in order to succeed. But this is only part of building a learning culture — maybe 50%. For a successful culture, you have to look at the full piece.
So about 50% of the ownership should also come from the employee, to pull out what they need to learn and what will keep them developing personally. It doesn’t always have to be about knowledge or skills that they’re going to apply immediately in their role.
I think it’s important for a business to set the right tone around what learning is for.
“Successful learning isn’t about ticking a box and just doing this piece of compliance. It’s about empowering an individual to develop themselves.”
Employees need to see learning as something that they don’t only have to do in work hours. And they need to be able to use work time not just for learning skills that are directly related to their role, but also for developing themselves personally.
Let me give you a good example. I think it was the first or second lockdown, and the number one course that was trending on Udemy was about stress management. That skill is obviously important for an employee in their professional life, but it’s also useful in a personal context. So that course was probably also helping people deal with the changing nature of what was happening in their day-to-day lives.
The number two trending course at that time is more interesting: it was about how to work at home with kids during a pandemic. So that was obviously a more personal course, but it would have a follow-on impact on a learner’s professional life.
What a successful learning culture looks like
How can organisations measure the value of learning?
Chris: Basically, learning and skills acquisition are a way for a business to solve problems. So first of all, you need to look at what your business problems are. You have to get clear on the problems, and also on what data you have that you can track and then tie back to learning.
Take company turnover, for example. If the number one reason for people leaving organisations is that they don’t have enough development opportunities, then you can have a pretty good hunch that increasing those opportunities will have a positive impact on your turnover. So you just need to make sure you have data points in place to track that. You can have exit interviews to find out why people are leaving and use them to measure the value of your learning culture.
Of course, turnover is caused by lots of different things, and access to learning and development may be only one part of the puzzle. But it’s a start.
“It’s about being realistic, tracking, and having data at your disposal to make sure you’re measuring the impact of learning.”
Is course completion a reliable measure of success?
Chris: It’s a delicate topic, because businesses so often use course completion as a key metric for judging whether learning is landing — whether skills have been acquired and put to good use to solve relevant business problems.
But personally, I can’t say that course completion alone is a good measure of that. An example I often give is a course I have on Excel. I don’t need to be an Excel expert for my role, so while the course has about 200 hours of content, I don’t need all of it. I just go back to it when I need to know something or I’ve forgotten something, and I apply that to solve a challenge I’m facing.
That’s just a small example to show that while course completion certainly has a place in the data set for measuring whether learning is landing, it’s only one part of it.
How can we maximise skills transference from online learning to real-world applications?
Chris: I think the blended approach works best. There are certain skill sets and capabilities that are better suited to different types of delivery, so the best solution isn’t only face-to-face or only online teaching.
There are statistics about how much knowledge a learner retains after longer instructor-led training, say over the course of a few days. And they’re actually really low: maybe we retain only about 20% of that knowledge. The stat goes up when you shift to on-demand training, which is typically online. In that situation, a learner is pulling out content and doing a small bit of micro-learning. They have the time to digest and retain what they learn.
So the best of both worlds might be to have face-to-face, instructor-led training that’s followed up by online or on-demand training. That way, you make sure that learners are putting knowledge into practice and can easily jump back to build on their learning. Or you can mix things up and put on-demand learning up front and follow up with instructor-led.
You can do it in different ways, but a blended approach like that is best.
Chris Davenport is a Senior Enterprise Account Executive at Udemy. Follow him on LinkedIn.