Rising to meet new challenges isn’t just exciting, it’s what keeps us engaged at work. For the entrepreneurs among us, it’s core to our beings. But it can also be a source of frustration when those challenges are just a bit beyond our abilities. Sometimes the learn-on-the-fly approach falls short and we (and, by extension, our companies) miss opportunities.

Most managers will agree that training is important, but at the typical company—and this is doubly true for startups—the day-to-day challenge of keeping the doors open trumps long-term investments every time. Intensive onboarding like Facebook’s seven-week bootcamp for new recruits is extremely rare. And ongoing professional development? I’ve yet to see it be more than a line item that gets cut by second quarter.

But just like in so many other areas, resource constraints can be an opportunity to spark new ways to train teams and support their learning. So what tools can organizations use to support ongoing learning that aren’t dependent on large budgets?

One of the most important ways to cultivate a learning culture within an organization is to celebrate failure.  Tweet This Quote

Here are four low-cost ideas that can be employed with or without cross-organization support. They are just a start, but each can help build the learning culture an organization needs to maximize its most valuable asset—its people.

Foster an Entrepreneurial Approach to Professional Development
Traditional education creates expectations that someone else needs to teach us. But if we approach this in an entrepreneurial way, we can start to see the rich opportunities in the relationships, projects, and resources at our fingertips. Interview more experienced peers, take on specific projects, complete online courses, or work through targeted reading lists.

Whether your organization forms an Open Masters group of learners who help each other, or asks individuals to design learning plans—with the help of a senior colleague—whenever they take on a role that’s too big for them, this can be a powerful approach that empowers everyone to take responsibility for their own learning.

Deploy Rapid Group Learning
An entrepreneurial approach to learning can also help when a team faces a collective skill gap, like when an organization is expanding into a new area.

There are a lot of different methods for this, but here is one way that rapid group learning can work:

  • Block out a set time period where everyone in the group can focus exclusively on the process.
  • Map out knowledge and skill gaps the group needs to address.
  • Brainstorm potential learning relationships and resources.
  • Prioritize and then divide up learning activities (reading certain books, talking to certain people, completing certain user tests, taking certain courses, etc.)
  • Iterate quickly, meeting back the next day, or in the next few hours, to teach back to the group what you’ve learned.
  • Reassess and repeat if necessary.

Make everyone a teacher
Even today, five years after working with the Ashoka U team, I still make use of some of the tactics I learned in a productivity workshop offered by fellow team member, Erin Krampetz. If one of us was knowledgeable about a topic others were interested in, we offered to teach it during a team retreat. Simple, free, powerful.

On a much larger scale, Google does this with its Googler 2 Googler program. The company can afford to bring in the best trainers, obviously, but there is something in the resulting relationships and internal network of expertise that makes this approach incredibly valuable.

Host Failure Wakes
One of the most important ways to cultivate a learning culture within an organization is to celebrate failure. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn, and a company that supports people in the latter, rather than punishing them for the former, is well on its way to being a more innovative and adaptive organization.

A Failure Wake is an event where people get up to openly share the big mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned from them. They can be organized as staff retreats or small team reflections. Regardless of format, they give everyone the opportunity to dissect their mistakes and celebrate what they learned as a result.

Have other ideas on how you can build a learning culture in your organization? Share them in the comments below.

Jessica Lax

Author Jessica Lax

Jessica Lax is co-founder of School for Change, an online school for people working in social innovation. Her goal is to maximize the impact of the social sector by changing the way the sector learns. An award-winning social entrepreneur, Lax received the Skoll Skollarship to complete her MBA at Oxford, was recognized by Chatelaine as one of Canada’s “80 women to watch," and nominated for Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 award. Before School For Change, she helped build a number of other initiatives to support changemakers, including Ashoka U, Innoweave, the Collaborative for Innovative Social Enterprise Development, and HUB Masterclass.

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