How to Build a Culture of Continuous Learning

One of the keys to my leadership approach involves building an environment where continual learning thrives, which I believe is essential for building an engaged and innovative engineering team. While encouraging this philosophy, I have propelled my teams forward through engagement in tech conferences, technical book clubs, and ‘lunch and learns’ – emphasizing the symbiosis between engineering and the business.

If you are eager to transform your primitive IT operation into a high-powered, modern engineering team you would be wrong to assume that you have other options. The only real sustainable option is to encourage and aggressively support continuous learning; it will pay dividends to your employees and your organization.

Garner Business Commitment and Secure a Budget

First things first. You must have a budget. In my experience, $5k per employee is a solid target. This amount allows participation in one week-long conference and a supplement of courses, books, learning platforms, etc.

In some cases, this is easier said than done; however, it is an essential step if your goal is to provide your employees with real value. You must sell this to your management team. Building a culture of growth and sustained engagement will not only lead to improved job satisfaction for your engineers, but will directly impact your business’ ability to adopt new technologies. Your employees will be engaged. They will be creative. Investing in team development will lead to increased productivity, higher employee retention, and the ability to innovate more effectively.

Require Learning and Experimentation

Making continuous learning and experimentation a requirement can significantly enhance your team’s capabilities and innovation. This involves setting clear expectations for personal and professional growth and recognizing and rewarding achievements in these areas. I have had success mixing and matching some of the following ideas into each team member’s annual performance objectives:

  • Technical Conferences: Encourage attendance at technical conferences. These events are great opportunities for your team to learn about the latest trends, tools, and practices in their fields. Consider allocating a specific budget for conference attendance and allow team members to select the events that most align with their interests and professional goals. Once at the event, I encourage my employees to break up their sessions in thirds; one-third of the sessions related to current projects, one-third of the sessions future projects, one-third of the sessions personal interest.
  • Technical Book Clubs: Establish a technical book club where team members can select, read, and discuss the latest books related to your technology stack or the challenges your team faces. This not only fosters a culture of learning but also enhances team cohesion and communication skills. In practice, a couple chapters of reading and meeting once a week to discuss is a great recipe.
  • Lunch and Learns: Organize regular ‘lunch and learn’ sessions where team members can share knowledge on a topic they’re passionate about. This can range from a new programming language to a project management tool. These sessions can be informal and provide a platform for team members to learn from each other. For bonus points, invite the rest of the business, and share work that typically hides behind the scenes. This is a great way to highlight team accomplishments and make work visible.
  • Experiment: Brainstorm POC projects and allow the team some space to implement new technology. This is where some of the most innovative projects are born. Encourage the team to demo working versions to inspire a continuous loop of creative thinking.

Integrate Tools and Platforms for Continuous Learning

Invest in learning platforms that offer courses, certifications, and tutorials in relevant areas. Platforms like Coursera, Pluralsight, or LinkedIn Learning can provide your team with access to high-quality content that they can explore at their own pace. Additionally, consider tools that support collaborative learning and knowledge sharing within your organization, such as Confluence or Slack channels dedicated to learning topics. An engineering wiki can be invaluable for cross-team knowledge sharing.

Foster a Culture of Feedback and Reflection

Encourage team members to share their learning experiences, challenges, and achievements. Implement regular retrospectives where the team can discuss what they’ve learned, what didn’t go as planned, and how they can improve moving forward. This not only supports personal growth but also team development. Creating a safe environment for feedback and reflection is crucial for continuous improvement.

Measure Impact and Adjust

Finally, it’s important to track the impact of these initiatives on team performance and morale. Use surveys, interviews, and performance metrics to gauge the effectiveness of your learning and development programs. Be prepared to adjust your strategy based on feedback and results to ensure that your investment in learning continues to yield positive returns.