Why a thriving learning culture pays off for employers and employees

An active learning culture is a crucial part of a modern organisation that wants to attract and nurture the best talent. Fostering communities is a great way to achieve this.

by Angus Long

In this article, I will share my experience of building a bottom-up community at ERNI: what makes a successful community, how to start one at your company and what management can do to support.

What is a learning culture?

Like many companies, ERNI puts a lot of focus on professional development. This is simply good business - everyone knows that not all employees are motivated by salary alone.

Soon after joining ERNI, I discovered that a small group of employees had set up an informal learning platform (called simply "the ERNI Community"). People were giving their time to teach and learn new skills, even after a hard day’s work.

The insatiable learner and non-conformist in me loves this. I've made it a priority to make an active contribution and have seen our community grow throughout our international organisation. There have been hundreds of events from coding sessions to meetups on trending topics like machine learning, virtual reality and IoT.

What makes a successful community?

Think bottom-up, not top-down
A few like-minded people can start a community with a meetup or coding lab. This can become the spark that ignites the imagination of others to join in.

Non-traditional leadership
A community is mostly a self-organising entity. Community leaders are active members who organise and steer from within. They may be non-conformist or quirky. But they are always passionate about what they do and motivate others to join in.

Acknowledge different levels of engagement
People engage in communities at three different intensity levels: a) core members who take on the role of leaders, coordinators, moderators; b) active members who regularly participate in events and c) fringe members who sit on the side-lines. These types need to be engaged in different ways. At ERNI we have tried to cater for the fringe participants by recording or live streaming certain events.

How to start a community

Don’t ask – do!
Start small and operate below the radar until you gain some traction. Organise an event on a topic that you know will interest people such as a trending topic or something more social and fun.

Seek out core members to contribute
Networking is key to growing the community. Seek out people with special expertise or interests who are passionate about a topic.

Generate excitement
People will only give their valuable time if there is something to be gained, so deal with relevant and trending topics packaged in a fun way. We have had great success combining learning and social activities, for example, the Hack ‘n’ Hike weekend: an IoT hackathon with hiking in the Swiss mountains.

What can management do to support it?

Support, do not stifle
Management should support the initiative and openly recognise the achievements, but not impose too much structure. At ERNI, the company provides resources for events but does not impose goals or determine the topics covered.

Tap talent that hangs around in communities.
Some of the most motivated employees are active in communities. At ERNI, some community projects have been used as proof-of-concept for real-life applications.

A little goes a long way
Let’s face it, not every company can afford to allow its employees to invest 20% of their working time into these activities – even Google doesn’t do that anymore. However, showing a little generosity goes a long way. Pay for materials and software licences, food and drink for events; allow the use of company resources. Encourage the active members by allowing them to use company time for preparation of events.

It takes quite a lot to motivate people to volunteer time and energy to get involved in a hackathon or a meetup. With these points in mind, you can grow a successful learning organisation. Want to join me working at a company with a thriving learning culture? Visit betterjoin.erni

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