The Learning Flywheel

Active learning cultures and access to professional development opportunities are key factors that influence how long an employee stays with a company and how engaged they are while they are there. In a recent APCO Insight opinion study, 65 percent of respondents identified continuous learning opportunities as the most important factor when considering whether a company is a good place to work. Additionally, Gallup research suggests that having a defined learning culture leads to higher levels of employee engagement and positively impacts retention rates and overall profitability.

Learning & development can take a business from good to great.

How? By maximizing the potential of the people within.

Learning is a continuous and consistent process. Our brains are hardwired to always be in “on mode” for learning and as a result, even the smallest interaction presents an opportunity for growth. We learn from on-the-job technical skills, training, regulations, processes and procedures, while applying acquired soft skills throughout all phases of our work. We also learn from meetings with our colleagues and research conducted for our clients. Acknowledging lessons taught by constructive feedback and failure help us operate with a “growth mindset,” and harnessing the collective power of these experiences can lead an organization to unprecedented levels of innovation and creativity.

Learning is embedded into everything we do. The important question becomes, is your company intentionally driving the learning culture or are you just letting it happen?

At APCO, we take a 70/20/10 approach to learning where 70 percent comes from on-the-job training, 20 percent is gained through developmental relationships, and 10 percent of learning happens through formal training and professional development.

Over the past few years, learning & development has become a strategic global priority for APCO and a source of competitive advantage in the talent marketplace. However, building a thriving learning culture did not happen overnight. To illustrate this shift, I use the flywheel effect, which is adapted from Jim Collins’ work Good to Great.

The key premise of the flywheel effect is that with any significant transformation, “there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough.”

Below, I have integrated the main stages of the flywheel effect with LinkedIn’s elements of transformative learning. This can serve as a guide to (re)building a learning culture in your company.

Stage 1: As with pushing a flywheel from a resting position, creating a learning culture starts slow. It takes great effort to make incremental and, at first, unnoticeable change.

Key ideas: The first step is to target the psychological aspect of learning and help your employees understand the “why” behind the culture shift.

Key actions: Align on the long-term strategic direction and outline learning goals, objectives, and progress metrics. Support with theories, models, and specific knowledge.

Stage 2: Gradual changes in behavior lead to momentum building over time, causing the flywheel to move faster.

Key ideas: Consistent direction, messaging, and approach are the keys to success when building a learning culture.

Key actions: Enact fundamental elements of the learning strategy that allow employees to observe, apply, and implement the new ideas. Keep it simple.

Momentum is generated as progress is made, habits form, and tangible results are recognized.

Stage 3: Eventually, momentum takes over and a breakthrough occurs. The learning culture becomes a source of attention and competitive advantage.

Key ideas: As learners experience ‘Aha! moments’ and gain individual insight, their belief system and view of the culture permanently change.

Employees that reach this stage become loyal drivers of the culture and push the strategy further.

Key actions: Keep the wheel turning in the same direction. It will be tempting to change course but reinforcing the collective actions that got you to the breakthrough will result in sustainable adoption of the culture.

Common pitfall: In direct contrast, companies that hinder the flywheel’s momentum and slip into patterns of reactive decision-making will find themselves in the doom loop. This ominous state is characterized by attempting to manufacture the breakthrough point and bypassing the hard work, intentional behaviors, and consistency required to arrive at it naturally.

Key mistake: At this point, the company often stops the flywheel and changes to an opposite course of action. This process is repeated each time desired results are not achieved, and momentum is lost for good.

Creating a learning culture is a long-term talent strategy that requires a top-down mindset shift from organizational leadership and a dedicated vision for what is yet to come. Committing to continual learning in the workplace is a smart investment of time and resources that supports creative thinking, skill development, retention and ultimately allows a company to build a reputation as an employer of choice.