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Creating a continuous learning culture at work

November 18, 2022, 5:06 PM UTC
Executives from Accenture, Walmart, and Dropbox discuss how to foster a learning culture in the workplace at Fortune's MPW Next Gen summit in San Diego, Calif. on Nov. 15, 2022.
Stuart Isett for Fortune

Jarryn is a Walmart associate who struggled with her education. After graduating high school, Jarryn began taking college courses while employed as a frontline worker. But debt, work demands, and the pressure to make ends meet were always a priority over her education. Jarryn’s college experience was very much a start-stop cycle.

She eventually began to believe that advanced learning was not for her. Until she enrolled in Walmart’s debt-free learning program and finally finished her degree.

That was just one of many stories shared at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen summit in San Diego, Calif. this week during a panel discussion on continued learning. Hosted by Accenture, the panel featured Allison Horn, global lead of talent strategy and development at Accenture; Melanie Rosenwasser, chief people officer at Dropbox; and Lorraine Stomski, senior vice president of associate learning and leadership at Walmart. It was Stomski who recounted the tale of Jarryn as the panelists all spoke about what their companies have done to foster a learning environment and what they still have to achieve.

Despite being part of very different companies, all three panelists expressed similar challenges when working with thousands of—and in Walmart’s case, 1.6 million—employees spread across large geographic areas. How do you reach individual employees and empower them to take advantage of education and training opportunities in addition to the daily demands of their jobs?

“One of those most important investments for us is time,” said Accenture’s Horn. “So making sure that we’re not just saying the right things and putting the right things on the shelf, but we’re also giving our people the gift of time in order to invest in their own growth.”

She explained that the emphasis on time comes from the top down. It’s not enough to have a leadership team that says they are learners but to make continuous learning part of an employee’s day-to-day. That means middle managers are hugely influential in the success of programs at scale.

At Dropbox, “growth mindset” is actually a core competency for all of the employees, said Rosenwasser. Managers are responsible for supporting their employee in this endeavor but also recognizing the completion to create a positive feedback loop. That goes for failures too—the ability to apply learnings from taking a big swing and missing. “It really is that whole ecosystem,” she added.

While companies like Walmart have seen huge success with their debt-free schooling option, graduates of which are promoted twice as fast as non-graduates—it doesn’t mean that companies need to spend large amounts of money to undertake training programs. Horn shared the applied learning model 70-20-10: 10% training, 20% collaboration, and 70% application. She noted that so much learning happens on the job, so long as you are doing it with intention, and free programs like Coursera offer classes without hefty fees.

Then, of course, there is coaching—whether that comes from a manager, a fellow employee, or another professional across disciplines, Rosenwasser said.

“We have community ambassadors that are actually charged with creating events to bring folks together from various teams,” Rosenwasser said. “There is a world of learning that can take place by talking to your peers and expanding networks of mentorship.”

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