Continuous Learning - A Hackers Guide

By Adam Lacey

8 minute read

Getting people to be proactive about their own learning in an organisation is not easy. It takes time, commitment and leadership buy-in to really work, but it is possible. The issue with any task that looks insurmountable is where to start. What ripples are required to make the tidal wave of change you need?

We’ve been working for the last 6 months with a number of companies using our magpie product to try change the way their staff thinks about learning at work. Ideally, these companies would undergo a large change programme, including new teams, budget, consultants and organisational investment. They don't have this option and it’s likely you won’t either, so we’ve put together a hackers guide to embedding continuous learning. Tips, tricks and strategies we’ve learnt as a small business helping large companies make these changes.

The most important thing to remember is “do something”! Every accomplishment starts off by completing one small task, so we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to get started.

DISCLAIMER: The ideas below may not work in your company or could take years to filter through. That doesn’t mean you don’t start them now.

A safe environment for learning

Let's start by looking at what you're trying to achieve, a safe environment for learning. Empower your staff to feel comfortable spending time watching educational videos on YouTube, discussing with colleagues how to share their skill sets, and openly recommend to peers new ways to get better at their jobs.

Workplace learning is changing. As the world becomes more digital we're continuously having to learn new skills with every new piece of software or process that is introduced.

So, how do you achieve this?

As Britt Andreatta says on LinkedIn, the first thing you need to do is “honor the ever-present nature of learning. Learning is happening every day whether you notice it or not”. It’s so true, and that starts at the top.

Senior buy-in is imperative to enabling on-going learning and allowing staff to take control of their own development.

If you’re in a large organisation, you need to work the senior channels you have access to in order to make the case for how important this is for the company. As Josh Bersin says:

“Culture is created by, reinforced by, and often destroyed by leaders.  Among the 40 high-impact practices we found, we estimate that 8 are owned by top leadership, 25 are owned by line management, and only 7 can be owned by HR or L&D.”

So you need to engage leadership across your business. The main arguments to put to leadership around why continuous learning is so important are:

  • Competition. You need to innovate to stay ahead of competition. Learning is the quickest route to innovation and ideas are mostly borrowed rather than novel.
  • Talent Retention. From our own experience we know that investment in training, skills and personal development is often just as important to the employee as pay and other benefits. If you can develop and retain the right talent you’ll save a fortune in recruitment and lost productivity getting new starters up to speed. A Bersin study in 2010 of High Impact Learning Organisations revealed that these companies with a strong learning foundation are:
    • 32% more likely to be first to market
    • 37% greater employee productivity
    • 34% better response to customer needs

(Thanks to Oracle for the above summary)

  • Technology. Technology continues to disrupt every industry. The internet has immeasurably changed business over the last 30 years and Artificial Intelligence looks poised to do the same over the next 30. To keep up with this change learning needs to be personalised, focused and engrained into company culture.
  • Revenue. All these arguments feed straight into the bottom line. Unless you’re in government it’s likely that revenue and profitability are the things the senior decision makers are most worried about. Link learning to revenue using whatever business models and financial forecasts you can.

You’ll know best how to position these drivers and who to make the case to. Keep banging the drum for the above and change will start to happen. Send emails, arrange meetings, hold focus groups with senior leaders. Gather their opinions and use that evidence to build a business case, forecast revenue gains and influence them with your continuous learning agenda.

Top Down, Bottom Up

So you are starting to get traction around the idea of continuous learning. How do you create momentum and start to make things happen? Broadly, I believe there are two ways to do this:

  1. Top down
  2. Bottom up

Top down

“Do as a say, not as I do”. An old joke around leadership but one that probably feels familiar. A diktat comes down from senior managers requiring staff to do something. There is little context, or reason why. Unfortunately learning interventions are all too often like this, especially compliance training. This approach simply doesn’t work for a continuous learning organisation. Staff need to be fully bought in to learning and the rewards it brings. That means changing a mindset, not telling someone to do something.

Leading by example is critical to this change. Getting buy in across the C-suite is so important yet a Deloitte survey said that 73% of respondents claimed their C-suite leaders “rarely, if ever work together on projects or strategic initiatives”. If the top level aren’t working collaboratively then your job in L&D to get cross department buy-in will be tough. For this reason it’s important you start at the top when trying to alter existing mindsets.

Leaders across the organisation (from junior to senior) need to be evangelising the benefits of learning because they are doing it themselves and are better for it. This means that leaders must:

  • Use the learning technology and content in the company and feel the value of it themselves
  • Play some part in the buying and implementation processes (think expert panels, focus groups)
  • Understand the needs and knowledge gaps in their teams and challenging L&D to find solutions for them
  • Share the learning they are doing and how it’s helped their career
  • Give people time to learn. We recently ran an internal survey about learning and the top request that came back was to have dedicated time to learn, that needs to be facilitated at the team level.

Another approach that may work in your organisation is to link learning to objectives and appraisals. It’s not likely to be anyone’s main objective but it does solidify the importance of learning to the organisation and business objectives.

How do you make all the above happen? Bang the drum. Email, meet with, get input from the C-suite and leaders in your organisation until the message gets through and starts to filter down. It’s not easy.

Bottom up

You work in a call centre for a big services company. A senior leader shares some insight from a business book they read recently that relates to the broader company strategy. You think, “that’s interesting” but take no action.

Your colleague sat next to you is achieving brilliant feedback scores and offers to share the system they’ve implemented to help them achieve that - you cancel your lunch plans to learn.

You get the point.

You are more likely to pay attention to something recommended by someone in a similar position to you, especially if it will directly impact your day-to-day. Top down plays a part but it’s nowhere near as potent as bottom up will be. Grassroots adoption of a training initiative is the holy grail. Get the idea of continuous learning embedded here and you’ll be onto a winner.

Q. So how do we start our bottom up campaign?

A. Internal champions

Jonathan Richards, CEO at breatheHR says:

“There are two types of employees: those that are driven and take the initiative to learn new skills themselves; and those that are happy enough as they are or don’t think they have enough time”

Your internal champions are the first group.

We utilise internal champions in nearly every magpie client launch, they are incredibly important in securing practical end user feedback but most importantly for helping promote the tool internally.

The trickiest thing is identifying this group in the first place. Ideally they are high performers, role models and mentors in the business. They are the people that get involved with everything, the rising stars and the internal influencers. Often, these people can be identified through performance reviews and a lot of the time these people will volunteer to be part of a new initiative. If you don’t have a pool of internal champions ready to go then get an email out asking for volunteers for a new project and you’ll start to build up a pool in no time.

Q. How many internal champions do you need?

A. From the companies we’ve worked with normally 1-2% of the total company size is a great number to aim for. Ideally these people would be spread across multiple departments and seniority levels.

Use your internal champions to leapfrog into the wider business. Make sure they understand the value of what you are trying to do and be really clear on the actions they can take to support this new direction.


You cannot remind people enough about learning.

Every time we send an email to staff about learning, the usage on our internal learning system spikes and it’s the same for our clients.

If you really want to change how learning is done at your organisation then you need to continually beat the drum about it.

So many new learning initiatives fail because there is some kind of launch event, announcement and very little follow up. If you really want to change how learning is done at your organisation then you need to continually beat the drum about it. That means reminders, prompting, nudging and downright badgering until it becomes habit. This is the hardest part, the long slog that might feel like you’re not making progress.

The best comparison I can draw on for this is sales. If you want someone to buy something from you you need to:

  1. Identify a problem
  2. Propose a solution

That’s what we are all working towards in L&D. Identify skills gaps, plug them with relevant training.

How does a sales person or marketing team then convince someone to part with money? They show the prospect testimonials, they incentivise them, they make sure they have multiple points of contact, they go to the places the prospect is and most importantly, they persist. In order to change how people think about learning in your organisation, you’re going to need to apply the same logic:

  • Testimonials. Get some of your internal champions to write and share a testimonial about their learning journey. Humanise and exemplify continuous learning.
  • Incentives. Offer rewards for learning. We found when incentivising internally (we give away Amazon vouchers) it wasn’t a main driving factor of behavioural change, but it did help steer people in the right direction as we publicly recognised the winners which hopefully inspired action in others!
  • Multiple touch points. Any marketeer or sales person knows the importance of this. One email once has a very finite impact. Regular communication, reminders from your manager, positive stories from colleagues, physical reminders (posters in the kitchen) and your initiative weaves itself into the daily fabric of the work routine.
  • Go where your prospect is. This is so important and one you can test. If no one logs into your intranet, then don’t contact people there! Email is best 90% of the time, but in some organisations it might be a Slack or Yammer group. Find where your people communicate and use that method, drop the others. We use Slack internally and we’re averaging 300 messages a month in our internal Learning Channel, a high percentage of these are articles, videos, webinars and podcasts recommended from within magpie and other sources.
  • Persistence. Keep going. If it feels like what you are doing isn’t working then change your approach but above everything, keep going. Persistence is crucial to changing any behaviour. We embraced this internally by sending a pun-filled email every Friday. We know it goes down well in our business and the humour means that we get high open and engagement rates. If they stop working, we’ll try something else.

Finally - automate. If you can automate any part of these processes then do. Automatic reminder emails around a specific learning initiative are a great place to start.


The next 30 years will be defined by businesses that adapt, embrace and harness the power of new technology such as AI. To do that you need a workforce that is agile, responsive to change and well equipped to deal with new challenges. Companies full of continuous learners will thrive, those without won’t.

In L&D it can sometimes feel like we don’t have the tools to embed a continuous culture of learning. That doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference. Focus on having both a top down and bottom up impact, get those internal champions, create a safe space for learning and above all - remind people about learning, constantly communicate.

Get out there and start hustling.

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