How Even Small Businesses Can Foster Professional Development

3 min read
Jul 6, 2015

Optimized-iStock_000054517368_Small_1Learning doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) stop when we get a job. In the fast-paced world of business, we constantly need to learn new things in order to stay relevant and maintain our status as experts in our industries. And as managers or leaders within our teams, it's our job to facilitate learning to support employee retention.

Case Studies Push Collaborative Critical Thinking

If you want your team to learn a new skill, a great way to put it into action is through case studies, which give the concept more importance than the skills. They allow your team to apply what they’ve just learned without fear of getting it wrong and identify areas they need to practice before applying them to their own projects. Case studies are also a great team-building activity that gets everyone focusing on problem solving around a certain goal.

Ideas Are Equal to Experience

One barrier to promoting learning at work is that people often give more value to stories coming from experts than the ideas of their own teammates. But in a world thirsty for innovative solutions, the truth is that ideas are just as important as experience.

The Learning Canvas is a tool that helps a group organize brainstorms and experiences through a pragmatic discussion of complex problems, focusing on helping one person overcome their challenge to reach a desired outcome.

Learn By Example

In his epic Management, Peter Drucker wrote: “Development is always self-development. For the enterprise to assume responsibility for the development of a person is idle boast. The responsibility rests with the individual, her abilities, her efforts.” However, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn by example. Be transparent with your management practices and how you make decisions. Allow them to ask you questions and to even shadow you for a day. And make sure they know you are working toward improvement too.

Celebrate Learning

In the business world, you need to experiment in order to learn and grow. We have best practices that should be rewarded for doing, but you can’t just have your whole team repeating them all the time because innovation would die and your competition would rise up.

Learning is optimal when we run experiments where there's a 50/50 chance of succeeding or failing. A good way to emphasize that is by creating a Celebration Grid, which allows you to chart mistakes, experiments, and practices. When an experiment is successful, it can then be converted to a best practice. As Jurgen Appelo pointed out, “A small network of very smart people invented the first iPhone. A hierarchy of thousands of workers produced the other 700 million copies.”

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Give Employees the Time to Learn

Google may have gotten rid of its 20% slack time (at least for now), but it did result in some genius that we use every day, like Google News, Gmail, and the Images search. And for a small business, 20%, a.k.a. one day a week, may seem like a lot. Maybe it’s only one day a month, or it’s ad hoc based on when they have a conference to attend. By simply offering them the time to learn, they will feel more comfortable taking it to actually start the learning process.

Provide the Tools and Space to Learn

This can be as simple as having a bookshelf where everybody shares their books and magazines. It can also mean your company buying a Kindle or tablet that allows them to read online. It’s also about providing the right physical environment to learn. Throw a couple of beanbag chairs or a sofa in a corner alongside your little library that welcomes colleagues to relax and relish in learning.

Bring Awareness to Learning Opportunities

Get in to the habit of reminding teammates that they have a chance to study and learn. Make it a practice, perhaps once a month, to research areas you and your employees are looking to grow in. Then simply share the information with them, making it easy for them to sign up with dates, times, links, and the like. This can be anything from upcoming Coursera courses and other MOOCs (massively open online courses) to webinars to workshops online or even in person that your company is willing to pay for. (And the Shotgun Rule of first come, first serve is totally reasonable here.)




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