Creating a culture of continuous learning in the workplace

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Case study: ‘Major/Minor’ (MjMi).

When we leave school and enter the workplace, the tendency is to think that we should know everything. In fact, many of the behaviours that we exhibit are to either demonstrate what we know, or hide what we don’t. Unfortunately, knowing everything is not only impossible, but pretending we do is also severely limiting. Imagine all the opportunities we miss by not asking ‘why?’ or ‘what?’ or ‘how?’. All the bits of knowledge we stifle, as we jump in to say what we know.

It’s just as damaging at an organisational level. When we have a culture of ‘know it alls’ we get statements like: “That’s the way we’ve always done it” and passive-aggressive resistance to any change. Because, of course, change would mean they wouldn’t know it all anymore. In a landscape where the only certainty is change, this makes the business sluggish and slow to respond to the demands for change. Not good!

This case study looks at a program we created for an advertising agency wanting to change but finding all the reasons not too. After extensive enquiry, we settled on this simple one idea:

“We want our people to become students of their profession.”

We loved this because students are optimistic, itching for change and full of potential. The challenge was that we needed to do it all while accommodating business as usual and to do this we needed to create a program that would allow staff to feel comfortable asking questions, to become students again.

One of the biggest challenges facing any business culture change are people’s job titles. They are dangerous things that we (as a society) rarely review or question. While they can give someone identity and clearly define their role (in and out of work), they can also have two very harmful side effects:

  1. By defining someone’s full-time role with a job title it can conflict with what their role could or should be on any given project and;

  2. Job titles signal what a person's capabilities are but by that same notion, they say what they are not.

For example: When there is a person on project team who has a job title of ‘Designer’ people will often refer to them for creative direction and restrict individual creativity. Inversely the designer is rarely heard when the discussion turns to finances. While it’s easy to think that this is the way it should be, the reality is humans are more than their titles but are often marginalised by them at work.

Side note: Job titles are a fence, be careful what they close you off to and who they keep out.

With this in mind, we called the program ‘Major / Minor’. It was no accident that we used collegiate language to signal to people that learning was on the agenda.

Here’s a Q & A of how it worked:

Q: What is the ‘Major’ and what is the ‘Minor’?

A: All employees have a ‘major’ which is their primary job title but all employees were invited to nominate themselves for a ‘minor’ as a focused area of study.

Q: How many minors were offered? For how long?

A: There were four minors supported per semester (5 months per semester) and there were two semesters per year. The program ran for a total of two years.

Q: What was the structure and time commitment?

A. There was one workshop per month for each minor. While we experimented with the best time of day we mostly ran them between 4.30 - 6pm.

Q: Who decided on what ‘Minors’ were on offer and who ran them?

A: Leadership chose six areas, aligned with brand and strategy. Some were based on trending technologies, some were about cross-departmental learning and some were related to passion areas of their clients. From the shortlisted six, we asked staff to vote on which four were going to be on offer that semester - giving the employees important autonomy in the process.

Q: Who ran the syllabus for each ‘Minor’?

A. Each ‘minor’ had a staff champion who we worked with to determine the best Subject Matter Expert (SME) to support their workshops. We paired subject SMEs with facilitation SMEs, to ensure that quality of facilitation was both of a high standard and consistent across topics.

Overview of the ‘minors’ offered to agency staff.


Semester 1

Photography 101

In these workshops, you will start with the basic principles of photography and then learn to break them all. Grow your appreciation for this art or open your mind to the possibilities of image making.

SME’s: Matt Jensen: Studio photographer, Jason Edwards: National Geographic photographer

Wine Knowledge (Key client was a wine company)

Stop sounding stupid and increase your knowledge of wine, from how to hold a glass, to how it’s made, to what specific varietals are, to how it should be drunk and enjoyed.

SME: George Samios, world-renowned sommelier

Story Telling (Writing)

Hear from songwriters, screenwriter or novelists. You will be part of workshops that offer eclectic voices that bring different perspectives on the way they approach storytelling and the written word.

SME’s: Adam Briggs, writer, lyricist & rapper; Marc Martin, children's’ author; Rachel Carbonell, journalist; Nova Weetman, young adults’ author

Virtual Reality (VR)

Each workshop will look at a different VR experience. Along the way, you will be asked where we are going and, maybe more importantly, where should we be going, as virtual reality becomes the reality.

SME’s; Adrian Bosich, Airbag; Eric Darnell, Director (ACMI talk); Zero Latency (VR game experience).

Semester 2

The evolution of gaming

As gaming blurs the lines of VR, e-commerce, entertainment and social life will redefine our understanding of who games, how we game and why we do it. Take a look at all the latest console updates and hear from people who live gaming.

SME’s; Zero Latency and Millepede.

The short clip

From memes to political campaigns telling a story in the space of an animated gif, this mini-movie had become big business. Immerse yourself in the best short clips the internet has to offer, and learn how to think through stop motion story-telling.

SME’s; Richard Overall & Nick Sellars (Short film series)

The entrepreneur within (Making a MVP)

Learn how to start from scratch with the minimal viable product (MVP) and then go for it. We will look to explore successful Kickstarter case studies and hear from a few different self-starters – including their fears, their successes and all the things they learned along the way.

SME’s; Athan Didaskalou, Three Thousand Thieves; Adam Jelic, founder of MiGoals and many Kickstarter success stories.

Art of performance (Confidence workshop)

A look at body language and the basics of acting. A theatrical approach to better presentation skills.

SME; Lukasz Embart, actor & teacher

Extracts from the staff surveys:

Top 6 learnings

[ + ] Positives, [ - ] Negatives

[ - ] Exec. team was not fully apart of the program

The leadership team fell short of embracing the idea of being ‘a student of your own profession’ for themselves. So while there was great enthusiasm, their absence from the program sent a conflicting message.

[ + ] New leaders emerged across the organisation.

With the formal structure of departments and job titles shifted we found leaders emerged and took ownership of different minor programs. They found a voice they didn’t previously have and as a result, many of them were promoted within six months of the program launching.

[ + ] Amplification

The program promoted itself in different ways. Initially through the use of internal posters and later through installations around the office. The method was less important than the awareness and importance it was given. PDF’s in people’s inboxes were less impactful, generating far less discussion. We would recommend well-crafted film where budgets allow and well-designed posters as a secondary option.

[ + ] Empathy

Because the program was designed to create cross-departmental teams, we found that it broke down the assumptions that people held about not only the capabilities of others, but also themselves. People in accounts expressed unseen creativity and also found an appreciation for how difficult it can be.

[ + ] Growth Mindset

The program made it ok to admit lack of knowledge. In fact, it promoted it by virtue of requiring employees to apply for a minor. Alongside people’s new found respect for the knowledge of others, it created a culture of being open to admitting weaknesses, seeking out knowledge, openly sharing expertise. Of being able to say “I don’t know…….yet”!

[ + ] Staff recruitment and client interest

The program became a key reason people decided to work for the agency. A learning culture was a big drawcard. While clients were never directly involved, the message of perpetual learning resonated in the telling of the agency story.