Building a Company Culture of Learning

Valerie Lanard
Sep 24 · 6 min read

If you want to develop your employees in a way that gives back to your company, build a company culture of learning. Investing in employees helps to retain and attract them, while the ongoing benefits of refreshing the knowledge pool keep your company current and drive innovation.

majestic row of books
majestic row of books

Here are some great ways to cultivate a culture of learning in your workplace. The more of these you use, the better.

  • Tuition reimbursement (aka Learning budget)
  • Book reimbursement
  • Company library
  • Book clubs and book gifts
  • Online resource access
  • Recurring, in-person training
  • Internal and external speakers

Tuition reimbursement (aka Learning budget)

It’s pretty standard to offer employees a yearly budget to pay for learning expenses these days, but what’s not standard is following through to make sure people actually use it. That’s a huge missed opportunity for the individual, their manager, and the company. Without an investment, there can be no return. $3000–5000/year/employee is common in the San Francisco Bay Area, and this amount of money can open up access to high quality training and transformative development experiences.

Some companies rely on manager discretion for what is approved as reimbursable, while other companies standardize with a pre-defined policy.

Work-focused learning budgets can typically be applied towards costs like

  • courses
  • conferences
  • certifications

that are likely to be in useful for an employee in their current or next desired role at the company. Work-relevant learning can infuse new ideas into an organization and seed R&D efforts, not to mention improving employee skills and interactions.

Non-work-focused learning budgets are more broadly permissive and extend beyond just work-related costs. They might also cover costs like

  • metal working class
  • music lessons
  • coaching for a tangential skill

More permissive budgets reinforce a culture of learning in the purest sense. Since the benefit is clearly geared for the employee, this can signal that the company cares about a well-rounded person, not just a worker. This perk may in turn help retain and attract people as part of an overall compensation and lifestyle package, and make for a happier workplace.

Don’t just offer tuition reimbursement on paper. Push people to use it to demonstrate your commitment to their growth and a culture of learning.

Book reimbursement

Though reimbursing the cost of buying books is sometimes grouped into a learning budget, it can be offered as a separate, exciting benefit on its own.

Like tuition, a book reimbursement policy can apply to work-related books specifically, or to any genre including fiction. Buffer is one company known for offering an unlimited book benefit to its employees. When I joined Patreon, they granted employees 1 free book per quarter of any type, through the now defunct service Teamreads.co. At both companies, the book program reinforced a core value around a culture of learning.

If funding this benefit is a concern, one way to offset costs is to encourage purchasing through a penny bookseller like Thriftbooks.com (I have no affiliation) to buy pre-owned books for reuse and savings. You could even organize a periodic batch order of employee-requested books to group the shipping as well, with the caveat that this will mean disclosure of book titles to the company.

Company library

Without a doubt, your office is already teeming with books, scattered throughout. Consider consolidating them physically into a departmental or company-wide library to improve access and awareness.

Encourage employees to take a book, leave a book. Create a digital space (e.g. a slack channel) for employees to talk about books, and periodically feature books from the company library to nurture interest. A library will support reuse and inspire reading. Note you will eventually end up with some unwanted orphans and that’s ok. You can donate or recycle them.

shelf of books
shelf of books

Book clubs and book gifts

Book clubs are a great way to learn and engage in a social way. Members opt in to the club, then typically read an assigned portion of a book before a given deadline, at which point they discuss it synchronously or asynchronously. It helps to have a facilitator to keep up momentum and handle logistics.

Book clubs are communities, which makes them potentially rich for building culture and relationships between the members. With an engaged group of different minds, you are pretty much guaranteed to have richer insights into a book’s topics via a group discussion than you would through your lens alone.

What about books as gifts? If you have ever read a great book and wanted to share it, book gifting is a great way to do this. When I worked at Ask.com, a leader bought every employee a copy of the Heath brothers’ book Made to Stick, which I still consider a seminal book about communicating. It was unexpected and exciting. One Christmas, my manager bought every one of her reports a different, pocket-sized O’Reilly book. Mine taught me about test driven development, and I loved it.

Online resource access

You can provide employees access to online learning services and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which offer individual and enterprise subscriptions to vast catalogs of educational material on-demand.

LinkedIn Learning (formerly lynda.com) and O’Reilly Learning (formerly Safari Books) are two of the larger online services that offer subscriptions to a rich catalog of evolving content, from books to videos to events. These services are not cheap at the multi-user access level, but the ROI might make sense for your company’s needs, or an individual plan may suffice.

Established MOOCs like Coursera, edx, and Udacity offer vast catalogs of academic and self-paced online education, and now have corporate pricing as well.

At a certain point, companies may opt to create their own internal “universities” of online training material, consolidating company-specific resources and frameworks into learning paths accessible to employees.

Recurring, in-person training

In-person training enables an immersive style of learning that engages different senses than, for instance, books. This type of training is usually interactive by nature and provides a nice contrast to other, self-paced formats. Some content is particularly amenable to an in-person environment, where you have the opportunity to practice skills real-time with other participants.

Consider offering in-person training classes to your employees at least a few times a year. You can think of this as “continuing education” credits. For example, offer a series of classes related to skills need by people managers, team leads, and mentors, spread out over the course of the year. Think through how many times to schedule each class, so that a reasonable number of interested attendees can gain access, and so that a calendar conflict doesn’t negate being able to attend.

Why recurring? This shows a true commitment to ongoing development of your employees, and you can always adjust the schedule down the line.

Internal and external speakers

Although you’re probably familiar with the practice of hosting talks at work, let’s take a moment to examine why doing so is truly worthwhile.

Talks enable knowledge sharing, cross-pollination of ideas, and a vehicle to educate and inspire. Equally as important, talks offer employee development opportunities in terms of public speaking, presenting, supportive listening, and organizing.

Internal talks — frequently formatted as lunch and learns or brown bags — create an opportunity for employees to share expertise and experience with their peers. Content can be category-specific or broad, such as deep dives into areas of company code and architecture, insight into user research and design methodology, or what it means to be inclusive of one’s LGBTQ coworkers.

To extend access to thinking beyond your direct employee base, bring in outside speakers, peer-sourced or professional. External speakers build awareness of how other companies approach and solve problems. They can address topics that are relevant and important to your workmates. Their voices can foster empathy for your customers, modernize your workplace vocabulary, and infuse new presentation techniques into your culture.

Share the knowledge

Whichever methods you choose, create feedback loops to infuse new knowledge from the individual back into the company. For example, ask conference attendees or course takers to give a short presentation to coworkers on what they learned and what excited them. Post a book review after reading. Make learning visible and celebrated to make it part of the culture.


These are some excellent ways to build a culture of learning at your company. Have you seen others that worked well or inspired you? Let me know! Leave a response, or reach me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Valerie Lanard

Written by

Engineering Director, previously @ Patreon, Salesforce, Ask. Saving the world through bicycles, data, and puppies.

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