Fortune MPW Next Gen: Creating a Continuous Learning Culture

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

She eventually came to believe that graduate school was not for her. Until she enrolled in Walmart’s debt-free education program and finally graduated.

This was just one of the many stories shared FateNext Generation Most Powerful Women Summit in San Diego, California. this week in a panel discussion on continuing education. Hosted by Accenture, the panel featured Allison Horn, global leader of talent strategy and development at Accenture; Melanie Rosenwasser, CEO at Dropbox; and Lorraine Stomski, senior vice president of learning and leadership at Walmart. It was Stomski who recounted Gerren’s story as the panelists all talked 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 described similar challenges working with thousands—and in Walmart’s case, 1.6 million—employees spread across large geographic areas. How do you reach out to individual employees and empower them to take advantage of education and training in addition to the day-to-day demands of their jobs?

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

She explained that emphasis on time comes from above. It is not enough to have a leadership team that claims to be students, but to make continuous learning a part of the employee’s day. That means that middle managers have a huge impact on the success of programs on a large scale.

At Dropbox, a “growth mindset” is really a core competency for all employees, Rosenwasser said. Managers are responsible for supporting their employees in this effort but also recognizing the closure to create a positive feedback loop. It’s also about failure – the ability to apply lessons from taking a big swing and losing. “It’s really the whole ecosystem,” she added.

While companies like Walmart have seen tremendous success with their debt-free schooling—with graduates being promoted twice as fast as non-graduates—that doesn’t mean companies need to spend huge sums of money to undertake training programs. Horn shared the practical learning model of 70-20-10: 10% training, 20% collaboration and 70% application. She pointed out that so much learning happens on the job, as long as you’re doing it with intention, and free programs like Coursera offer courses without much of a charge.

Then, of course, there’s coaching — whether it comes from a manager, colleague or other cross-disciplinary professional, Rosenwasser said.

“We have a community ambassador who is actually tasked with creating events to bring people together from various teams,” Rosenwasser said. “There’s a world of learning that can happen by talking to your peers and expanding your mentor’s network.”

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