Since January we've been doing something that I think is pretty great: we've heroically been building an internal learning and education function. Why? Because we want to give our team opportunities for continued development, we want to be a skill-rich company and we want to ensure our services are of the highest quality.
Pretty admirable stuff, right? Not to brag, but it was my idea. *Applaud now*. Well, ok, I guess I can't take all the credit. A large part of it was the result of our actionable company values. You see, back in 2014 we did a bit of a crowd-sourcing exercise to determine the sorts of things the people who work here felt we should be aspiring to in order to become a better company. The result was a list of values that inform everything we do and among them was this gem: Love to learn and share.
To understand why this is so significant, we need to break it down.
Love: Among the many definitions of 'love' in the Oxford Dictionary is the idea that love is taking "a great interest and pleasure in something”.
Sounds obvious, but imagine how powerful this is when we apply it in a professional context; when we love our work, we love leading others, we love being creative, and so on.
When we feel this way about something, suddenly we want to do it all the time and do it well. We're also able to gain a deep sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, willingness and dedication as a result. Consequently, we're much more willing to go the extra mile, perform and deliver.
Learn: The verb 'to learn' can be defined as “to gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught”.
So if we take great interest and pleasure in gaining or acquiring knowledge of or skill in something by study, experience or being taught, then we instantly increase our chances of keeping up-to-date with the latest thinking, news and trends in our field. In fact, more than this, we increase our chances of learning to actually do these things or acquire these skills ourselves.
Essentially, this is the sort of stuff that takes an organisation to best-in-class, which is the dream. However, at Axonn we've been smart enough to realise that you need to go one step further for success: you need to share.
Share: One of my favourite definitions of the verb 'to share' is to “use, occupy, or enjoy (something) jointly with another or others”.
If we're loving to learn and share we're taking great interest and pleasure in gaining or acquiring knowledge of or skill in something by study, experience or being taught and then using, occupying or enjoying it jointly with another or others.
This might be a wordy way of looking at things, but it's a powerful one. At Axonn, it has manifested in people who go above and beyond to learn their craft and find new ways of working or problem solving. They then teach this to others.
The importance of being selfless with knowledge
It is this idea of sharing knowledge that I feel is really crucial. If we're all spending time learning great things but don't pass them on, chances are we'll unwittingly create skills gaps and people who could benefit from knowing something simply won't.
However, getting people to share knowledge isn't easy to achieve. Knowledge enables us to distinguish ourselves in the workplace and demonstrate our value. By virtue of A knowing more than B, for example, logic dictates that A is more likely to get a promotion. Many of us are very protective of what we know because of this, and understandably so. Yet taking such an approach is actually detrimental to both ourselves and our organisation.
If you don't share knowledge and support others, you show instantly that you're not a team player or aligned to the goals of the organisation. Consequently, a business will suffer not just a lack of skills but the ills of a workforce that isn't pulling together towards the same goals of providing a better service or product.
Because of this, it's not enough for staff to love to learn; we need them to share that knowledge around a business and that's why we've embedded this into our values.
A training function was born
So by now you're probably wondering how we got from loving to learn and share to a training function.
To be honest the step was an obvious one: training is the framework for us to make our value a reality.
It all happened quite organically too. I came up with the idea because it turns out I'm pretty passionate about staff development. I also noticed that we have some exceptional talent and we needed to find a way for them to pass their knowledge on to others so we don't lose it if/when they leave.
All this is driven by the company mission: to make content marketing simple for everyone. Ultimately, we want to strive for excellence (if better is possible, good isn't good enough - another one of our values) and ensure our products and services are always improving. The way to do this is by ensuring staff have the skills to innovate towards simple content marketing and deliver on that innovation.
So one day I put the idea of a formal training function to my managing director and CEO and they both agreed to it. I'm lucky because they're a forward-thinking pair and recognise the importance of skills. They're also pretty brave because they've let me become the learning and education coordinator, which basically means I'm responsible for sorting out the training for the entire company. I can't stress enough how important this foresight and faith is in getting any project off the ground, so if I've not said it before: Fergus and Alan - thanks.
I then had to get the support of the directors and department heads to ensure they would push through agendas and be willing to get involved in training. Once again, this was pretty easy because this group are amazing.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, setting up a training function hasn't been without its problems. Most of my days are spent 'chasing people'. Not literally, obviously. But I send copious emails, make lots of annoying phone calls, turn up in different offices randomly and set up more meetings then Match.com.
Despite the struggles, we've got lots done. In six months we:-
Audited company-wide policy and core competency skills
Completed a policy/process upskill across all departments
Core competency training completed in 5 key areas
Trainers upskilled in new techniques
New intranet and microsites created
Changed the way we induct new starters
Started putting in place clear career progression paths
Started a programme of leadership training
This has all been achieved for one simple reason: We at Axonn love to learn and share! Our entire learning framework is built around taking the knowledge individuals have taken the time to acquire and passing that around the company through information sessions, evergreen materials, workshops, on-the-job learning and coaching.
I'm lucky that when one of us learns something, we let other people know. We have a knowledge sharing section on our intranet, a channel dedicated to it on Slack, and we constantly email and speak to each other about great things we've stumbled across. I can then take this and ensure the right learning intervention is applied to ensure those skills are developed.
My other blessing as a learning and education coordinator is that if people feel like they need skill support, they don't hesitate to tell me. People are always getting in touch to ask if they can receive training or coaching on a host of different topics and while it keeps me rushed off my feet, it gives me confidence that “love to learn and share” are more than just words: Learning and education, training - whatever you want to call it - matters to us.
The benefits of learning and education
By creating a learning and education function at Axonn we are making sure we have the skills and talent needed to deliver a high-quality service to clients and achieve our mission.
Research shows that employees are more loyal to organisations that have learning and development opportunities and the cultivation of skills means we can keep our talent, be more competitive and future-proof our business.
We're not the first company to do something like this, but among content marketing agencies this approach is pretty rare. In fact, the Content Marketing Institute has previously identified that agencies struggle to train up their staff.
It's taken courage and patience to commit resources to our training project, but I'm confident it will pay off. What's more, I'm a firm believer that the function will and must become an important part in any business if they hope to stay at the top of their industry in the future.
“Success in content marketing depends more and more on leveraging people with skills that cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines," said our managing director, Alan Boyce. "You need writers who understand analytics, developers who understand personas and so on. Content marketing cannot be a production line. That’s why we asked Clare to unlock the knowledge within Axonn Media and make sure it’s always accessible wherever it is needed. We think she’s doing a pretty great job.”