Practical steps to kickstart workplace curiosity

Einstein Quote on Curiosity

“We want to create a learning culture.”

Have you heard that one lately? Maybe from your company’s senior management? As organizations seek to retain talent and differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace, the idea of a “learning culture” is now in vogue. Great news for L&D, right? Well …

L&D can’t create a “learning culture.” If we could, we would have wrapped that up a long time ago. Yes, dedication to continuous learning can be a differentiating capability – as companies like Google have proven over the years. Yes, L&D is part of that equation. But creating this culture is one of those “everyone’s responsible” things that plague the workplace. Honestly, I wonder how many executives can explain what they mean by a “learning culture” as it relates to the needs of their employees and customers. While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed by the statement above, I think it should be stated as a question …

“How can we help our employees evolve in ways that support our desired organizational culture and business results?”

Learning isn’t even mentioned in my question. That’s because it’s a constant for every employee in every organization. My question focuses on how organizations can help this inevitable process happen more easily and in ways that support their desired objectives.


It all starts with curiosity …

Before they head down the learning path, management must consider the role of human curiosity within their organization. I believe curiosity to be the foundation of all learning. I want/need to get better at something – so I seek out and/or pay attention to things that help me get better. Think about it outside the context of the workplace …

  • Why do you Google?
  • Why do you fall down the YouTube rabbit hole?
  • Why do you spend so much time checking your phone and scrolling social media newsfeeds?
  • Why do you touch the plate after the server already told you its hot?

Humans are naturally curious. This curiosity helped us survive and evolve into the dominant species on the planet.

Now think about your workplace. How easy is it to be curious? Or – how difficult is it to activate the sense of curiosity that serves you so well in the real world? Are you able to leverage the same behaviors at work that you do at home (like your Google Reflex)? Unfortunately, the answer is NO for many employees, as organizations do not establish and foster the fundamental components of an ecosystem that can support and reward instinctual curiosity. Without such a foundation, the idea of a “learning culture” cannot be realized and sustained.


So what can we do?

Like I already said, this isn’t an L&D problem – but it is a problem for L&D. This is one of the reasons our formal offerings fall flat. This is why its so difficult to be helpful. This is why our industry has fallen behind the times and continue to fade towards organizational extinction.

While we can’t fix this problem on our own, we can make it known and act in ways that support the acceptance and growth of workplace curiosity. Here are a few of my practical ideas to kickstart people’s existing curiosity … 


#1 – Make Curator a formal role

The idea of working out loud (WoL) is GREAT! I do it. You should do it. Everyone should do it! But …

  • Most people don’t naturally share long-form content. Consider the mentality/behaviors of a blogger vs. that of a standard Facebook or Instagram user.
  • It takes time and effort, both of which are often in very limited supply in the modern workplace.
  • It requires simple, user-friendly places in which to share your work – which usually either don’t exist or carry stifling administrative restrictions.
  • If it does catch on, a lack of consistency can create a pile of noise that limits the utility of shared knowledge. Imagine Wikipedia without at least some of the red tape.

Before WoL can scale to a meaningful degree, I believe we must install formal organizational curators. This person would spend all of their time hunting information to create more easily-leveraged content. With someone there to drive the right level of process and consistency, employees would be more free to WoL in ways that are convenient. A dedicated Curator could also close the shared knowledge gaps that plague organizations as they continue to over-rely on traditional documentation – often written by lawyers for lawyers.

Because “curator” is not a traditional workplace role and can be spun as a “learning” function, many L&D teams could kickstart this idea on their own to a limited degree and without seeking formal agreement from senior management (at least at first). And yes, you may need to forgo an established L&D role in favor of this new function – for both strategic and budgetary reasons.


# 2 – Adopt a single-source mentality

Imagine trying to find information on the Internet without a search engine. That’s basically what we ask employees to do when we use multiple content repositories (SharePoint, LMS, social network, etc.). Yes, the sum knowledge of your workplace is no where near as vast as the Internet. But, we typically need to find information much faster and risk greater repercussions if we come up empty at work.

In the real world, our natural curiosity is driven by access. Thanks to the Googles of the world, we can find what we want NOW with minimal effort and high reliability. This will get even easier as AI advances and enables increased personalization.

L&D usually doesn’t control every workplace content repository. However, we don’t have to take part in this fragmentation of information flow. We must adopt a single-source mentality for everything we share. Preferably, we should leverage the tool that is closest to the employee workflow – which is often NOT an LMS. If we maximize access through familiar mechanics like search and embedded links, we can trigger many of the same curiosity-driven behaviors that employees are using when they pull out their smartphones to read Star Wars film reviews.


#3 – Demand simplicity in experience design

Many of our favorite apps are also the simplest to use. They adopt familiar UI constructs and feed into existing user behaviors. This is the opposite of most workplace tech. How many HRIS systems look like the apps and websites you use at home every day? The self-inflicted complexity of the workplace has led to the duct taped monster that is corporate IT. On top of that, we then add L&D stuff in our own systems. No wonder people avoid the LMS!

We can’t fix workplace UI, but we can refuse to make it worse. Demand simplicity in everything you do. Exploring new tech? Consider only tools with familiar, user-centric functionality. Building online content? Make it look/feel familiar to the average person. Remember – eLearning is not something you typically encounter on the everyday Internet.

Don’t attempt to satisfy yourself or your L&D peers with your work. Seek feedback from your users that includes statements like “wow, that was easy.”


#4 – Support user-generated content

Employees are ALWAYS going to create their own stuff. Ugly PowerPoint presentations. Poorly laid out newsletters. Job aids written exclusively in Comic Sans. Get over it!

The only way to keep up with workplace knowledge is to enable employees and leverage their content as part of a larger information ecosystem. Rather than attempting to strike down unapproved “contraband,” L&D should find those people who are willing to share and make it easier for them. This is where your Curator can come in handy. Not only can we collect and flip user-generated content for scaled use, but we can also help employees improve their development skills and sharing behaviors so they can provide even more value to their peers.


#5 – Leverage content recommendations

Why do you watch one YouTube video vs. another? It’s usually not just the title or thumbnail image. Views beget more views. This is the nature of virality.

In addition to added curation efforts, we should leverage peer recommendation to drive content awareness. Depending on your resources, this could take on a variety of forms:

  • Have a LIKE feature in your Intranet? Share real-time reporting on the most liked content by topic.
  • Tracking content views with Google Analytics? Report on the most viewed articles.
  • Does your LMS or portal allow for the creation of custom learning paths? Help your power users build and share the paths that aided in their development.
  • Collecting level 1 feedback? Aggregate and share scores from formal learning opportunities, even if they aren’t all 4.5 and above.
  • Limited to simple word of mouth? Curate feedback and share with potential users by publishing a regular newsletter or email distribution list.

Social networks over-reach on the idea that we must like what our friends like. However, there is a certain amount of truth in that assumption, especially when you add the context of shared roles and responsibilities in the workplace.

This extends to the idea of related content. After all, “if you liked this then you’ll also love this” is the foundation of the YouTube rabbit hole. Find ways – automatic and/or manual – to connect content based on common topics/interests and help employees navigate, especially when multiple systems are involved.


#6 – Prioritize helping NOW

Person 1: “We have a big problem in our business.”

Person 2: “OK – give me 4 to 6 months, and I’ll be back with a possible solution.”

Why is this exchange OK when it comes to workplace learning? It’s not OK – especially given the speed with which modern organizations evolve. While there will always be foundational skills that fit a formal, long-term approach, we must prioritize our ability to help employees in the moment of need. Depending on your industry and resources, you could …

  • Ensure performance support is well-understood and integrated into every L&D strategy and project
  • Embed community managers within workplace social networks to drive on-demand Q/A opportunity
  • Enable your training staff to go into the operation to provide hands-on support, especially during periods of high volume/stress
  • Maintain an easy-to-access list of subject matter experts to support employee questions
  • Leverage your Curator and single-source mentality to make sure source documentation is available to support all formal training offerings

#7 – Influence people who penalize curiosity

Many of my suggestions assume at least moderate trust within the organization. Trust that people sharing information know what they’re talking about. Trust that people will be there to answer questions when you need them. Trust that it’s OK to take time to share what you know. And, perhaps most importantly, trust that you won’t be punished for admitting that you don’t know something.

L&D can’t fix trust. It’s a top-down, deeply embedded cultural factor in every company. However, we can look for ways to identify and influence areas of mistrust. For example …

  • Are you reporting on LMS content utilization? Report utilization by team to management to see how it reflects their aspirations for a learning culture.
  • Have you heard people bad-mouthing employees who challenge established process or create their own materials? Find out more about those employees, their motivations, and the potential impact their efforts are having on their teams.
  • Pay attention to your social networks and look for SMEs who come off as defensive when questioned. Bubble these concerns up when they recur.
  • Have you heard through the grapevine that certain managers don’t allow their team members to use internal social networks? Don’t let it go. Ask them why!

This suggestion has a little bit of a “narc” feel to it. Take care not to be perceived in this way. Focus on understanding and influencing, not just reporting potential issues.


Would you say that your organization has a learning culture? Why or why not? What role does curiosity play? How do you enable people’s natural sense of curiosity?

Practical steps to kickstart workplace curiosity

by JD Dillon time to read: 8 min
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