August 12, 2021

Does your organisation have a learning culture? It's time to find out.

Melissa Malec

What is a learning culture, and why are they important? What do learning cultures look like in action, and how can you create one in your organization?

A learning culture is a company culture that supports education as a central value, and maintains a range of regular training practices for its employees. Learning cultures vary from business to business, but by and large are characterized by professional development that is easily accessible to all employees.

Read on for everything you need to know about developing a learning culture within your organization.

What Is a Learning Culture?

To define a learning culture, we should first define what a culture is. 

In simple terms, a culture is a set of collectively developed ideas and practices that is shared among a group of people. Culture is passed along socially—it doesn’t develop on its own. 

Cultures can be big or small: they can span entire countries or much smaller groups of people, like the organizations we work for.

Every business has its own company culture. This term describes the set of ideas that informs the actions of the organization and its workforce, and the habits it seeks to create among its employees.

Having a learning culture in a business means that learning is an integral part of your organization’s culture: your business embraces the idea that knowledge is important, and promotes a variety of training practices amongst its people. This stems from organizational values that celebrate and prioritise education. 


To create a learning culture you need to do more than paying lip-service to the importance of knowledge and having perfunctory training and development sessions every once in a while. 

Creating a learning culture is about holistically valuing the process of learning, nurturing a host of other values that support training, and trying to leverage education in a variety of different ways and settings within your organization.


Why Is a Learning Culture so Important?

Developing a learning culture offers a host of benefits to both your people and your business—let’s explore some of them.

Engagement

People want to learn from their jobs, they want to feel that they are growing in and beyond their current roles. For most employees, a good job is one that not only pays the bills but helps them build knowledge and develop their career with the future in mind. 

Career development opportunities at work can take a wide variety of forms, from regular workplace training through to simpler, more informal elements like getting regular constructive feedback. What these all have in common is that they’re supported by a culture of learning.

People need to gain new skills and knowledge to advance their careers, and in this way creating a learning culture directly supports career progression.

A company that can show it has a culture of learning in place can use this to attract competitive and growth-minded talent, and keep its employees around for longer.

Organizations that make learning a priority also see higher employee engagement rates. This is because they encourage employees to pursue their workplace development interests, which makes their jobs more interesting and valuable to them.

This is probably why Deloitte research finds that companies that have a strong learning culture have engagement and retention rates 30-50% higher than companies that don’t.


Productivity

The same research we mentioned above also finds that companies with a strong learning culture are 52% more productive

This is probably because engaged staff are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable, according to Gallup research.

An inquisitive mindset encourages employees to constantly examine and refine their work processes to improve outcomes such as productivity, instead of “just getting the job done”.

Agility

As technological change continues to accelerate, people’s professional skills are becoming obsolete faster and faster. Every day, companies have to make more effort to stay abreast of industry and market trends and developments. 

Prioritising learning can help employees keep gaining new skills and stay ahead of their peers at other companies, which helps their company stay competitive.

Getting accustomed to constant knowledge change through continuous learning can also help an organization create the mindset and momentum it needs to grow and stay agile.

Innovation

Deloitte research finds that companies with a strong learning culture are 92% more likely to innovate by developing new products and processes, and 56% more likely to be first to market with these new developments.

This is probably because continuous learning promotes mental flexibility, as we discussed above. 

It’s also worth noting that a learning mindset embraces mistakes as a necessary part of learning and helps its people feel safe (think psychological safety) making suggestions and trying new things, even if they don’t work. This encouragement of new ideas, even if they might fail, is a key driver of innovation and finding new ways to reach business goals.

What Does a Learning Culture Look Like In Action?

Every organization is unique and so is every culture. A strong learning culture will look different in every company, but here are some common signs to look out for.

Infrastructure

Businesses with a strong learning culture offer learning infrastructure to their employees, for example by:

  • Having a learning platform in the company’s HR stack (and no surprise, we’d recommend our own for your People stack 😉)
  • Offering learning resources covering a wide variety of subject matter and skill sets
  • Providing learning resources suited to various learning styles
  • Offering “learning leave” for educational events such as workshops and conferences
  • Offering each member of staff a personal learning budget to make sure everyone gets their fair share of learning resources
  • Giving each member of staff equal access to learning opportunities
  • Making sure everyone has designated learning time built into their work schedule
  • Offering leadership training at every level of management, recognising that nobody is above development
  • Setting up a social platform or communication stream (for example a Slack channel) where employees can share and discuss learning resources with the rest of their colleagues, and
  • Allowing employees to give the company anonymous feedback about its workplace learning setup so that it can be improved

Habits

Companies with a strong learning culture also foster processes and habits that promote reflection, knowledge-sharing and career development, such as:

  • Career development plans or personal development plans
  • Regular training and development
  • Regular knowledge-sharing exercises, such as lunch-and-learns
  • Talking about learning and career development in one-to-one meetings
  • Having team meetings to reflect on what the team has learnt after completing a project.

Participation

For a learning culture to be effective it cannot simply be imposed from the top down. Both managers and their employees need to willingly participate in activities such as:

  • Sharing ideas or knowledge in meetings
  • Sharing learning resources via a designated learning channel
  • Sharing mistakes or sticking points and asking their peers for advice
  • Giving and receiving feedback, including constructive criticism

Values

An organization with a strong learning culture will also promote ideas and values that support all of these actions. These include:

  • Valuing continuous learning, rather than training piecemeal if and when it’s needed
  • Recognising achievements in training and development, for example by publicly congratulating people
  • Embracing two-way feedback with radical candor
  • The understanding that growth and performance do not always go hand in hand, and that short-term performance can be sacrificed for long-term growth
  • The idea that mistakes are normal, not taboo, and should be shared so we can learn from them


Tips for Nurturing a Learning Culture

Now that we’ve discussed what a learning culture is, what it can offer your business, and what it might look like in action, let’s go over some tips for how you can foster a learning mindset in your organization. 

Establish Psychological Safety

For your learning culture to take root, your employees need to feel safe and supported in asking questions, sharing problems, and giving and receiving honest feedback. 

Psychological safety is so important to learning that we’ve written a separate article about it, which you can read here.

Get Everyone Involved

Culture is something that’s developed collectively. To build a learning culture you need all of your people’s help, from management down to your newest recruits.

To encourage your managers to lead the way and model the change you’re looking to create, you might need to sell them on the business benefits of a workplace training culture. You could also remind them that even the most seasoned managers need learning and development

You should also get each of your people involved from the get-go. Start by giving everyone something they can do to cultivate their own education and that of their colleagues. This can be something as simple as following a social media page that offers relevant industry insights.

Embrace Laissez-Faire Leadership and Self-Directed Learning

Laissez-faire or “let it be” leadership comes from leaders who give their people all the support they need to succeed, but value their autonomy and trust them to do well without extensive oversight or micromanagement. 

Like any leadership style, laissez-faire leadership has its pros and cons, but it’s well-suited to creating a learning culture because this requires recognising the value of each person’s ideas and work. For it to work, the stress really is on offering the support in conjunction with the autonomy.

Laissez-faire leadership goes hand-in-hand with self-directed learning and gives employees the autonomy to choose what they want to learn and draw on their own passion to pursue this.

You can have oversight over whether what people choose to learn is relevant and when their designated training time is. However, beyond this point education is fuelled by interest, which cannot be forced. 

Be Flexible with Resources

In order for your employees to learn you have to make sure they have all the resources they need.

This can be harder than it sounds because there’s no one-size-fits all solution for individual education, never mind powering the learning and development of a whole company.

When choosing an education solution, try to pick one that will meet everyone’s individual needs as flexibly as possible. Solutions (like Learnerbly) that cater to self-directed learning are great at this.

Trust your employees to tell you what they need, and try to meet these needs as best you can.


Take Feedback Seriously

Feedback is an integral part of a learning culture because it’s often how we discover that we’ve made a mistake, and how to fix it.

For your people's education to thrive, you need to regularly gather feedback from them about their workplace learning experiences and how you can improve them. 

You also need to set up feedback structures between all of your people—both two-way feedback between employees and their managers and “horizontal” feedback between team members. 

Try to cultivate radical candor so that a learning opportunity is only ever as far away as a colleague.

Remember that praising people for a job well done is also an important feedback function!

Summary

A learning culture is a set of shared ideas that validate the importance of learning, accompanied by practices that leverage daily learning in the work environment.

Prioritising learning in your organisation can improve talent attraction and retention, productivity, agility, and innovation. 

An active learning culture will look different in every organization, but generally speaking it involves valuing learning, offering robust learning resources to employees, making time for learning in everyday meetings and interactions, and eager participation in learning activities across the organization. 

Creating a learning culture is about implementing learning resources and empowering people to use them of their own accord. It also involves making employees feel safe to freely give and receive feedback with radical candour.

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