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What is a learning culture?

What is a learning culture ?

Defining Learning Culture


There isn't a single definition of what constitutes a learning culture, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 


The important point is that L&D and organizational leaders think about what they understand by a learning culture and what it means in their organization and in their context. Just thinking a learning culture is "a place where people do a lot of learning" isn’t enough.


Engaging the whole organization 


For a start, a learning culture requires the whole organization to be willingly engaged with learning. It’s not about pockets of excellence dotted around the business, where some people have a hunger to learn more and to drive the business forward, while at the same time having other employees who are just jogging along, going on courses from time to time, but not really engaged in learning or improving business performance. And it’s not about the senior leadership telling people they have to learn.


A learning culture exists when every employee is engaged in learning, for their own benefit, for the benefit of their team, and for the benefit of the organization as a whole. It’s when employees want to learn how to do their job better, how to help a system work more effectively, how to improve a product or service, to solve problems…. It’s about having the right collective mindset, where everyone is bought into the idea of continuous learning and continuous improvement.


Learning Culture: more than one definition


Let’s look at a couple of definitions of what constitutes a learning culture, starting with this one: “a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization”. That definition reportedly came from CEB (the Corporate Executive Board) before it was taken over by the technology consultancy and research organization Gartner, and it’s a definition that is quoted time and time again.


In a piece for the Society for Human Resource Management, Robert J Grossman, professor of management studies in the US, said something similar: “A learning culture consists of a community of workers instilled with a growth mindset. People not only want to learn and apply what they’ve learned to help their organization, but they also feel compelled to share their knowledge with others.”

Both definitions talk about the importance of individual learning feeding into collective learning – people learning independently, from, and with others and sharing learning around their organization.

It’s this focus on collective learning that really interests Nigel Paine, expert, author, and speaker on learning and leadership. He says a learning culture is one where learning focuses on solving organizational problems. And he says four elements have to be in place in order for an organization to have a learning culture: trust, leadership, engagement, and empowerment. Find out more about those four elements and how Paine says they relate to learning cultures in our next post in this series, an interview with Paine about Building a learning culture.


Learning Culture Case Study

Learning culture & technological innovation


Technological innovation has transformed the way we learn


In learning organizations, learning isn’t ‘done’ to people, via a course or a top-down initiative. Although courses and specific learning interventions can be very effective and are an important facet of learning cultures, they need to form part of a bigger picture of learning.


Organizations need to enable and encourage employees to learn from and with each other and for learning to happen in the flow of work. This requires a culture of communication and collaboration, and it also requires the right tools and technology. Employees need to be able to work and learn digitally, whether they are working in the office, from home, or a mix of both.

The Covid-19 pandemic put learning and learning teams under a very bright spotlight. Back in 2020, the big question was: “How does learning happen when everyone is working remotely? How do people access the information they need, and how do they maintain connections in the virtual world?” Now, the focus is more on managing disparate work environments.

  • How does learning happen with a hybrid workforce?
  • What’s the role of technology?
  • How can people collaborate, communicate and share learning during these times of uncertainty and disruption?


Learning during times of uncertainty & disruption


These are all big questions, and the pandemic showed that those organizations with a strong learning culture were able to pivot and adapt to the changing landscape more quickly and effectively than those that didn’t. And those organizations tended to be the ones with the right technology and processes, enabling them to respond in an agile way. In learning organizations, the tech facilitates learning that is timely, accessible, and relevant. And there’s a choice – employees have different content and modalities available to them.

Of course, many organizations that had been slow to embrace digital pre-Covid 19 had no option but to dive in when the pandemic hit. And many of them did it very effectively, discovering that digital working and learning actually works! That’s why so many are planning to take a hybrid approach in the long term.


Furthermore, 50% of the workforce will need reskilling by 2025. Read how to address the skills shortage with a learning culture.


Learning culture - a catalyst for business performance


High-performing learning organizations in numbers


Having a learning culture brings other important benefits as well. The consulting organization Bersin by Deloitte outlines several business critical outcomes enjoyed by what it calls high-performing learning organizations. The research found that high-performing learning organizations are more innovative, profitable, productive, future-ready, customer-focused, and quality-assured. Here are the standout statistics from the research:


  • 92% more likely to innovate
  • 46% more likely to be first to market
  • 17% more likely to be market share leaders
  • 58% more prepared to meet future demand in terms of having skills for the future
  • 34% better response to customer needs
  • 26% greater ability to deliver quality products
  • 37% greater employee productivity

Bersin’s founder (Josh Bersin) is so convinced of the importance of having a strong learning culture that he said: The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture”.

That’s a pretty strong statement, but one that many people would agree with.


Creating a learning culture

The next post in this series is an interview with Nigel Paine, on the topic Building a learning culture.


Learning Culture Case Study