Do You Have a Learning Culture?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but notice how cultivating a ‘culture of learning’ is growing in importance in our organizations.  The formats available cover the gamut from one-on-one coaching and traditional classroom to ‘on demand’ online training, team-based, learning management systems, net forums, and blogs.

What is a Learning Culture?

“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, they also feel compelled to share their knowledge with others.” (How To Create a Learning Culture, by Robert Grossman, HR Magazine, May 1, 2015.

The Business Case 

The research linking learning to business success is compelling. “Companies that learn fastest and adapt well to changing environments perform the best over time,” says Edward Hess, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).

“Some jobs are disappearing due to the increasing use of technology and automation, and the positions that are emerging require quick thinking, creativity, and high social and emotional intelligence, Hess says, making the ability to learn more important than ever. Companies with nimble learners can react quickly to disruptions, adapt to meet the demands of a changing business climate, and harness a wealth of ideas for new products, services and processes.”

Creating the Culture

Hess suggests that we define the behaviors we want and the behaviors we do not want. For example, if you want employees to challenge the status quo and be candid with their colleagues at all levels, we must teach employees how to do that.  We need to incorporate it into our organization’s approach to learning.

In Mark Feller’s 8 Tips for Creating a Learning Culture, he states that in a learning culture, everyone is expected to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs).  It’s more than training; it’s where learning permeates the culture.  Learning needs also differ between individuals, generations, and topics.

Leaders need to model the behavior they want to see.  They need to allow employees to experiment and to fail.  Experts say that failure is integral to learning.

Make It a Core Value

From the time someone is hired and on-boarded into an organization, HR and line managers need to ‘talk up’ the culture of learning, and training and development opportunities.  Frankly, it should become one of your organization’s core values.  

One way to tell if you are making an impact is to survey your employees.  For example, if you conduct engagement surveys, see if there is any improvement in answers about employee development and learning.  If you offer an online library or a learning management system, assess whether employees are taking advantage of this format to learn.

Readiness for a Learning Culture

Many of us will need to begin to infuse the mindset of a learning culture into our organizations.  We can expect to receive resistance from some, and support from others who enjoy the benefits of this approach.  Leverage your early adopters and position them on key projects and other initiatives, so their behavior can ‘rub off’ and begin to permeate throughout your organization.

Reward ‘how’ someone has accomplished something and not just ‘what’ was accomplished.  This will reinforce that we value what we say we value.  

The Bottom Line

Like it or not, we need to hire smart and look for candidates who have a penchant for learning and are comfortable sharing their knowledge and learning from one another. Using behavioral interviewing and assessments, find out if applicants are inclined to take calculated risks and whether they like demanding tasks.

Risk taking or “failing forward” needs to be supported by your organization.  And yes, we need to encourage mistakes as long as they support learning and growth.  If there are repercussions for making mistakes, employees will become ‘risk-averse’. 

Give teams stretch assignments requiring them to innovate and master new skills. Recognize teams rather than individual performance.  Reward what we say we value.  

Finally, model the behavior you’re seeking to achieve by becoming a lifelong learner yourself and continuously monitor outcomes of learning programs to ensure everyone is engaged and challenged. “You can’t take your learning culture for granted,” Hess says. “Maintaining it requires rigor and daily vigilance.”

I think Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting, LLC in Coral Gables, Fla., sums it up best, “In a learning culture, you’ll find people learning because they want to.”

the HRmeister


How To Create a Learning Culture, by Robert Grossman, HR Magazine, May 1, 2015.

8 Tips for Creating a Learning Culture’ by Mark Feller for SHRM, July 20, 2017