How to create a learning culture

A working culture where learning is embedded right across the organisation sounds like every L&D professional’s dream – and it’s easier to achieve than you think

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The topic of learning culture has been trending in recent years, particularly in light of the pandemic. While the ongoing skills gap and the ever-present threat of the ‘Great Resignation’ continue to plague organisations, it has become critical for L&D to provide impactful workplace learning that is more than implementing tick-box training courses or accruing CPD points. A learning culture is no longer a nice-to-have, it is a need-to-have.

Getting down to brass tacks

By its very nature, a learning culture is a tricky concept to pin down, and a quick Google search throws up myriad confusing definitions. But Michelle Parry-Slater, founder of Kairos Modern Learning and author of The Learning and Development Handbook, says the key to creating a learning culture is to first examine the values that lie at the heart of the organisation. “Culture is a reflection of the people who work in a company, thus a learning culture is one manifestation reflecting a wider company culture’s ‘ingrained innate knowing set of norms’,” she explains. “If a company is not interested in people development, L&D is pushing on a closed door and will need to address more systemic shifts first, before a true learning culture will become an ‘ingrained norm’.”

For Dr Nigel Paine, an organisational development specialist and co-presenter of internet TV channel Learning Now TV, a learning culture is where information, ideas and challenges are openly shared and worked on collectively: “The knowledge resides in the spaces between people rather than locked in an individual’s head. That rapid sharing of insight and challenge allows organisations to react fast to changes and helps build resilience.” 

Unpicking the concept further, Valerie Anderson, professor of human resource development and education at the University of Portsmouth, believes that a learning culture is what goes on at the implicit level in the organisation: “You don’t have to look much further than the business or boardroom culture to understand what unspoken assumptions about learning will prevail,” she says. “The reality is, the most impactful learning in the workplace occurs during the working day, as problems arise and are tackled. It’s when people get the chance to reflect on their experiences, especially when things do not go as expected, and work out how to do things better in the future.”

When it comes to the cornerstones of a learning culture, what needs to be in evidence in order to help it flourish? For Paine, the essential components are trust, empowerment, engagement, a respect for diverse views or contrary opinions, and free debate. “The leadership in the organisation has to embody those aspirations and demonstrate them every day. It is pointless trying to increase the quantum of learning if the environment in the organisation is toxic,” he says. 

Embedding a culture

Creating a learning culture can be complex, particularly when it means changing outdated views on what L&D is and how it fits into an organisation’s culture. A recent CIPD survey on professional L&D found the barriers to a successful learning culture include: leaders with traditional expectations of L&D; seeing learning as a cost centre not an investment; learning initiatives not being regarded as a priority; and social learning not being supported. It seems L&D has the odds stacked against it.

Karen Meager and John McLachlan, organisational psychologists, founders of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy and co-authors of Time Mastery and Real Leaders for the Real World argue that dispelling the myths around learning culture is about cultivating learning ambassadors at the top of the organisation: “When a leader is seen to invest in their own learning and development it sends a strong signal that it’s worth doing, which inspires and motivates others to follow. A poor learning culture often comes from leaders that may well arrange and promote training, but then bail out themselves, giving the impression that learning is optional.”

Adnan Bajwa, head of learning at South Bank University Group, adds that line managers need to be part of the equation too: “Yes, leaders need to role model the organisation’s commitment, but line managers can use a coaching approach to facilitate high performance through learning and doing too,” he says.

This commitment from the leadership team to invest in future development of talent and not get distracted by short-term metrics is key, notes Meager: “Learning takes time. From the leadership will come a growth mindset, which recognises that people can’t learn without taking risks. Mistakes are an important part of learning and failure must be seen as positive, so leaders need to be supportive and indeed own their failures as a learning experience.” 

The Covid-19 effect

The last two years have taught us the importance of agility, particularly considering learning was one of the hardest hit areas in organisations. Overnight, demand for remote solutions – and the training to use them – put L&D in the spotlight, but responsive teams quickly implemented systems to enable company-wide learning to continue. Now there is a little more breathing space, what ways of working are organisations channelling into their learning cultures?

“Covid-19 has created ongoing ramifications as to how organisations are set up. However, it has demonstrated the importance of identifying skills gaps, such as the ability to change, readiness and agility, and the need to have the right knowledge management systems in place,” says Melanie Green, research advisor at the CIPD. That said, Anderson points out that online learning isn’t for everyone, and the digital divide means too much emphasis on digital will see some of the workforce left out. “The pandemic has taught us that more learning can be achieved online than we ever thought possible. However, it does not replace informal, on-the-job experience as a basis for learning at work,” she says. A good learning culture makes space for diverse learning approaches, tailoring them to the needs of the individual, the team and wider organisation, notes Green. “It is how learning is delivered rather than the medium used to deliver it that is important,” she adds.

Optimum learning culture

Acknowledging that continuous learning is a necessary element in organisational success, how can HR and L&D professionals implement what is needed? Parry-Slater advises examining the organisation from every angle. “Consider what motivates people, what are the expectations of learning and working, and build up,” she says. “Start small. Try some new ideas. Evaluate those trials. Learn from them and go again. Revolution in learning culture happens when something systemic needs to shift at a culture level.”

For Bajwa, the technology to manage learning systems is also an enabler for a burgeoning learning culture, and having an intuitive learning management system (LMS) aligned to performance management processes helps keep the learning organised and accessible. “We also encourage staff to share learning through presentations, masterclasses or digital uploads, and run events such as staff awards that showcase employees that have stretched their comfort zones to produce outstanding benefits for both themselves and customers.”

Paine adds that a focus on business metrics, business improvement and banishing statistics about how much and for how long people learn is important to allow a learning culture to take root. “We need to change the role of L&D so it is about empowering and facilitating, not running course catalogues,” he says. “Do the field work. Find out what is holding people back; do not take a manager’s word for what the problem is. If you present an accurate picture of what learning can do to improve productivity, innovation and growth, the C-suite will listen.” 

A one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate, says Anderson. “Learning in small businesses will be operationalised differently than in larger settings. But learning culture should reflect a straightforward approach that makes sense to everyone.” It should also be supported by the HR function: “Recruiters need to help L&D by assessing skills gaps and hiring people with a learning mindset, which will help to embed a rich learning culture,” adds McLachlan.

Learning culture is essentially a mirror of the organisational culture, and is not something that can be implemented overnight. “It’s not only L&D’s remit but the whole company’s,” says Parry-Slater. “Work together on getting the setup right so the learning itself can flourish and a learning culture emerge,” she concludes.   

Responding to pandemic panic with ‘just-in-time’ agility

Wendy James, leadership, learning, talent and diversity director at BT, explains her response to Covid-19

At BT, we use a variety of online platforms including Pluralsight Skills to provide on-demand, flexible training programmes to employees, with short, effective courses that can be completed in just 10 minutes. We allocate specialist learning platforms to people according to business priorities, and individuals decide what learning is relevant and at what level. All employees at BT have access to learning on whatever device they choose, at whatever time they choose and in multiple languages, with accessibility options. This provides employees with the autonomy to take control of their own learning and career pathways. 

During the pandemic, we had to expedite our modernisation strategy and enhance our IT practices at a rapid pace. This meant the move to more online digital platform learning was sped up. Our team in India, for example, managed to pivot from mainly in-person learning to online within four weeks. Learning across hybrid working environments meant we had to generate a culture of continuous learning, which could be integrated into work and life. 

To deliver this type of tailored, flexible learning, we adopted more just-in-time learning through Pluralsight, which provides relevant upskilling that can be delivered immediately and put into practice. With technology advancing so rapidly and the skills needed to make innovation a success constantly changing, a just-in-time model is crucial for employees to learn effectively, while the business can respond to its adjusting direction of travel. 

The pandemic helped many of us to accelerate our use of online learning and we will continue to look for ways to develop an effective online experience. The need for pace, scale, accessibility and the breadth and depth of the content needing to be covered means online is here to stay. We need to carefully evaluate the different resources, methodologies and technology we have available in the learning profession to ensure we deliver the right product to the right people at the right time.

Read the CIPD’s Creating learning cultures: assessing the evidence research at bit.ly/CIPDLearningCultures