Building a learning culture: what is it and why do you need one?

Reading time: 5m

AuthorSteve FinchHead of Customer Success
Reading Time5 minutes

“Creating a learning culture builds on boosting efficiency and cultivating agility. But it is so much more. It is about creating a workplace in which staff want to work together differently, solve problems and drive innovation. This is about creating a workplace that attracts the very best talent.” – Laura Overton, Founder and CEO, Towards Maturity

The modern workplace is changing at an astonishing rate. As globalisation and technology continue to grow and evolve, organisations are facing fresh challenges. Skills requirements and job roles are changing, so in order to future-proof themselves organisations are having to become communities of continuous learning. A lack of supported learning opportunities is the main reason why 31% of employees have quit a job in the first six months. Modern learners want and expect talent to be nurtured, and will look elsewhere if an organisation does not invest in their development.

In these uncertain times, learning has never been so crucial to organisational success. And this is exactly what’s got us talking about learning culture.

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What is a learning culture?

We see it pop up all the time in L&D articles and hear it discussed on webinars: “We need to build and foster a culture of learning in the workplace.” But what do we mean by ‘learning culture’? Is it just another trendy buzzword in the L&D community?

According to Stephen J.Gill, author of Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organisations, a learning culture is “an environment that supports and encourages the collective discovery, sharing and application of knowledge. Learning is manifested in every aspect of organisational life. Staff are continuously learning as individuals, in teams (and other small work groups), as a whole organisation, and in relation to their communities.”

Put simply, an organisation with a strong learning culture is one in which learning is an active part of daily working life for every individual throughout the entire organisation. Learning is seen as a continuous process, integrated with daily work – to the extent that even failure is seen as a valued learning opportunity.

So what does a ‘learning organisation’ look like? Well, they tend to share the following characteristics:

  • A common vision shared by all employees
  • Open communication
  • Learners who aspire towards personal mastery
  • Encouragement and reward for individual and group learning
  • Leaders who set an example by proactively pursue self-development
  • Learning aligned to organisational objectives

These characteristics should give you a benchmark when determining how healthy your learning culture is, as well as an idea of what you could work on.

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Why do you need one?

“Today’s knowledge economy will only thrive if its driving force – adults in the workforce – learn continuously. And with skilled people now the key to business success, those individuals will need to keep learning just to stay economically active.” – Donald Taylor (Training Journal)

Research by Bersin & Associates

reveals that organisations with a strong learning culture boast 37% higher productivity. In a world where businesses are facing more and more pressure to deliver greater results at a lower cost, increased productivity is essential to keep your organisation ahead of the game. Carol Dweck, a research psychologist at Stanford University, outlined in her book Mindset that individuals with a ‘growth mindset’ – people who enjoy learning and see failure as an opportunity to grow – develop more skills, perform better and show a remarkable ability to adapt to change.

And in the rapidly-changing world of business and technology, adaptability is key. With the rise of AI, automation and new skills requirements, it’s a sign that the world is speeding up – and it’s not about to wait for us to catch up. It’s up to us to keep moving ahead.

So, what other reasons are there to strive towards building a strong learning culture?

1. It results in greater engagement and staff retention

Picture this: you’ve just onboarded your latest cohort of new hires. You’ve invested in their training, got them up to speed on compliance – and now a number of them have quit. When we consider that the cost of finding and recruiting a replacement is estimated to be a staggering three times that of an employee’s annual salary, this is bad news for your organisation.

The good news though, is that building a great learning culture can boost both engagement and retention by providing incentives and opportunities for career progression. If employees’ growth and development is being supported, they will feel valued and are far more likely to stick around.

And what could be more attractive to potential new recruits?

2. It promotes collaboration and breaks down ‘silo’ mentalities

Remember Stephen J.Gill’s definition of a learning culture, that it is the “collective discovery, sharing and application of knowledge”? The key word here is collective. Learning is a shared endeavour. When people in an organisation are encouraged to collaborate, listen to others and work towards a shared set of objectives, silos are broken down and rigid mentalities are challenged in a healthy way.

It’s also important to note that a culture of learning is also a culture of inquiry. It’s an environment in which everybody feels comfortable to ask questions, share ideas and think outside the box when it comes to problem-solving – meaning less time stuck in tired, old habits and more time getting ahead in innovative ways.

3. It boosts agility and promotes innovation

A culture that is constantly questioning, exploring, feeding back and finding ways to improve is one that is always one step ahead of the game. By continuously learning, your staff are constantly empowered to think in new and exciting ways so that they can respond to disruptions quickly and with confidence.

By transforming failures into valuable learning opportunities, the top-performing organisations are always finding new ways to evolve. In fact, Harvard Business Review has noted that “exceptional organisations…try to generate intelligent [failures] for the express purpose of learning and innovating.” The study further notes that in a learning organisation, failure is not dwelt upon as a sign of defeat – it is instead recognised as “a necessary by-product of experimentation”.

And an organisation made up of forward-thinking individuals is one that is agile and flexible enough to tackle whatever new challenges the fast-changing world of business throws at it.

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In summary…

According to Deloitte, culture is implicit and can be defined in an organisation as “the way things get done” or “what people see people doing, hear people talking about and see people celebrating”. This is not something that can simply happen overnight – building a culture takes time, dedication and collective effort from the entire organisation.

But if you want to future-proof your organisation, it’s 100% worth the effort.

It won’t be easy, quick or without its challenges, but transforming your workplace into a true learning organisation is of course the very reason why you’re in L&D – because you know that the key to success is through real learning.


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