Business Leadership Today

Companies With a Learning Culture


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

New research has shown that the second most important factor in workplace happiness for employees is the opportunity for learning and development and that “heavy learners” are more confident, successful, and happy at work. 

When employees are happy, they are more engaged. When their employees are engaged, companies experience 20 percent higher sales and 21 percent higher profitability.

But reaping the benefits of learning requires more than on-the-job training or occasional conference attendance. It requires making learning a part of your organization’s culture and providing employees with an array of opportunities to develop their skills and move forward in their careers. 

There are many advantages to developing cultures of learning within our organizations that benefit both employees and the bottom line.

Companies with a learning culture build teams of highly-skilled, engaged employees who are committed to achieving the vision. Learning cultures help companies establish strong succession pipelines and see greater retention and innovation because their employees are always growing and developing new skills.

This article will explore what goes into building a winning learning culture and how it can benefit your organization. 

What Is a Learning Culture?

In organizational learning cultures, team members have the time and space to continually grow their knowledge and develop new skills. The learning is geared toward improving employee performance and supporting personal and professional growth.

Research has shown that one of the key features of a learning culture is an alignment between business strategies and professional development through learning.

Other notable characteristics include a qualified professional staff to administer the learning function, a dedicated budget that adequately meets the organization’s learning needs, and, most importantly, the inclusion of talented, nurturing learning leaders in the overall talent management processes. 

When setting the stage for a culture of learning, Matthew Smith, Chief Learning Officer at McKinsey & Company, says, “Like so many things, it starts at the top, and it starts with having a CEO or a senior leader who actually values learning and talks about it very actively.”

Why Learning Cultures Are Essential for Sustainable Success

Whether it’s through onsite training, online courses, tuition reimbursement, mentoring programs, or regularly re-examining current processes and past mistakes to reinforce a continuous improvement mindset, the value of providing unique learning opportunities for employees to grow and develop is immeasurable. 

In the book Learning Agility: The Impact on Recruitment and Retention authors Linda S. Gravett and Sheri A. Caldwell discuss the impact learning cultures can have on attracting and retaining top talent, as well as the consequences companies face when they don’t make learning a priority.

Citing companies that experienced tremendous growth, the authors show the connection between the eventual failure of these companies and their decision to replace “fresh thinking” with an inflexible adherence to the status quo.

To cultivate the fresh, nuanced thinking that makes and keeps organizations successful by helping them stay adaptable and agile as markets and other factors change, learning cultures are essential.

Because they are less risk-averse, learning-focused organizations have a competitive advantage in their markets, not just financially, but also in the areas of performance, recruitment and retention, employee engagement, customer service, succession planning, and innovation.

Benefits of a Learning Culture

Here are just a few of the benefits of establishing a learning culture in your organization:

Improve Performance

When team members grow within a learning culture, they develop improvement mindsets and pursue opportunities to learn and share knowledge with their teams, which can positively impact the health and future success of an organization.

Organizations with a strong network of high-performing employees are more likely than organizations with employees who perform at a lower level to have comprehensive learning cultures.

More significantly, high performers are more likely to credit an extensive learning culture with helping them achieve organizational business goals.

Attract and Retain Top Talent

Learning cultures are a magnet for attracting highly skilled candidates who are looking for organizations that provide opportunities for professional development and internships for new graduates. 

Strong learning cultures meet the core needs of growth and mastery for employees and demonstrate to potential hires that a company will invest in their future growth and development. 

Forward-thinking leaders of high-performing organizations will embed their company learning culture into the recruitment process to appeal to talented candidates. 

For example, companies such as Adobe, Lumen, and Boeing have strong internship programs that help them recruit and train top talent to develop the skills they’ll need in the future.

Boost Employee Engagement

According to research compiled by LinkedIn, employees who spend time learning on the job are 47% less likely to be stressed, 39% more likely to feel productive and successful, 23% more able to take on additional responsibilities, and 21% more likely to feel confident and happy.

These statistics indicate that employees are much more likely to be engaged in an organization that makes learning a priority. This is why it is so important to make a culture of learning part of your organization’s mission.

Increase Customer Satisfaction

In addition to its many other benefits, customers who do business with organizations with learning cultures also benefit.

When employees have an improvement mindset and a leadership team that encourages curiosity and innovation at all levels, they are more invested in the organization and better able to take care of their clients.

Continuous learning is a key part of developing and refining strategy. Managers and employees who prioritize learning are better able to locate new markets, identify the best customers to serve in those markets, and determine the best ways to serve those customers.

Develop Future Leaders

Developing strong leadership skills requires a considerable amount of training and mentorship. Organizational learning can support loyalty, buy-in from employees, and help develop institutional DNA, which can help leaders map out sound succession plans.

As organizations grow and change over time, there will be retirements and other changes that occur that leave gaps in upper management positions. Finding the right team members to step into these positions is vital for the continued success of the organization.

Developing a pool of talented candidates who are well-versed in leadership principles to fill these roles will ensure transitions are smooth. Good leaders will be well-read on a broad range of topics and committed to continuing a culture that supports continuous improvement for employees.

SAS, Amazon, AT&T, and Randstad US offer leadership development programs that help emerging leaders hone their leadership skills and chart their career paths. 

Facilitate Innovation

According to a report by Deloitte, “High-performing learning organizations are 92% more likely to innovate.” Additionally, 46% are more likely to be first to market. 

Learning cultures are known for expanding employees’ knowledge beyond their daily job duties. By encouraging learning mindsets, learning cultures create teams that embrace and thrive on innovation and risk-taking more and fear mistakes less.

In his book Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO of The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), offers some interesting takes on the link between learning cultures and innovation.

Taylor asserts that around 60 percent of learning on the job involves training on hard skills and the compliance issues companies are typically required to provide. Then there is the other 40 percent of learning, which is more flexible, “elective” training that companies support but do not mandate to meet any legal requirement.

When you provide these opportunities to employees as part of a culture of personal growth and professional development beyond compliance, it can boost innovative thinking across departments. 

Companies such as Porsche, Verizon, IBM, and Repsol have established innovation labs to make continuous innovation an organizational priority, generate disruptive ideas that make them stand out from their competitors, and build more agile, adaptable teams. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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