Business Leadership Today

What Is A Learning Culture?


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

Establishing a culture of learning may seem like a daunting task to some leaders.

However, if done correctly, companies that offer continuous learning opportunities to their employees can expect a huge return on their efforts.  

A learning culture is a culture that makes it a top priority to foster the continuous development—both professional and personal—of team members. In a learning culture, trying new things and failing is not only okay, it is actively encouraged.

In this article, we will discuss what a learning culture is, why it’s essential for long-term success, how it benefits employees, and how it fosters innovation.

Characteristics Of A Learning Culture

In a learning culture, employees are encouraged to continually expand their knowledge and gain new skills. The learning is geared toward improving employee performance and supporting personal and professional growth.

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) released an informative report, Building a Culture of Learning, that provides some fascinating insight into the essential elements that make up a learning culture.  

According to the report, one of the most important features of a learning culture is an alignment between learning and business strategies. 

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 the inclusion of talented, nurturing learning leaders in the overall talent management processes.

The evidence supports what we already suspect. A company with a strong learning culture must also have an organizational mission, vision, and values that are aligned with and support employee development needs.

This is where leaders play a significant role in developing and implementing a culture of learning. But it’s about more than providing the opportunities for development; an exceptional leader will inspire their team members to make learning a priority in their personal development strategy. 

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.”

Senior leadership with a learning-focused approach to the overall management process will make learning a part of the organization’s mission and business strategy by providing a variety of opportunities to meet the growth and development needs of employees. 

Why Is A Learning Culture Important

According to the ATD report mentioned above, organizations with a substantial network of high performers are more likely than organizations with lower performers 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.

Organizations with strong learning cultures are more adaptable and flexible in a world of constant change. They are also more likely to embrace change and less likely to be risk averse.

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 huge successes and 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.

A learning culture is essential for cultivating the fresh thinking that makes and keeps organizations successful by helping them stay adaptable and agile as markets and other factors change.

Adaptability, agility, and risk-taking give learning-focused organizations a competitive advantage in their markets, not just financially, but also in the areas of employee satisfaction and engagement.

Employees working within a learning culture develop improvement mindsets and pursue opportunities to learn and share knowledge with their own teams and across business lines, which can dramatically impact the health and success of an organization.

Another way in which strong learning cultures are excellent for businesses is increased customer satisfaction. 

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.

So learning cultures not only benefit leaders through helping grow the organization and build high-performing teams by ensuring employees reach professional and personal goals, customers also benefit. 

How A Learning Culture Helps Attract and Retain Top Talent

When it comes to recruitment and retention, learning cultures are a magnet for attracting highly-skilled candidates who are looking for organizations that provide opportunities for professional development.

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

It all starts with branding. Organizations that foster an environment where learning is the norm should build this organizational advantage into their brand and reinforce it regularly.

Ultimately, it’s not just how a company brands itself to the public, potential clients, or internally. Companies should incorporate their cultures of learning into their recruitment efforts to attract the best talent.

It should be apparent to potential hires in the recruitment process that the company they are seeking a job with is dedicated to a culture of learning and continuous improvement and will offer genuine support to employees who pursue development opportunities.. 

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

Professing a dedication to a culture of talent development during the interview process will resonate with candidates who are looking for opportunities for intellectual and professional growth. 

How A Learning Culture Improves Employee Engagement

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

A dedication to employee improvement and development should be a part of any organization’s culture of care. Facilitating a learning environment is one of the best and most meaningful ways a leader can demonstrate a culture of care to reinforce organizational values. 

Employees need to feel that they are working toward developing their skills and intellectual capabilities. When they feel supported in identifying and realizing their learning goal, they become more satisfied in their jobs and in their personal lives.

Facilitating professional growth by creating an atmosphere of constant learning helps employees develop new knowledge and skills that will help them excel in their jobs. Fostering personal growth opportunities helps employees achieve their personal goals and leads to greater satisfaction, dedication, and engagement. 

When employees are given the ability to master job skills that provide them with the tools to flourish professionally and expand other intellectual horizons, you have truly succeeded in building a culture of care.

By dedicating yourself as a leader to supporting a culture of learning, you ensure there is a stronger alignment of culture and values with employees that will strengthen the organization and prime it for continued growth.

How A Learning Culture Develops Future Leaders

As we discussed above, organizations with strong cultures of learning can attract top talent, engage and retain employees, and boost performance and personal satisfaction.

If you currently nurture a culture of learning in your business, you are likely already witnessing these positive effects in your organization. But you should also be aware of the future leadership needs of your business and the possibilities for success a learning culture will provide.

It’s always important to keep this in mind: 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.

Inevitably, there will be retirements and other changes that happen over time that will leave gaps in upper management positions. Finding the right team members to fill these positions is vital to the continued success of the organization.

It’s important to have a pool of talented candidates in your organization to step into these roles. 

The ideal candidates will be well-trained in leadership principles to ensure the transition is smooth. A good leader will be well-read on a broad range of topics and committed to continuing a culture that supports continuous improvement for employees.

Ideal candidates will also be imprinted with the cultural values that have made the company a success. Having “cultural continuity” is important during times of change, and a culture of learning can ensure more successful transitions. 

Offering leadership training and a mentoring program as part of your learning culture means that your organization has paved the way for filling future leadership roles with talented employees

How A Learning Culture Facilitates Innovation

In the beginning of the article, I mentioned that a learning culture is a culture in which trying new things and failing is not only okay, it is actively encouraged. 

When you have a culture that embraces learning from mistakes, as well as accruing knowledge beyond the scope of an employee’s particular job duties, this is where you really see innovation shine. 

Gaining knowledge outside the industry tied to a specific job function facilitates a learning mindset. It also helps employees connect the dots in ways that employees who don’t have the benefit of working within a learning culture cannot.

Learning cultures are known for expanding teams’ knowledge beyond their day-to-day job functions. By encouraging open mindsets, learning cultures create teams that embrace and thrive on innovation and risk-taking more and fear risk and 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.

When discussing the importance of intentional (vs. compliance) training, Taylor asserts that around 60% of learning on the job involves training on hard skills and compliance issues, which companies are typically required to provide. 

Most of us are familiar with required on-the-job hard skills and compliance training, which, though a necessary component of a learning environment, feels more like checking boxes to meet human resource requirements than real learning.

But then there’s the other 40% of learning, which is more flexible, “elective” training that companies support but do not mandate to meet the legal requirements for compliance.

This type of learning is where your team can be exposed to “big-picture, big-think, new ideas.” This is essential for innovation.

These opportunities, provided to employees as part of a culture of personal growth and professional development beyond compliance, boost innovative thinking across business lines and departments. 

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. 

These numbers have likely grown since then, as the needs for and pace of innovation have accelerated.

Intentionally cultivating a culture of curiosity and fostering individual learning in your organization can create a culture where innovation is the norm and all members of the team are invested in it as a daily, participatory practice. 

Implementing a Learning Culture in Your Organization

Making learning and continuous development an important part of your organizational culture is not only the smart thing to do, it is necessary in a world of constant change.

Any organization that has a “zero tolerance” policy toward mistakes will only succeed in creating a culture where employees do not feel valued and are so fearful of failure that innovation cannot thrive.

Leaders with the foresight to recognize that mistakes can often be turned into opportunities with the right mindset and a culture that makes constant learning a part of the job will be more likely to experience great financial success.

More importantly, they will be making a huge difference in the lives of their employees—which makes improving retention, engagement, and innovation a much easier and more organic process.

If you want to see real employee engagement in your company, employees need to work in an environment in which they are encouraged to be their best, and a learning environment can help them achieve this. 

Learning is a business strategy that will grow your organization, give it a competitive advantage,  and help it weather whatever changes may come. It will equip your team with the tools they need to excel in their field and in their lives.

Caring and compassionate leaders don’t just talk about a culture of care. They demonstrate it daily to their teams by cultivating a learning environment, providing educational and development opportunities, and helping employees achieve their learning goals.

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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