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Matt Tenney, Contributor

According to a recent survey, 80% of CEOs cite the need for new skills as their biggest business challenge. 

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

Because learning is essential for employees to develop new skills and find fulfillment in their work, companies that foster a learning culture and offer development opportunities to their employees are laying the groundwork for long-term success with a team of engaged employees who do their jobs well.

A learning culture is a particularly important element of sustainable success in business because it positively impacts strategy, innovation, employee engagement, employee retention, and many other elements of an organization.

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

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.

Building a Culture of Learning, a report released by the Association for Talent Development (ATD), provides fascinating insight into the essential elements that go into a learning culture.

According to the report, 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 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 align with and support employee development needs.

Leaders play a vital role in developing and implementing a culture of learning, but it is about more than providing the learning opportunities. 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.”

Because learning is so intricately linked with an organization’s success, leaders who take 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 Learning Cultures Are Important for Success

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.

Here are just a few of the amazing things a learning culture can do for an 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.

According to the ATD report, 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.

Organizations that foster strong learning cultures are more adaptable, flexible, and innovative. They are also more likely to embrace change and less likely to be risk-averse.

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 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.

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

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. 

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.

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. They become more satisfied in their jobs and personal lives when they are supported in identifying and realizing their learning goal.

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. 

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 success.

Increase Customer Satisfaction

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

To establish a sound succession plan in your organization, a culture of learning is essential to developing future leaders. 

As we have discussed, 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 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.

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.

Ideal candidates will 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

Facilitate Innovation

A learning culture is a culture in which trying new things and failing is not only okay, but also 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 cultivates a learning mindset. It also helps employees connect the dots in ways that employees who do not have the benefit of working within a learning culture do not.

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.

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

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

Then there is the other 40% of learning, which is more flexible, “elective” training that companies support but do not mandate to meet any legal requirement.

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

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. 

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. 

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. 

Making Learning a Priority in Your Organization

Making continuous learning a priority in your organization is not only the smart thing to do, but also necessary in a world of constant change.

Whether it’s through onsite training, online courses, or just re-examining current processes and past mistakes in an effort to reinforce a continuous improvement mindset, the value of providing these unique learning opportunities for employees to grow and develop is immeasurable. 

Remember, 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 success.

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

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 also equip your team with the tools they need to thrive


Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world.  Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence.  Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings.  His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.

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