How to build a learning culture in the workplace for beginners
In a study from 2020, the CIPD discovered that 98% of L&D practitioners aspire to build a learning culture. Yet, only 36% claim to have achieved this.
We all know why it is important, but the question we often can't answer is how to build a learning culture. But perhaps there is another question that we need to ask first. And that is, "what exactly is a learning culture?"
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What is culture?
To explain what a learning culture is, we need to understand what a culture is. And let's just start with the obvious – it isn't easy to define because it is not something you can touch or quantify. You can think of culture as the opposite of nature– anything that is man-made and intangible (Fee, 2011). Usually, a specific culture would be described in terms of the attitudes, values, and traditional practices that a group of people would share. We have all heard of Japanese business etiquette and how different it is from the European or North American ones.
What is a learning culture?
If culture is intangible, how can we define learning culture? Broadly, we can say that it is a climate within the organization where people enjoy learning. But that is a rather simplistic view.
A learning culture is also about embedding learning into the day-to-day practices of an organization, promoting and rewarding learning at different levels (CIPD, 2020).
This is how we get the term learning organization. In other words, an organization that promotes and celebrates learning and where people have many opportunities to develop (Fee, 2011).
In reality, this means:
giving people opportunities to learn,
letting them challenge each other
encouraging questioning the status quo and business practices,
supporting self-reflection on their knowledge, skills, behaviors, and actions,
changing themselves for the purpose of changing the organization.
In the day-to-day, this can mean having a dedicated time for learning where employees can:
attend trainings, conferences or workshops,
watch online courses or mobile learning,
participate or observe a project,
rotate jobs or observe others,
Listen to a podcast
Get coached or mentored
Read a book and many others
But that in itself isn't enough. Once an employee has gained any new knowledge, a learning organization would encourage that person to apply it to their work, experiment, optimize processes and share their learnings with others.
6 Building blocks of a learning culture
So how can we define what it is more precisely? The best way is to look at the building blocks of a learning organization. We've developed our own list of the six most important characteristics inspired by numerous authors (see sources below) and our own experience.
A learning organization:
#1. Supports personal mastery
One of the key human drivers is to become really good at what you like to do. And yes, it is usually applied to our hobbies. But the same principles apply when we are at work. We want to be seen as experts and to feel proud of our accomplishments. This can be motivating to a lot of people and inspire them to create change.
Example: you want to become the head of the L&D department in a few years. A learning organization would encourage this by supporting you professionally, emotionally, and even financially.
#2. Creates on-the-job learning opportunities for all employees
This is a pretty straightforward one. In a learning organization, all employees have access to learning and, what's more, are encouraged to apply it back to their job.
Example: A QA wants to develop an automated test to check for bugs in the software before releasing it to the users. A Learning organization would also sponsor this person to attend a course or a qualification program. But that's not the end of the story. This person would also be encouraged to apply everything they learn back on the job, find an optimal solution that works for the specific software and language, and train other people on the team. This way, the organization not only supports the personal development of this QA but also ensures it is applying the best practices from the industry.
#3. Empower people to make decisions by challenging the status quo.
There is a famous quote by Steve Jobs "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do".
If you help your people become smart but then rob them of the opportunity to challenge you, your organization is doomed. You will be taking away its power to change, adapt, be innovative, outrun, and outperform the competition.
Empowerment has another dimension too. It is about supporting the culture of asking 'why'. When people learn, they feel motivated to do more and try new things. But this can only be helpful if that person understands their growth's impact on the work and the organization as a whole.
Example: An employee is part of a succession plan to step into the role of a manager. A Learning organization will allow that person to try new management approaches, implement innovative solutions, and challenge the status quo so the team can grow and become more productive and engaged (…and profitable by proxy).
#4. Encourage collaboration, feedback, and knowledge sharing.
We learn a great deal from each other. And feedback plays a key role in this because it is a wonderful opportunity to improve ourselves. If we do something well, it would be great to know about it so we can repeat it in the future. If we suck at something, the sooner we know, the sooner we can change it.
Example: A customer support agent is not reaching their Net Promoter Score (NPS) targets. They are encouraged to talk to their colleagues and try new things. But their performance will not improve quickly unless they have immediate access to their NPS scores to monitor their progress. They need to see the link between their approach and how customers rate their experience as soon as the interaction is over. Moreover, this agent would need continuous feedback from their peers and manager to know what specifically they need to start, stop and continue doing.
#5. Inspire active experimentation and learning from mistakes quickly.
When working on something new, you can either:
Work on it for weeks to polish every last detail and then present it to the client or user OR
Get a rough draft to the client or user, ask for feedback, polish the draft and ask for feedback again; repeat until the final product is just what the client needs.
If you're a perfectionist, the second option probably sounds like torture. But the truth is that the quicker you can make some mistakes, the quicker you can learn from them and move on to other things. Making room for mistakes lets us collect intelligent information so we can improve while still making progress on our work. It's important to remember that we all make mistakes. And that is ok! As long as we learn from them and we never repeat the same mistake twice. A learning organization not only allows but encourages mistakes, as opposed to perfecting month-long projects only for them to fail upon their first encounter with the client.
Example: A popular anecdote tells the story of a newly hired executive who made a huge mistake and lost millions for the company. The CEO was asked why he didn't fire that person. The response was, "Why would I fire him? He just learned a million-dollar lesson. You can't train for that!"
#6. All organizational systems and practices should facilitate learning.
A culture of learning cannot thrive without the right environment. If there are no policies and procedures in place that support learning initiatives, there won't be a tangible shift in the mindset.
Example: In a company with no clearly defined and transparent career paths (i.e., if you want and can do ABC, you can pursue XYZ careers or titles), people may wonder what's the point of having access to different learning opportunities. After all, learning should have an end goal. Without it, it's just learning for the love of learning but with no applicability on the job.
How does your organization stack up against these six building blocks? Let us know in the comments below.
So is it worth building a learning culture? Yes! Can it be challenging? Of course! How can we do it? It's easier than you might think!
How to build a learning culture?
Let's assume that the desired outcome is to build a learning culture that encompasses all six building blocks above. This leaves us with the key three steps to getting there.
Step #1. Evaluate the current learning environment.
Before you can plan the route, you need to understand your starting point. You can do this by researching existing data, like engagement or cultural surveys. Or you can simply ask – in interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires. This should give you enough data to compare your current environment to the six building blocks.
Consider the existing culture within the organization because you will never be working with a blank canvas. So knowing where the ridges are, where the paint is thicker or thinner, will allow you to maneuver and build a more sustainable shift towards learning.
Step #2. Design and implement appropriate interventions.
All interventions you decide to use need to support learning at all organizational levels. Again, look at the six building blocks – how can you provide learning opportunities, encourage feedback, experimentation, knowledge sharing, and collaboration? What systems need to be put in place to allow for the shift? What communication channels should you utilize? There are many things to consider in the design.
One of the biggest challenges is quantifying what a learning culture should be. How many learning opportunities should there be? How often should managers provide feedback to their employees? What kind of experiments and mistakes are people allowed to make?
Step #3. Monitor the perceptions and attitudes.
Culture is dynamic, it's alive. You must ensure that you are continuously monitoring the perceptions and attitudes of all people throughout the organization. Whenever there is a shift, you need to clearly understand what caused it and how you can sustain it or course-correct it.
Building a learning culture is complicated, and there aren't clear-cut answers or solutions. But with the right approach and process, you can move mountains.
If you want to learn more on this subject, in our flagship course, "Introduction to Learning and Development", you'll find more information and several practical exercises to try building a learning culture yourself.
How do you build a learning culture? Let us know in the comments below.
And if you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact us via email or on our social media channels.
Creating learning cultures: assessing the evidence. (2020). https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/strategy/development/learning-cultures-evidence
Garvin, D. (1993). Building a Learning Organization. https://hbr.org/1993/07/building-a- learning-organization
Hill, J. (2021). The Benefits Of A Learning Organization Culture - Bloomfire.
Learning and development strategy: an introduction, CIPD - https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/strategy/development/factsheet
Build a winning L&D strategy, Training Journal - https://www.trainingjournal.com/articles/feature/build-winning-ld-strategy
Fee, K. (2011). 101 Learning and Development Tools. 1st ed. London: Kogan Page.
Gold, J., Holden, R., Stwerard, J., Iles, P. and Beardwell, J. (2013). Human Resource
Development. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Elkeles, T., Phillips, J. and Phillips, P. (2017). The Chief Talent Officer. 1st ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.