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Building a Learning Culture

Building a Learning Culture

Everybody in learning is talking about the need to build a learning culture. A fair few business leaders and CEOs are talking about it too, which is great, because building a learning culture is not purely an L&D thing. A learning culture has to involve the entire organisation – L&D, leaders, managers and employees. It has to involve everyone. A learning culture is a way of doing and being during everyday working life, rather than an initiative spearheaded by L&D. 

So everybody (or almost everybody) is talking about it, but who is actually doing it? And how are they doing it? There is a big difference between talking and doing, but many organisations are still at the doing stage.

Nigel Paine, change-focused leader, conference speaker and author, among many other things, says it’s great that the concept has gained such traction. What he wants now is for it to become a reality. And as he says in his LinkedIn article (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/never-too-early-thinking-building-learning-culture-nigel-paine/), everyone needs to ‘get stuck in’. It’s time to start building that learning culture and move beyond the talking about it stage.

As with anything new, people tend to put obstacles in the way of making the change they need to make. Paine says there are three particular obstacles (or statements, as he calls them in his article) that people are putting in the way of building a learning culture. They are:

  • that people are building a corporate university that will be the embodiment of their learning culture
  • that they are currently an unsophisticated L&D operation and it’s far too early to start building a learning culture
  • that they need the budget to build a learning culture

But, Paine says that these obstacles (statements) show that learning professionals have misunderstood the fundamental principles of what a learning culture is. A learning culture is one where employees continually learn in the flow of work. They learn as they work, sharing their learning and knowledge. It’s not formal courses – although there is still a need for them – but the kind of informal learning that is an ongoing process.

It’s about individuals having a mindset of learning and managers empowering them to keep learning. Managers need to keep learning too, of course, as do business leaders. No-one can afford to learn a set of skills and think that will see them through the rest of their career – the world doesn’t work like that any more. Change is constant, which means there is a constant need to keep learning.

What L&D and business leaders need to remember is that a learning culture is not a nice to have. It’s a business necessity. Skills are changing all the time and the skills needed now might be critical now, but tomorrow? Tomorrow’s workplace will demand different skills. That’s why learnability has become such a desirable skill – the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. 

According to two learning experts - Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University and Josh Bersin, founder and principal at Bersin by Deloitte – there are four science-based recommendations that help to engender a learning culture. Those four recommendations are outlined in an article they co-authored in Harvard Business Review and they are:

  • reward continuous learning
  • give meaningful and constructive feedback
  • lead by example
  • hire curious people

What learning teams can do, if necessary, is to start small. Start by building a culture of learning within learning and see what happens. Look around the business and identify those areas that are ripe for learning and start there too. The hardest bit is often getting going – once you start, your efforts will snowball.

Further reading:

Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Continuous Employee Development by Nigel Paine


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Siobhán Mac Court

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  • Hi Siobhán, really useful article, thanks! By coincidence, I've just listened to the latest podcast from Good Practice in which they speak with Ed Monk from the LPI and discuss what makes a great learning organisation and how L&D can support the development of a business's culture. And also whether 'developing' a learning culture is actually possible! It's worth a listen. 

    Personally, I think fostering a mindset amongst staff that makes learning a part of work is essential and those 4 recommendations from the HBR article seem very logical. 

    Thanks again for the article, I'll be checking out those sources in more detail! 

    178 — What makes a great learning organisation?
    The LPI recently surveyed learning leaders, asking them to name their toughest workplace challenges. The results? Creating a learning culture, develo…
  • Brilliant blog Siobhán  ... and I so agree. Sustainable learning cultures need to become 'the norm' in corporate ecosystems and for that to happen it needs to be a lot more employee-centric... as any culture change starts with people, win-win!

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