There is no doubt that training plays a critical role in organizational culture. When done right, the organization’s vision, values and strategic goals are woven into everything from onboarding new hires to training managers to upskilling employees.
The more important question is whether your organization has a culture of learning. One study found that top-performing organizations are five times more likely to have a culture of learning than lower-performing ones. In addition, they are twice as apt to say that their learning department helps meet organizational business goals. Another study found that companies with strong learning cultures were 92% more likely to innovate, 56% more likely to be first to market and 17% more profitable than their counterparts. Conversely, organizations with poor learning cultures breed conformity, suppress innovation, struggle to keep their top talent and customers, and ultimately fall behind in a number of ways.
The Corporate Executive Board defines a learning culture as one “that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization.” A learning culture goes far beyond the workshops and training programs hosted by the learning team. Those offerings are certainly a big part of the picture but the real culture of learning lives in the beliefs and attitudes of its people — specifically around two key questions: How do we help people learn, grow, and improve? And, perhaps more importantly, what do we do when people make a mistake or fail?
Learning and failing are inherently linked. You cannot have a positive learning culture if you do not also have a culture that is safe for taking risks and making mistakes. This has been verified by Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmondson’s research on psychological safety , a global study by Google on company culture, and Stanford professor, Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset.
A positive learning culture is not owned nor created by one department or program. It lives in the collective efforts of all members of the community. Learning and development (L&D) and talent professionals are intimately involved in creating a positive culture of learning because they typically develop or sponsor an organization’s learning strategy and related offerings. They also build learning champions across the organization.
Let’s look at some essential strategies that can guide everyone who cares about building a culture of learning.
1. Build Critical Components of a Learning Culture Into All Your Offerings.
You need to intentionally equip your people to play their role in creating a culture of learning. For example, ensure your management and leadership programs teach leaders how to cultivate a growth mindset, create psychological safety, provide effective coaching, give and receive constructive feedback, and demonstrate empathy and other qualities of emotional intelligence. Employee programs need these elements plus information on how to empower their development, either in concert with their supervisor or if necessary, around them. Onboarding should introduce new hires to the values of continuous improvement and the support and resources available to them.
2. Lead by Example.
Human resources (HR) and L&D are often called the “keepers of the culture” and it is very true. Ultimately, organizations always reflect the health of these critical teams. When HR and L&D are not thriving, the rest of the organization is held back. Globally recognized experts Dr. Brené Brown and Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott have made similar observations about executive teams. This is Conway’s law in action, a concept that originated in computer programming, that the quality of a product reflects the quality of the team that builds it. A Harvard study of Conway’s law found evidence of this mirror effect in all kinds of organizations.
HR and L&D departments need to be places where it’s safe to take risks and make mistakes. The managers on these teams need to be great at coaching, and their employees need to frequently engage in learning. When these groups don’t have a positive culture of learning, it’s difficult for them to create it across the organization. If HR and L&D are not in good shape, this needs to be your first priority. They also need to work together, trusting each other and leveraging their unique perspectives and strengths to serve the rest of the organization.
3. Highlight Leaders That Exemplify a Growth Mindset.
The healthiest and most vibrant organizations have leaders who talk about their mistakes, share insights they’ve gained from experience, and engage in their own quest for improvement. They also advocate for and invest in learning. They not only promote learning events but participate in them. The key here is humility — the best leaders never assume that because they sit at the top of the organization, they have nothing left to learn. In fact, the best leaders are the hungriest learners. A leader’s beliefs, attitudes and actions cascade through a whole organization, making it much easier for the talent teams to get traction.
Perhaps most importantly, leaders hold managers accountable for the health of their teams. This one is a biggie. All of the above efforts fall flat if managers are not evaluated and rewarded based on the health of their teams. High-performing organizations do not turn a blind eye to the damage being done by poor managers.
4. Align Your Systems and Processes to a Positive Culture of Learning.
It’s important to review and refresh your performance management process. If you only measure performance by outcomes, you are missing something vital — cultivate a growth mindset by measuring and valuing growth and improvement. A portion of each employee’s evaluation score should reflect their efforts spent on learning and improving. And it should factor in how you give rewards. If you truly want to create a positive culture of learning, you need to consistently demonstrate that learning and growing are valued — make that in your review and rewards process.
It’s clear that learning is at the heart of how we reach our fullest potential — as individuals, as organizations and as societies. The good news is that our biology is set up to help us learn every day. Creating a positive culture of learning in your organization is critical to its ongoing success. It helps you not only develop your talent to meet today’s challenges but starts preparing them now for the bold new future that awaits.