We are starting the year with a series of articles on learning cultures: What constitutes a learning culture, the key elements that need to be in place, the benefits of having a learning culture and how to build one. This first article focuses on the question, “What is a learning culture?”

Back in 2010, learning expert Josh Bersin famously (at least in learning and development circles) said: “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organisation’s learning culture.” Bersin made this comment in conjunction with the publication of a Bersin report titled, “High Impact Learning Culture: 40 Practices for and Empowered Enterprise.”

Fast forward several years, and analysts and learning experts are still talking about the importance of building a learning culture. And if Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report is anything to go by, there is more talking about it than achieving it. Just one in nine (11%) of the survey participants said their organization had an excellent learning culture, with under one-half (43%) saying their learning culture was good.

What is a learning culture exactly? Lots of different definitions have been formulated over the years and many organizations choose to create their own definition. One of the most popular ones is attributed to the corporate executive board (CEB) before it was acquired by technology research and consultancy organization Gartner. This definition is “a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in its 2020 report “Creating Learning Cultures: Assessing the Evidence,” says that there are some common themes found in thriving learning cultures, including:

  • Supporting individual learning and transformation, and allowing this knowledge to shape business strategies and processes.
  • Encouraging teams to learn and reflect on their work and proactively influence strategy and process change.
  • A willingness to learn and improve from the wider organization and key decision-makers.

Nigel Paine, an expert, author and speaker on learning and leadership, places much more emphasis on collective learning, rather than individual learning. Paine believes that four key elements need to be in place in order for organizations to achieve a true learning culture: trust, leadership, engagement and empowerment. We will discuss these elements in more detail in the next article in this series.

Whatever definition an organization chooses to adopt, or to create internally, one thing is certain: A learning culture encompasses the whole organization. It’s not a directive or initiative from learning and development (L&D) or the top team. They may lay the foundation by fostering and facilitating a learning culture, but they don’t own it or manage it.

When it comes to learning cultures, ownership has to be organization wide. The whole workforce needs to be engaged in learning, individually and collectively. It has to be a way of doing and being, what’s known as “how things are done around here.” And it needs to be voluntary. People need to want to learn and they need to be engaged with their role and looking for solutions to organizational problems, whether they are small problems within one department or larger problems that affect the whole organization.

Deloitte’s “Global Human Capital Trends 2016” report makes much of learning in the flow of work. Organizations need to help employees learn in the flow of work, both through giving them access to the right learning content and tools and enabling them to learn from and with their colleagues, peers, managers and wider network, when and as they need to.

Thinking around learning culture has changed over the years as workplaces and industry have changed. These changes have largely been driven by technological innovation. In tech years, it’s a long time since that Bersin report in 2010 and a lot has changed since then in terms of how people learn. Not that Bersin was the first to talk about learning culture. The educational theorist and practitioner Etienne Wenger, for example, talked about concepts such as social learning in the 1990s, and there were others before him, too.

Tech has completely transformed how, where and when we learn. As a result, there is now much greater depth and breadth of learning. Digital tools and technologies offer us many more learning modalities, which can only enrich and deepen the learning experience.

To achieve a learning culture, organizations have to enable employees to learn in the flow of work, to access learning when they need it, how they need it and through their medium of choice, whether that medium is digital or in person. These days it’s all about choice, accessibility and relevance. It’s about on-demand learning that helps people do their jobs better.

Covid-19 has also changed the learning landscape. Has it brought us closer to a learning culture? Yes, definitely, in that it has made digital and blended learning a reality for those organizations that were opposed to online learning before the pandemic struck. Lockdown and ongoing restrictions necessitated digital learning, and many have found it to be a positive experience. The consensus is that the future of work and L&D is hybrid — a mix of digital and face-to-face work and learning, according to organizational needs and context.

Something else that COVID-19 has taught us is that in order to survive and thrive through uncertainty, organizations have to be able to adapt and pivot very quickly. That happens much more easily in companies that have a learning culture, where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes or try things out, where they don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do but will take the initiative. Agile organizations have agile learning cultures.

According to research by Bersin by Deloitte, high-performing learning organizations report several business-critical benefits. They are:

  • Innovation: They are 92% more likely to innovate and 46% more likely to be first to market.
  • Profitability: They are 17% more likely to be a market share leader.
  • Skills for the future: They are 58% more prepared to meet future demand.
  • Time to market: They are 34% better at responding to customer needs.
  • Quality: They have a 26% greater ability to deliver quality products.
  • Productivity: They see 37% greater employee productivity.

These are significant benefits: 92% more productive, 37% more productive, 58% more future ready…. They demonstrate how having a learning culture impacts on every aspect of the business. In an increasingly uncertain world, what can be more important than having the skills to deal with whatever lies next around the corner?

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, which is about how to build a learning culture in your organization.