Learning and development (L&D) today may have more opportunity to impact culture than any other area within an organization. Why? Because culture is about mindset and behaviors. And for many organizations, the culture that is needed to operate successfully in today’s new reality consists of many new behaviors and perspectives that need to be learned and developed.

L&D also touches all parts of an organization, across job levels and business units, from new hires to senior leadership and everyone in between. Learning professionals can weave an organization’s purpose and values into the stories and examples that bring learning to life. During workshops, facilitators have a unique opportunity to really observe the cultural climate and explore how people are feeling about their day-to-day experience.

What Is Culture and Why Is It Critical to an Organization’s Success?

An organization’s culture is characterized by the set of underlying mindsets and behaviors that define how work gets done. Therefore, how individuals think about their workplace is critical to competitive advantage and sustained corporate success. An organization’s ability to be innovative and agile is dependent on having the right culture in place.

Today, CEOs recognize the need to be plugged-in, people-first and purpose-led. They recognize that creating a purpose-driven organization, one that embeds purpose in everything they do is critical in today’s environment. Customers look for it, employees expect it and the public increasingly demands it.

And it’s not just what an organization stands for, it’s also about how it walks the walk, particularly in regard to sustainable practices and equity of access and opportunity. There is evidence that proves diversity makes good teams great, and leads to better decision-making, greater creativity and fresh innovations – but this only happens when an organization knows how to harvest the value of its diversity.

And at no other time in recent history has business faced a phenomenon like The Great Resignation. People want to practice self-determination in all aspects of their lives, and they want to continue to learn and grow through their careers so that they can make an impact. If an organization is not looking within to ensure they can truly offer this employee experience, then they may find themselves upstream of the talent flow. Managing such individuality and diversity in the workforce also means new management practices and new leadership skills. The pandemic has also turned up the pace of change. Digital, virtual, skills-based approaches to resourcing, front of house and back-office transformation all mean people need to collaborate more, thrive in ambiguity and change, and build strong resilience muscles. All of these are skills that can and must be developed, and all these factors impact culture – the mindsets and behaviors that define how work gets done.

The Role of L&D

L&D plays a central role in building the skills needed in the new reality and broadening the perspectives of leaders and their teams.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) action plans that are co-created by workers and their leaders can focus on building an inclusive culture built on trust; an educated, empathetic workforce; and advocating for equitable opportunity. Education is a core enabler of a more inclusive culture. This is why programs that upskill the workforce on unconscious bias and build cultural intelligence are becoming part of the core curriculum.

Corporate values tell workers what matters in how work gets done. L&D can help workers connect values to their day-to-day experience. For example, KPMG refreshed its values in 2020, making them bolder, simpler and more memorable to give their people real behavioral guidance. They wanted their values to play a more active role in the organization, and inform decisions, actions and interactions with all their stakeholders, every day. To do this, they needed to go beyond a values campaign and instead weave their values through the fabric of the organization. Their people and leaders needed to really understand each value and what it does and doesn’t look like in practice, and they needed the skills to know how to call out behavior or decisions that don’t align with their values. Incorporating values in learning brings them to life and shows people how corporate values relate to all aspects of their work, whether that’s by producing quality work, doing the right thing or collaborating across business functions so that teams can bring more value to clients.

For many organizations, remote work will continue moving forward. While there are many benefits to working remotely, it does reduce opportunities for reflection and informal mentoring. The classroom can provide the space people need for dialogue, for reflection and to share experiences. This could be virtual or in person.

For L&D, the classroom is also an opportunity to listen and explore how employees are feeling and anchor people back to the organization’s purpose and values. L&D can use storytelling to show people how purpose and values are being demonstrated across the organization, instilling a sense of pride and advocacy. Learning designers can bring leaders into the learning space to share their own stories or to simply listen. Facilitators can lead by example, providing a psychologically safe space where everyone feels they can contribute openly.

Other Opportunities to Impact Culture

In many organizations, L&D plays a central role in creating the induction experience for new employees. Often that begins before day one. How learning is delivered in these early days of an employee’s life cycle gives an impression of what sort of culture they might expect — and whether this lines up with the value proposition shared during the recruitment period. Is the learning experience employee-centric? Are they treated as adults? Is it contemporary, fun and engaging? L&D must consider the cultural signals they are sending through a new employee’s early learning experience. Does this reflect the mindsets and behaviors the business values?

As leaders transition in their careers, they find increased responsibility to be leaders of culture, to embody the values and purpose of the organization and create opportunity to inspire and motivate their teams. But managing others has become more complex. Hybrid working means team members often have different schedules and workspaces, so finding a team’s optimum operating rhythm takes effort and skill. Managers must learn to communicate more often, set clearer expectations and measure output. They have to understand how to ensure equity of access to information and a leader’s time, and equity of opportunity to contribute and be recognized. This all takes intentional action, and many people leaders need to learn why it matters, as well as how to manage their teams in this way.

L&D can provide opportunities for people leaders to learn from one another, to explore new ways of working and problem-solving together — all while reminding leaders of the influence they have in creating the culture within their own teams.

So, What Does This Mean for L&D Professionals?

L&D professionals can embrace their role as culture ambassadors. They can look and listen for examples of purpose and values to weave within learning content. If collaboration and innovative thinking are important to an organization, they can incorporate these skills into each learning experience. They can use learning to create spaces for colleagues from all parts of the organization to get to know one another, build networks and broaden internal knowledge.

As ambassadors of culture, L&D professionals must upskill themselves in DEI and grow their own cultural intelligence. Building a practice of reviewing learning design against DEI guiding principles can help ensure learning experiences are inclusive and equitable. And before any training, facilitators can take a few minutes to think about the inclusive experience they want to provide, moving any biases into consciousness where they can be managed.

L&D professionals have the opportunity to help grow a company culture that has a shared sense of purpose, anchored in common values and led by skilled people whose mindset and behaviors promote an inclusive and diverse workplace that fosters collaboration and innovation. Let’s embrace the challenge and find ways to influence a culture that is good for employees, organizations and society.