Learning culture explained: the what, the why and the how

learning culture explained

If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown organisations one thing it has been the capacity of employees to adapt to new ways of working and in double-quick time.

The pandemic and ensuing lockdown were a crisis for individuals, families, employers and society at large and recent months have focused on managing that crisis.

Although we are far from through the Covid-19 crisis, organisations are now looking to build post Covid-19 learning strategies, that build resilience in organisations so that they can continue to adapt and thrive in our changing economic, social and political times.

So how can this be achieved? It was Peter Senge’s book the Fifth Discipline that introduced the concept of a learning organisation, one which continually adapts and thrives based on the continuous development of employee capabilities. Essentially, success comes from individuals’ commitment and capacity to learn. And it is this learning at all levels within the organisation that is a characteristic of a learning culture. Creating Learning Cultures – Assessing the evidence, a research report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says, “A learning culture is one that embeds learning into how things are done at an individual, team and organisational level.”

The Covid-19 lockdown created a strategic shift in learning, one that put learning in the hands of employees. Now is the time to capitalise on that and build a learning culture.

Defining a learning culture

As well as embedding learning at an individual, team and organisational level, the CIPD’s report suggests that leaders must reinforce the strategic importance of learning for the entire organisation, providing a ‘shared vision and positive change through open dialogue and reflection’.

And it is through dialogue and reflection that organisations learn from their mistakes. This is a key part of developing a learning culture, according to Nigel Paine, author of Workplace Learning – How to build a culture of continuous employee development. As well as being able to learn from mistakes, Paine says there are two other components to building a learning culture. They are the ability of the organisation to learn from outside – identifying and acting on market trends, for example – and developing employees who are confident to learn and ask questions in order to drive continuous improvement.

Put simply, a learning culture enables organisations to continuously learn, adapt and thrive. And in today’s environment, this is exactly what organisations are looking to do – adapt and thrive.

In its study of high-performing learning cultures, Emerald Works discovered six habits that drive these cultures. They are:

  1. Clarity of purpose
  2. Holistic people experience
  3. Thriving ecosystem
  4. Agile, digital infrastructure
  5. Continual engagement
  6. Intelligent decision-making

Organisations displaying these habits ‘achieve at least ten times more sustainable impact on growth, transformation, productivity and profitability, and higher levels of soft skills that fuel these cultures such as resilience, innovation, motivation, critical thinking and agility,” according to Jane Daly, the study’s author and former Chief Insight Officer at Emerald Works.

The business impact of a learning culture

Research from Emerald Works states that organisations with high-impact learning cultures are 10 times more likely to have sustainable impact on growth, transformation, productivity and profitability.

A learning culture emphasises the importance of learning and of continuous improvement. That means individuals are trusted to do their job well and to explore how they could do it better. The organisation supports this inquiry, rather than telling employees what to do. For many organisations, this approach might represent a dramatic change in working culture. But, as the Emerald Works research tells us, there are considerable rewards for those who do make this change.

There are also some more subtle benefits that organisations should consider. The Emerald Works research reveals that staff retention is improved in 71% in high impact learning cultures (HILCs) versus 24% of organisations in the rest of the sample. And 91% of HILCs say their learning initiatives are delivered in time to meet the needs of the business versus 41% of organisations in the rest of the sample.

Furthermore, HILCs are more supportive of on the job learning, facilitate continuous learning and embed the principles of diversity and inclusion. The list goes on.

These are behaviours that are making the difference. They are not just learning interventions, and what’s more, behaviours do not cost anything to develop. But that’s the rub. Developing a learning culture has a bigger impact on organisational performance than other learning interventions, but, you can’t buy a learning culture. And that’s what can make it harder to nurture.

How to develop a learning culture

As we mentioned earlier in the article, research by Emerald Works reveals the six habits of high-performing teams.

Their research also highlights other ways in which organisations can develop a learning culture. These include:

  • Aligning L&D activity with the strategic goals of the organisation
  • Developing a learning strategy that can respond to changing business needs
  • Clear communication around L&D planning and impact
  • Ensuring the L&D team understands the strategic goals of the business
  • L&D has a clear plan and agreed performance indicators `
  • Actively encouraging people to collaborate in building knowledge resources
  • Include employee in the design of learning interventions
  • Make job aids and resources easily accessible
  • Recommend resources based on an individual’s performance.

At an organisational level, the CIPD’s report urges L&D professionals to work with leaders to develop a vision for learning that is linked to organisational change. It says that dialogue and challenge, reflection and feedback must feature in this vision for learning.

At a team level, focus on managers as facilitators of learning, ensuring they have time for learning. They are important role models for their teams. And for individuals, L&D must focus on communicating learning opportunities and connecting individual and organisational learning with business performance.

Covid-19 has accelerated organisations’ shift to digital learning. Technology has an important role to play in breaking down internal silos and developing cross-functional teams that can drive innovation. Technology can help open up conversations and communications and create dialogue around business performance and market trends. It can create the spaces for asking questions and reflecting on successes and failures.

Technology also provides useful data and insight for L&D to help support individuals and teams enabling more timely support.


It is commonly said that culture is ‘the way things are done around here’. That might seem a simplistic explanation of what can be the most effective approach to organisational learning. It’s easy to say, far harder to make it happen.

However, as we have seen in the research, developing a learning culture is worth the investment in time and effort. Such a culture becomes the vehicle for learning to happen at all levels of the organisation. It enables individuals, teams and the entire organisation to thrive through change.

Building a learning culture requires vision and purpose from the top team down. It requires a mindset of inquiry and reflection and a focus on dialogue and continuous improvement.

Use a platform that supports your new ways of working and learning. 5app can help in supporting your L&D strategy, creating a learning culture, and in aligning learning with the business needs and objectives. 

Get in touch to find out more.

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