Modern Training

What's a learning culture anyway? 4 essential attributes for bringing it to life

Posted on: May 6, 2016Updated on: August 25, 2023By: JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

Last month, I shared a blog post about the need to understand your organization’s learning culture before attempting to introduce a new approach, such as microlearning. But wait… What is a “learning culture” anyway?


You’ve probably heard about your executive team’s desire to build a “strong learning culture,” especially if you work in L&D. It’s a pretty popular sentiment nowadays and helps to explain why companies are spending so much money on training—$70.6 BILLION in the US in 2015, according to Training Magazine. That said, only 31% of organizations currently describe themselves as having a learning culture, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends Report. Everyone wants a learning culture. They’re investing piles of cash in it. Why haven’t we figured it out yet?

The problem is that many organizations are simply looking at the learning culture concept from the wrong angle. A learning culture is not defined by the volume or quality of learning opportunities. Just because you spend money on training resources doesn’t mean you can shift your culture. There’s a big difference between fostering a LEARNING CULTURE and just providing a pile of learning opportunities. Unfortunately, many organizations confuse these two ideas and believe that a well structured and resourced L&D program justifies the inclusion of “learning” in the list values they have hanging in the lobby. It does not.

Fostering a learning culture was the theme of a discussion Axonify, President and CEO, Carol Leaman, and I led during the Learning and Performance Ecosystem Conference in March.

(You can check out our full presentation on SlideShare to see how we explored a set of exemplary organizations with well-established learning cultures along with the attributes that helped them put learning at the center of everything they do). I’d like to highlight 4 of those attributes here, as well as describe a few related tactics you can use to strengthen your organization’s learning culture:

1. Velocity

An organization’s long-term viability is not solely determined by the quality of its product. It’s now highly-dependent on how quickly the company can evolve in the face of disruption. Just look at what happened to Blockbuster, Polaroid, and (most recently) Yahoo. Organizations must be learning constantly to ensure survival. This extends to all employees, who are being asked to flex in their roles and handle more and more responsibility.

To ensure maximum velocity, organizations must shift their talent recruitment practices to identify candidates who have demonstrated proven capabilities to learn —instead of just evaluating them based on past experience and existing skills. Besides this, organizations must also embed learning into every employee’s daily experience at work. Through practical, science-based approaches like microlearning and continued reinforcement, employees can ensure they stay up to speed with the knowledge most vital to their roles. This will also help L&D make better use of traditional, event-based training when needed.

2. Narrative

Every company has a story, but it’s important to figure out how this story feeds a consistent narrative to help employees relate their roles to the organization’s larger mission. I always use Disney as my ultimate example. During my time in L&D with the Walt Disney World Resort, we constantly and effectively used storytelling techniques as the foundation of our learning approach to both demonstrate desired behaviors and foster a continued sense of connection and added meaning for the Cast.

Every company isn’t Disney, of course. But your employees are generating new stories constantly through their work with peers and customers. How are you leveraging those stories to expose successes and foster a greater connection across the organization? In my corporate L&D work, I have used tactics like blogs, user-generated video and scripted stories within instructor-led sessions to help share these stories at scale. This is also where enterprise social tools come in handy as a way to enable employees to share their own stories in the moment.

3. Teaching

Most organizations align the idea of teaching (aka imparting knowledge and experience in structured ways) to specific roles—specifically managers and trainers. Unfortunately, this limits the value of employees who don’t have big titles, but do have plenty of knowledge to share—and often unique ways of sharing it.

A learning culture requires an understanding of the subject matter and a big title isn’t a prerequisite. Organizations need to focus on helping employees at all levels to share their unique knowledge, experience and perspective. For example, Pixar holds art classes that anyone in the company can attend, an approach that has recently expanded into the public via Khan Academy. Google is known for driving internal learning with Googlers teaching Googlers. Enabling peer-to-peer teaching in this way not only reinforces the value of the teacher but also positions employees as the foundation of the overall learning culture.

4. Enablement

Consumers now control the marketplace. Thanks, Internet! The same is true in the workplace, where employees now have options with regard to how they improve their knowledge and performance. Why trudge over to your LMS and take an hour-long course when you can just Google the problem and watch a 2-minute YouTube video?

Organizations must wake up to this reality and, rather than fight it, embrace it by finding ways to enable their employees through right-fit technology. Knowledge must be made searchable and shareable using single-source repositories. Employees should be motivated to use and contribute to these performance support resources. This approach not only enables employees to get the information they need, when they need it, but it also provides an opportunity for them to offer meaningful feedback and strengthen their connection to the larger organization.

Your organization has a learning culture—whether or not it’s formally recognized. It’s not up to L&D to build anything from scratch. Yes, learning opportunities should still be a big part of the L&D role, but learning leaders must think about the bigger picture, assess the current state of the learning culture and partner with the rest of the organization—including frontline employees—to find ways to bring these attributes to life every day. As the learning foundation strengthens, you’ll notice that the role of L&D suddenly becomes simpler. Employees will find new ways to share knowledge more easily and solve problems more quickly in the moment of need.

In case you missed it, here is the presentation that Carol and I did on this topic a few months ago.

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect's Headshot

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

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