How to Build a Learning Culture

learning culture

Most, if not all organizations would want to build a learning culture. If you ask the leaders of any organization, they will tell you that yes, we want to have an organization that continually learns and improve itself. But how many organizations truly have a learning culture? The answer is different organizations are probably at different stages of the learning organization continuum. More importantly, what are the critical elements to pay attention to in order to build a learning culture?

There are 5 important elements in creating a learning culture:

1.  Link, align and integrate the importance of learning into the overall organization culture. The importance of learning can be expressed as one of the corporate values such as “Continuous improvement” or “Innovation”. Even if it is not expressed as a core value, important values such as Openness and Respect as core values will enable and encourage learning. For example, openness in expressing what one thinks and respecting other’s views can lead to constructive dialogue in order to arrive at a better solution or greater understanding of the issues. To operationalise this, leaders at all levels should be good role models of the values that support learning. Leaders need to encourage openness, respect and reflection. They should sponsor learning efforts and keep staff accountable for learning. In reality, this is where sometimes organizations encounter problems in creating a learning culture. Some managers or leaders are not good role models of the core values and as a result indirectly influence others or make it hard for others to truly be open and learn from each other. The overall organization culture also influences whether a culture of open sharing, respect and learning really happens. If the culture is one which is very directive, people may not speak up and this inhibits learning. If the culture emphasizes profit making and do not make provisions to allow employees to take time to attend training or to develop themselves, very little progress can be made in developing a learning culture.

2. Environment supportive of learning – there should be processes, systems and practices to make it easy for people to learn. The principle is to make learning easy for people. How do we achieve that? There are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Systems such as LMS (Learning management system) should be designed such that it is easy for employees to sign up for courses or workshops.
  • Make learning opportunities ubiquitous – have multiple avenues for learning, e.g. lunch time talks, quick 1-hour learning workshops, e-learning modules, discussion forums, etc.
  • Make learning exciting – this can be designed into the learning process itself – for example, incorporate gamification and experiential activities in the learning event,
  • Make learning voluntary – learning happens when people want to learn – apart from mandatory corporate compliance programs, employees should not be forced to attend training. Encourage and reinforce the need for self-directed learning.

Practices or platforms can be created to promote sharing of knowledge and best practices among different departments in the organization as well.

3. Communicate the need for learning  – Reinforce and evangelize the need and importance to continuously learn. HR and HRD functions in the organization can play this role and create motivation, to remind and inspire people to constantly learn and improve their knowledge and skills.

4. Learning tools – help employees how to learn effectively. Teach them how to learn, unlearn and relearn effectively. Help employees develop their thinking skills. This can involve offering workshops to help develop critical thinking or a questioning mindset for all employees.

5. Measure, measure, measure – Measure the effectiveness of the learning programs and take corrective actions as necessary. Example of measurement mechanisms include employee engagement surveys, training evaluation forms and surveys to measure impact of learning on job effectiveness.

Studies by Bersin & Associates on 40 Best Practices for Creating an Empowered Enterprise found that practices that empowers employees (e.g. leaders are open to bad news and asking questions is encouraged), encourages reflection, provides organizational support for learning and enables knowledge sharing are key to creating a learning culture.

Another IAL (Institute of Adult Learning) Singapore study by Dr Helen Bound indicated 3 important roles that the organization can play to foster a learning culture i.e. supportive management, conducive learning environment and empowerment of employees.

In summary, in order to build a learning culture, we need to pay attention to these 5 areas:

  • Link, align and integrate the importance of learning into the overall organization culture – focus on role of leaders
  • Environment supportive of learning
  • Communicate the need for learning
  • Learning tools
  • Measurement

Thoughts and comments? Would love to hear from you.


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