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Becky Norman


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Rethinking learning culture: Is it enough for business-savvy L&D teams?

There’s a lot of confusion over what a learning culture actually is and whether it is a helpful term for business-savvy L&D teams. Is it the key to a high-performing organisation or another buzzword to ignore?
Learning culture, growth

‘Learning culture’ is a term that TrainingZone contributors have, over the years, both advocated for and criticised. It’s been dubbed the foundations of what makes a high-performing, future-ready organisation, and contrastingly deemed another vacuous buzzword to throw on the hype pile.

Why are there such mixed views? As a media partner of the Culture Pioneer Awards, TrainingZone believes cultivating a thriving workplace culture fuels high performance. So we want to get to the bottom of this debate and bring clarity to the conversation. 

The definition of a learning culture

The obvious place to start is with the definition. But here is where we encounter our first problem.

Robin Hoyle, Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International and Culture Pioneers judge, remarks that the closest he’s got to an accepted definition is ‘a culture in which people learn’.

But this seems to fall short: “People learn all the time, regardless of the culture in which they work. Whether they learn the right things all the time, or the things which will help them perform and the organisation succeed, is an entirely different matter,” he says.

Pinning learning culture on formal learning – online modules, classroom courses and the like – also doesn’t fit the bill for Hoyle. While tracking data on course completions and engagement is easy, we shouldn’t assume this translates into real learning applications. 

Given the nuanced thinking this definition requires, we can see why L&D professionals might be laying claim to a learning culture that doesn’t exist within their organisation.

Luckily, Hoyle has a suggestion for what he believes is the clearest indication of whether or not an organisation has a learning culture. And it’s centred around the only constant of ‘change’:

  • Recognising when change is necessary
  • Working out what that change could be
  • Validating ideas with others
  • Implementing ideas in line with the organisation’s purpose, mission and values

L&D professionals might be laying claim to a learning culture that doesn’t exist within their organisation.

The relevancy of a learning culture

Adding to this discussion, L&D expert and Culture Pioners judge Jackie Clifford has put the phrase under the microscope to understand whether or not it is still useful today. 

She suggests that by labelling it we risk it being seen as distinct from the organisation, rather than being embedded into business-as-usual behaviours (which is what largely makes up a culture).

“When I mention learning to managers – from the C-suite to the front line – the manager often struggles to pull themselves away from the immediate issues to something that they perceive to be long-term and time-consuming,” Clifford says.

But conversely, she queries whether the term will help debunk the myth that learning only takes place in a formal setting. Embedding learning culture into our organisational vernacular – alongside the likes of ‘productivity’, ‘ROI’ and ‘performance’ – could help improve the perception of its value.

Cultivating a workplace culture that supports business-aligned learning

Distilling these quandaries, it seems the term learning culture fails to incorporate the importance of aligning learning to business needs. We can inspire curiosity, recruit people with growth mindsets, and nurture a safe-to-fail environment – but if these actions are not entwined with an organisation’s overarching mission, values and change requirements then we are missing the point.

The term learning culture fails to incorporate the importance of aligning learning to business needs

It might be more helpful to steer away from the term learning culture and instead talk about (and act upon) cultivating a workplace culture that supports business-aligned learning. Some people may find this pedantic, but L&D needs to be as explicit as possible when communicating how it generates business value and supports positive change.

L&D that boosts performance

This distinction is made clear by the Culture Pioneers campaign. It views learning as a key pillar to nurturing great cultures, specifically advocating for L&D that boosts performance and drives business success.

In particular, the Learning category of the awards programme is about recognising organisations that demonstrate:

  • How they build business-critical skills
  • How they support everyday learning at the individual, team and organisational level
  • How multiple stakeholders are pulling together to achieve common goals across all parts of the organisation

“It’s about encouraging sharing, celebrating learning and breaking down silos to accelerate the way that individuals, teams and organisations learn together,” says Laura Overton, Founder of Changemakers and Culture Pioneers judge.

Are you on a journey towards embedding business-savvy learning?

If so, we encourage you to enter the Learning category of the Culture Pioneer Awards

You’re not expected to be at the ‘end point’ (is there ever one?), just making good headway. (Download the entry guide for full details on what makes a good entry)

It’s free to enter and will give you the chance to be recognised far and wide for your hard graft and achievements (which, let’s be honest, often go unnoticed for the L&D function!)

Author Profile Picture
Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman

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