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6 Guidelines for Building a Learning Culture

6 Guidelines for Building a Learning Culture

Originally posted by Holly Burkett @

At a time when organizations are facing increased pressures to manage talent shortages, learning is gaining traction as a source of strategic advantage for firms. Taiwan-based Cathay United and Chicago-based Vi are two organizations that are using a culture of learning to drive engagement and build leadership bench strength.

At Cathay United Bank, a financial services firm, talent development and a culture of learning play major roles in making the institution, with 165 branch offices, the top bank in the Asia Pacific region. HR staff, along with learning leaders at three regional training centers, serve as business partners and stewards of talent development strategies. Such focus helps the bank develop financial strategists and managers who can rapidly position the company as it expands into new markets.  

At Chicago-based Vi, a senior-living retirement community, more than 450 employees have participated in the company’s yearlong Management Development Program (MDP), now entering its sixth year. This signature experience provides frontline employees and emerging managers with a variety of learning opportunities including classes, executive coaching, webinars, projects, reading assignments, job rotations and action learning assignments — or “teach backs” — that reinforce learning.

Within one year of completion, 25 percent of Vi’s MDP participants have moved into a higher-level position. In addition, Vi’s attrition rate is substantially lower than its competitors — 21 percent in 2012 compared to an industry average of 33 percent and as high as 65 to 70 percent.

Execu­tives know that high performance depends upon committed and capable talent. Capability-building is cited as a top three priority by half of all business leaders in a 2105 McKinsey & Company survey. According to research by the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), having a culture of learning is a hallmark of organizations that consistently produce the best business results in terms of revenue growth, profitability, market share and customer satisfaction.

Learning vs. Training

A culture of learning enables employees to continuously seek, share and apply new knowledge and skills. Learning cultures provide continuous, accessible and progressive learning experiences that accelerate skill development, engagement and innovation for employees and organizations. The focus is upon creating meaningful learning experiences versus isolated training events.

In a world of constant change and disruption, employees increasingly value a workplace that nurtures learning. Growth and development opportunities are highly correlated with attraction, retention and engagement, especially among Millennials. Time and again studies show that if employees aren’t learning, they’re leaving.

Best Practices

To become the kind of employer that fosters a high-impact learning culture, follow these best practice guidelines:

  1. Make it a leadership imperative. Organizations with mature learning cultures – like WD40 and Accenture -- hold leaders, at all levels, accountable for actively demonstrating the importance of learning. Leverage leadership development to cultivate a “growth mindset” among senior, mid-level and front-line leaders. Encourage leaders and managers to model and reinforce key behaviors: intellectual curiosity, risk-taking, learning from experimentation and failure, and managing change.


  2. Make it social. In high-performance learning organizations, employees share knowledge with their colleagues at a rate four times greater than that of workers in lower-performing firms. Today’s learning is as much about communities, networks, sharing and collaboration as it is about knowledge and skill. Provide tools, technologies and resources — coaches, mentors, wikis, smartphones and tablets — for creating and sharing learning content. Make knowledge sharing a performance expectation. 


  3. Make it modern. Many learning functions are stuck in a business as usual mindset and are ill-equipped to meet the needs of the modern learner. Modern learners expect learning to be:
    • On-demand (as needed) and continuous, rather than just an intermittent activity.
    • In short bursts (minutes), rather than long periods (hours, days, etc.)
    • Easily accessible on mobile devices (smart phones and tablets) and able to “pull” learning modules at the time and place of need as opposed to only reacting to required “push” courses.
    • Personalized to allow individuals to organize and manage their own continuous self-improvement and self-development rather than adhere to a one-size-fits-all experience, designed by someone else (usually L&D).
    • Largely experiential to involve learning by doing rather than just theorizing.
  4. Make it performance-based. High-impact learning organizations like SAP or Adobe are nearly three times more likely to measure either or both employee behavior change and business outcomes.  In mature learning cultures, it’s less about the output of training programs and more about using a defined measurement strategy to consistently determine how learning makes a value-added difference for individuals, teams and the entire organization. 
  5. Make it collective. Shift learning’s strategic focus from creating individual, course-centric development strategies to building collective learning capabilities, in which learning is embedded into everyday roles. Create “collective leadership” versus “hero leadership” learning experiences to build a pool of talented people who can assume any leadership role when the need arises. 
  6. Make it integrated. Demonstrate an organization’s commitment to learning throughout all phases of the talent acquisition and talent management process. Discussing an employer’s commitments to ongoing talent development during pre-hire interviews is a distinguishing trait of robust learning cultures. Teach hiring managers and recruiters how to assess a candidate’s penchant for learning by “hiring smart.” Overhaul performance management processes to reward and reinforce continuous learning and development.

As automation and robotics improve, globalization increases, and workplaces become more complex, multigenerational, and diverse, the only competitive advantage for today’s organization is to learn faster than the competition. One of the best ways HR leaders can help their organizations survive and thrive in this new world of 21st century work is by growing the kind of culture that will help employees be smarter, more agile and more innovative than ever before.

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