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ATD Blog

Top Executives Should Be Champions of a Learning Culture

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

A culture of learning is an organizational culture in which employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills to improve individual and organizational performance. Top executives play a key role in defining culture, but in a recent ATD Research study, only 20 percent of organizations say senior leaders voiced support for learning to a high or very high extent.

Developing a Culture of Learning: Strategies for Organizational Achievement looks at several talent and culture practices, identifies those that drive organizational excellence, and makes recommendations accordingly. For the study, ATD Research surveyed 304 talent development professionals about their organizations’ culture and strategies. Of these, 57 percent were managers or above.

According to the report, organizations where senior leaders communicated the importance of learning to a high extent were significantly more likely to be high performers, which underscores the importance of senior leader advocacy for learning.

The good news: senior leaders can communicate the importance of learning in many ways. For instance, they can publicly promote learning at all-staff meetings or in company-wide communications. But they should also be active participants in programs.

“Leadership commitment starts at the top, with the active involvement of CEOs in such roles as leader-teachers, executive advisors, and mentors … the best leaders are insatiable learners who put a premium on well-developed cultures of learning,” writes Elaine Biech in ATD’s Action Guide to Talent Development.

Unsurprisingly, the study also confirms that organizations where line managers encourage learning or support learning application and skill transfer to a high extent were much more likely to be high performers. Managers need to be involved in supporting employees in their efforts to learn, apply, and share knowledge.


One way in which managers support learning is by giving employees assignments where they can apply what they have learned. Sometimes these may be stretch assignments beyond the employee’s current job description. Managers can also ask employees to discuss and share their learning experiences with others on their team. When hiring new team members, managers should communicate the importance of learning and integrate questions about learning into the hiring process.

So, what’s the biggest barrier to creating a learning culture? Lack of time for learning. However, organizations that supported employees by allowing them to use paid work time for learning were more likely to be high performers. To ensure your organization is making learning a priority and part of the culture, the report suggests offering individual development plans (IDPs). The research found that 28 percent of organizations in the study offered IDPs for all employees (while another 41 percent offered them to only some employees).

An IDP is a written plan that lays out the expected skills, knowledge, or capabilities that an individual employee will need to develop in a set time frame (such as during the next quarter or year). These written plans give learners clear milestones and timelines in their learning journey, and they also assist the manager with supporting the employee’s learning. Organizations, however, should be careful not to make the process of completing an IDP too burdensome, technically challenging, or complicated.


Finally, high performers in the study consistently promote learning opportunities and spread awareness inside their organizations. One practice particularly favored by high performers is making automated recommendations to learners (for example, recommending courses based on learners’ job roles, past learning history, or other factors).

This can be done with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). At IBM, for example, the AI engine Watson tags learning opportunities and makes recommendations to learners. Another practice associated with high performance is promoting learning through social media. Social media publicizes learning opportunities and fosters a culture of learning by allowing employees to share knowledge and ask each other questions. Talent development teams may consider working with their organizations’ technology, social media, and communications professionals to develop a plan for promoting learning.

Spreading the word doesn’t just happen within the walls of the organization; organizations should seek opportunities to promote their learning culture publicly, such as by applying for awards related to learning or by partnering with foundations, nonprofits, educational institutions, or government entities.

Together, these findings suggest that talent development teams should model a culture of learning by constantly seeking opportunities for developing their own professional skills and opportunities to apply and experiment with new techniques and emerging technologies.

For more insights, check out the report here.

About the Author

Maria Ho is the manager of ATD research services. She serves as ATD's senior research program strategist and designer and provides oversight and direction for all of ATD's internal and external, industry specific, and market research services. Prior to joining ATD, Maria was a public policy researcher, data analyst, and writer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

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