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Building a Learning Culture: Ideas From the Field

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Tue Aug 15 2023

Building a Learning Culture: Ideas From the Field
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As part of our benchmarking process, the ATD Forum is currently focusing on ideas related to building a learning culture. As with most topics in the Forum, this starts with a member requesting information about what other members are doing via our content consulting service.

While the member with this request had already researched the what and why, they were still wrestling with the hows, specifically structures and tactics used throughout an organization. Their goal was learning about actions other members incorporated into their normal practice.

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While there was some curated content and collateral to share, we worked with the member to develop a short survey to benchmark the various ways our members were doing this given their diverse industries, sizes, and geographies. Some of the interesting data gathered from the survey include the following.

When asked about the definition and purpose, the responses varied and included:

  • Our definition of a learning culture is promoting a culture where team members can engage their curiosity, enhance their strengths, and develop untapped potential. Our greatest success is the support of our executive management team. They fully support taking the time to learn and develop yourselfthe problem is with the day-to-day work and the mid-level managers not allowing time for it.

  • Learning is essential to being competitive and remaining relevant to our customers. Therefore, we focus on developing capability continuously at all levels throughout the organization, from recent graduates through senior leaders. Our greatest success is getting C-Level and senior leaders to promote learning and provide the resources to enable a learning culture.

  • We put the learner at the center of our designs and make learning available to be consumed by the learner when and how they need it.

  • Learning is recognized and leveraged to enable our people to change the world. Our greatest success with building learning capability has been the integration of learning platforms, which allows a focus on skills and employee skill development.

Most of the respondents indicated they had pockets of learning throughout the organization, but it was not pervasive enough to call it a systematic approach. One member stated: “Learning is a big part of our culture as evidenced in one of our company principles, ‘Invest in our success.’”

The approaches currently used to promote and encourage “learning any place and any time” for all employees in an organization are varied. However, the most prevalent approaches reported in the survey included:

  • Learning happening in the flow of work with performance support mechanisms

  • Skills and practices for enhancing a growth mindset

  • Action learning with coaches

  • Offering a variety of self-assessments

The most used structures to encourage learning anytime and any place included:

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  • Lunch & learns, or as one global member reported, munch & learns, to accommodate various time zones

  • Seminars and panel discussions

  • Cohorts for various topics, most with a digital platform, including Communities of Interest and Communities of Practice

  • Book clubs

  • Company blogs

  • A Knowledge Management System

Members also reported using continuous improvements, such as LEAN and AGILE, and program management methodologies focused on enhancing capability with work processes.

One member reported the value of the “promoting from within” policy. It is a huge incentive for employees to be internally motivated to use the curated and accessible learning paths to build skills associated with various roles and job opportunities.

Many respondents incorporated dynamic IDPs (Individual Development Plans) or DAPs (Development Action Plans) and formal mentoring programs.

Some of the lessons learned by the various members related to building a learning culture were reported as:

  • Systematic learning is more likely when it is part of an intentional talent management strategy that also includes a partnership with the business and HR.

  • Acknowledging a learning landscape or ecosystem much larger than an organization’s learning and development team is important. While the learning function plays a huge role, the individual employee and the managers, or people leaders, also have a major responsibility.

  • The greatest return for the learning function comes from focusing on the mission and objectives of the enterprise and enabling learning opportunities that align and support.

  • It has been critical for us to have a comprehensive approach to L&D, which includes creating custom portals and resources, providing knowledge management support, and implementing change management expertise. Our success is based on using innovative and cutting-edge technologies and incorporating data-driven analytics to evaluate the effectiveness of our L&D programs.

  • Starting at the top and modeling a lifelong learning mindset is a significant part of our work. Our role is equipping and coaching managers to empower employees to continue learning and making learning part of the job in a systematic way. This means giving time and space for employees to develop themselves and learn new skills.

Providing many opportunities for learning to be an integral part of employees’ work and daily experience is not just a nice add-on. The why and the what of a learning culture are the starting places. However, the tactics and the structures embedded throughout the organization are where the rubber meets the road to enable performance for desired results.

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Deloitte research states: "Organizations must look at their management and leadership behaviors to ensure that learning, development, and mobility are rewarded. Most leaders are rewarded for 'making their numbers.' While this is certainly important, leaders must also be rewarded for developing people, moving people into the best role, and keeping retention high.

"Organizations with a strong learning culture are 92 percent more likely to develop novel products and processes, 52 percent more productive, 56 percent more likely to be the first to market with their products and services, and 17 percent more profitable than their peers. Their engagement and retention rates are also 30–50 percent higher."

What are you and your learning and talent function doing to advance learning at the individual, team, division, and organizational levels? How might you incorporate some of these tactics?

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