ATD Blog

Building a Productive Learning Culture

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Today’s learning landscape is substantially different than before. Not only does business require different skills, but employees want to learn in new, innovative ways.

As line leaders seek to improve performance and pursue new growth opportunities, they need employees with skills that meet these new requirements. For instance, sales leaders want sales staff that can not only sell products, but also challenge customers’ assumptions. IT leaders want employees who have the ability to build relationships with business leaders. These executives are looking to L&D to help their staff build the skills they need to be successful.

In addition, employees have their own expectations of L&D, namely about how and when they will learn. According to CEB research, more than half of employees expect learning to be more “just in time” than it was three years ago. Meanwhile, only 37 percent of employees expect their organization to actively manage their development, and only 21 percent expect most of their learning to happen in the classroom.

While L&D may have previously provided most employee learning, other sources now provide employees with more learning opportunities. Today, 79 percent of learning comes from non-L&D sources.

Increasing participation

The tools currently used to increase the impact of formal training are neither scalable nor effective enough to influence the quality of the “always-on” learning preferred by employees and required by line leaders. To improve the quality and long-term effects of learning, L&D must extend the function’s influence by building a culture of learning.

Many organizations are already hard at work building this culture. L&D teams are investing in more learning opportunities across more channels. They are improving the quality and structure of learning content and advocating that employees own their individual development.


These approaches ultimately promote more learning activity and participation, and they are working: 65 percent of employees report accessing more learning across more channels than just two years ago, and 64 percent participate in more formal learning.

Bottom line: organizations are successfully creating a culture of learning participation.

Building a productive learning culture

Unfortunately, extra learning activity by employees is not achieving the desired effect. In fact, nearly two-thirds of line leaders report to CEB that employees still lack the necessary skills to achieve business goals.


What the extra learning activity is doing, however, is creating a lot of wasted time. Every day, employees waste approximately 11 percent of their time on unproductive or “scrap” learning. This misuse costs the average organization $5 million per 1,000 employees in lost productivity each year.

Organizations must shift their emphasis from learning participation to learning productivity. They need to build a productive learning culture.

In a productive learning culture, employees focus on the most relevant learning opportunities and have the required capabilities to capitalize on those opportunities. They also take responsibility for not just their own learning, but also for creating a supportive learning environment for those around them.

To make this shift from a culture of learning participation to a productive learning culture, L&D functions must manage three key components.

  1. Learning opportunity: provide access to high-quality, curated learning opportunities, not a large number of choices
  2. Learning capability: make sure employees know how to learn, not just what to learn
  3. Learning environment: ensure that employees focus not only on their own development but also on building a supportive learning environment throughout the organization. 

In a productive learning culture, employees gain an additional 12 percent in performance from their learning experiences, while also spending 11 percent less time learning. Business units with a productive learning culture have 1.4 percent greater revenue growth and 3.2 percent greater profit growth than the average business unit. 
The business case for building a productive learning culture is clear. Now, it is up to organizations to seize the opportunity. 

Editor’s note: The next installment of the blog series will examine the first of the three key components for a productive learning culture: learning opportunity. You can learn more about how leading L&D teams build a productive learning culture at

About the Author

Thomas Handcock, is senior director at CEB. A researcher at heart, and passionate about learning, Handcock is focused on working with CEB’s global network of clients to unlock the potential of their employees and leaders. His research on areas like on-the-job learning, coaching, training design, L&D strategy, and staff capability, and the hundreds of discussions he has each year with L&D executives and their teams, have only served to reinforce his belief that human capital development is one of the most powerful levers the modern enterprise has at its disposal.

About the Author

As Talent Solutions Architect at CEB, Jean Martin directs the development of talent management solutions and insights across the company with heads of human resources at some of the largest global organizations. Specifically, Jean spends time working on issues relating to driving breakthrough organizational performance, and assessing, engaging and retaining the best employees.

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