ATD Blog

Building a Productive Learning Culture: Advancing the Organization’s Learning Capability

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In a previous blog, “Building a Productive Learning Culture: Rightsizing Learning Opportunities,” we explored the ways that L&D teams can curate learning opportunities to offer those that are most relevant to employees. In this blog, we’ll look at how to teach employees how to learn—rather than just telling them what to learn.

Most employees have strong job-related knowledge, skills, and abilities. In fact, 70 percent believe they have technical and functional expertise, and 51 percent think they have good business acumen. However, employees rate their learning capabilities much lower; only 20 percent say they are effective at learning. This discrepancy is not a surprise, considering that only 16 percent of heads of L&D report focusing on teaching employees how to learn.

Employees’ lack of learning aptitude is not a matter of their motivation, but rather a capability issue. Sixty percent of employees actively pursue learning opportunities from multiple sources and engage in learning beyond the responsibilities of their jobs, displaying a strong motivation to learn. However, only one-fifth engage in productive learning behaviors.

What are productive learning behaviors? Studies of highly effective learners suggest they are uniquely good at three behaviors:

  1. reciprocal contribution: the active contribution of their own ideas to others and the active reception of others’ ideas
  2. extraction: the ability to identify the most relevant and important information, and
  3. skeptical prioritization: the constant revision of which areas of information matter most and which deserve further study.

It would be easy to think that the solution to this problem is to hire employees with strong learning capabilities. While this seems like an advantageous strategy, doing so does not address the existing employee base, where most lack the necessary learning capability.
Learn to learn

To effectively improve capabilities within that population, L&D must focus on teaching employees how to learn. Rather than simply creating and delivering learning content, the best organizations advance the organization’s learning capability.


They do so by designing learning programs that increase employee awareness of how to learn, not just what to learn. These organizations also use learning technologies and platforms that enable employees to develop their learning behaviors, not simply consume content.

Organizations that effectively use these approaches have more than twice as many employees with high learning capabilities than those that maintain the conventional approach of simply creating and delivering content.

Case in point


An L&D team at a financial services company recently interviewed their company’s leaders. In the process, they determined that most of them were very satisfied with the quality of learning content offered, but that they wanted more prescriptive guidance on what and how to learn. In response, the team embedded a focus on how to learn, not just what to learn, in to the design of their learning paths.

To start, they actively addressed misconceptions about learning at the outset of learning paths through a short animation that raises awareness about what learning is and where it happens. Then, they carefully integrated learning behaviors into the design of the learning path solutions by devoting time to teaching employees how to engage in key activities with the aim of getting the most learning out of those experiences.

Editor’s note: The next post in the blog series will examine the last of the key components for a productive learning culture: learning accountability. Also, 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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