ATD Blog

From a Training Culture to a Learning Culture

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Companies have long thought of employee learning as something that happens in a classroom, delivered by a trainer away from the worksite, with content and activities selected by an instructional designer. Managers, as well as trainers, have come to believe that good training can solve any performance problem. This is antiquated thinking. 

The problem is not with the quality of training. We have become very good at designing and delivering excellent training programs, whether face-to-face or online, synchronous or asynchronous. From resources such as ATD, the eLearning Guild, and Bob Pike, we have become proficient at creating interactive, engaging courses that employees enjoy and rate highly. The problem is that these courses do not have much impact on our organizations, and the formal training mode of learning is becoming less and less relevant in companies today. 

The workplace has changed, and learning professionals need to change with it. Workers no longer need to make, fix, or sell things or provide basic services. However, they do have to be smarter, more agile, and more innovative than ever. As automation and robotics improve, the demand for globalization increases, and our workplaces become more multigenerational and diverse, an organization's competitive advantage will be in the application of its collective knowledge and expertise, not in how many excellent courses it offers. 

This means that organizations need to develop a culture that supports learning. Organizational culture, according to Edgar Schein, has three levels: deep underlying beliefs and assumptions, values and principles that structure action, and the symbols and artifacts that are visible in the workplace. Culture shapes the behaviors of people in the organization. Do managers encourage employees to learn and develop competencies? Do employees have the opportunity to learn in the work flow? Are they allowed to seek out knowledge and skills on their own? Can they take risks and experiment? Are the structures and activities of the organization aligned with sharing information among business units? Is the workplace conducive to social learning? 

As the chart shows, in a training culture, responsibility for employee learning resides with instructors and training managers. In that kind of culture the assumption is that trainers, under the direction of a chief learning officer (CLO), drive learning. In contrast, in a learning culture, responsibility for learning resides with employees, managers, and teams. In that kind of culture, employees are expected to seek knowledge and skills and apply that learning when and where it is needed. 


In a training culture, the assumption is that the most important learning happens in events, such as workshops, courses, e-learning programs, and conferences. In a learning culture, it’s assumed that learning happens all the time, at events but also on the job, socially, through coaches and mentors, from action-learning, from smartphones and tablets, and from experimenting with new processes.

In a training culture, the training and development function is centralized. The CLO, HR, or a training department controls the resources for learning. Employees and their managers assume that if new competencies are needed, they can rely on this centralized function. In a learning culture, learning is decentralized. The entire organization is engaged in facilitating and supporting learning, in and outside the workplace. 

In a training culture, departmental units in the organization compete for information. Each unit wants to know more and control more than the other units. This competition can result in short-term gains for those units and even for the organization as a whole. In a learning culture, knowledge and skills are shared freely among units. Everyone is working to help everyone else learn from the successes and failures across the organization. This creates a more sustainable and adaptable organization. 


In a training culture, the learning and development function is evaluated on delivery of programs and materials. Typically, what matters to management are the courses that were offered and how many people attended. In a learning culture, what matters are the knowledge and skills acquired and applied in the workplace and the impact on achieving the organization’s strategic goals. It’s less about output and more about the difference that learning makes for individuals, teams, and the entire organization.  

As long as CEOs think of training as the panacea for low performance and learning, and professionals continue to push training events on their clients, nothing will change. Only when organizations realize that they need knowledgeable and skilled employees who are creative and innovative, continuously learning, and thinking about how to be more effective in the workplace will they truly become 21st-century organizations. 

To learn more, check out the Essentials of Developing an Organizational Learning Culture

About the Author

Stephen is the co-owner of, a marketplace for organizational learning tools, and also owner and principal of Stephen J. Gill Consulting. Steve's expertise is in creating learning cultures in organizations and measuring the impact of learning and performance improvement interventions. He has done this work for more than 25 years, since leaving the faculty of the University of Michigan, School of Education. He has written extensively about these topics. His most recent books are Getting More From Your Investment in Training: The 5As Framework, published by RealTime Performance in 2009, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations, published by Sage Publications in 2010, and Communication in High Performance Organizations: Principles and Best Practices, published as Kindle ebook in 2011. Steve also posts regularly on The Performance Improvement Blog. He serves his community as an elected trustee of Washtenaw Community College.  

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Thank you Stephen for very comprehensive analysis. What is the word opposing to "Shared" in the chart above?
The figure is not very clear so I'm not sure what word it is.
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Stephen, am I able to download this in a PDF? Very useful!
Ann, thanks for repeating this post. You have my permission to make a PDF for readers.
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