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Building a Culture of Learning

Bob Little 

May 6, 2016

It appears to be a truth universally acknowledged – at least by the U.S.’s Association for Talent Development (ATD) – that, “a workplace in which learning is a valued way of life, knowledge is readily shared, and performance steadily improves—at both the individual and organizational levels—is the vision that drives companies to establish and expand cultures of learning.”

Furthermore, the ATD believes that “organizations are more competitive, agile, and engaged when knowledge is constantly and freely shared.”

It has come to these conclusions as a result of a study undertaken by ATD Research and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). It expresses its views in the recently published report “Building a Culture of Learning: The Foundation of a Successful Organization,” which is sponsored by Paradigm Learning.

ATD Research and i4cp surveyed 832 talent development leaders from around the world in 2015. They questioned these leaders on whether their organizations exhibited characteristics of thriving learning cultures.

The results, now published in the report, offer insights into the prevalence of learning cultures in high-performing companies. They also identify hallmarks of learning cultures, and the report also contains tips for creating and nurturing a learning culture.

The researchers concluded that an organization having a culture of learning is an indicator that it is a high performer. The report reveals that individuals from high-performing companies are five times more likely than their low-performing counterparts to indicate that their company had a culture of learning. In other words, high business performance and a culture of learning go hand-in-hand.

In addition, high-performance organizations are likely to discuss their commitment to on-going talent development during interviews with potential candidates. This means that they use their culture of learning as a recruiting tool.

Furthermore, apparently, those from high-performing companies are six times more likely to commit to on-going talent development in the pre-hire interviews than those from low-performing companies. Moreover, individuals who make such commitments during the recruitment process are the most likely to have high market performance – so this becomes a virtuous circle.

In other words, organizations that prioritize the on-going learning and development of their workers are more likely to be successful – both in terms of business performance and in the market for talented hires.

According to the report, robust cultures of learning are distinct hallmarks of organizations that consistently produce the best business results. So companies with developed cultures of learning lead the world’s markets in revenue growth, profitability, market share, and customer satisfaction.

However – perhaps unsurprisingly – the report reveals that, despite all of these benefits, only 31 percent of the organizations it surveyed have well-developed learning cultures. Nonetheless, it says that only six per cent of organizations have no trace of a learning culture at all.

ATD Research and i4cp go on to explore the practises that talent development leaders at such successful organizations as Marriott International, SAP and Merck are applying in order to drive vibrant learning cultures.

Their research identifies actions that business leaders in top companies take to support those learning cultures. It looks at the roles that workers play in these cultures, and discusses the constructive contributions to be gained from effective talent management processes.

While admitting that the characteristics that define learning cultures can vary, the report states that talent development leaders described such traits as closely aligned business and learning strategies, organizational values that affirm learning’s importance, and an atmosphere in which learning is so ingrained that it simply becomes “a way of life” as key to success. In organizations where these traits exist and are encouraged, agility is more evident and change is not merely embraced but exploited. Moreover, the report reveals that, when operating within an organization that promotes a learning culture, workers develop growth mind-sets and seek out new opportunities to learn and to share knowledge with their colleagues.

The report points out that organizational leaders play key roles in cultures of learning.

They act as learning catalysts, motivate employees, and share their knowledge and expertise through “leaders-as-teachers” programs. Some leaders serve on governance or advisory boards, providing guidance to the L&D function and also helping to shape learning approaches that directly affect the organization’s bottom line.

Further research by i4cp – published in 2015 – into shifting patterns in work and workforces confirms that a competitive edge for talent can be a game changer for companies. i4cp says this is especially true for at-risk industries, such as hospitality, which – according to figures from a survey by Modern Survey in 2015 – experiences the highest incidence of disengaged employees (at 29 percent of all employees in the sector).

According to the ATD, “As companies worldwide work to attract, engage, and retain the top talent needed to drive successful strategy execution, learning cultures become increasingly important tools that are capable of exerting positive effects on the people programs that underlie competitive capabilities.”

As a talent leader whose company has successfully overcome that engagement challenge, Adam Malamut, the global talent officer for hotel firm Marriott International, confirms the difference a culture of learning can make.

Stressing the importance of developing and continually deepening such a culture, he says, “The more of a learning culture you have – and Marriott International’s is deep and rich – the more adaptable and innovative your company will become. In turn, you’ll be more of a magnet for top talent because people, particularly Millennials, want to grow fast, contribute, and see they’re adding value sooner in the career process. Our learning culture is our greatest competitive advantage.”

The full ATD report is available to buy for an ATD member price of $199 ($499 for non-members) at www.td.org/CoL.


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