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Implementing and Instilling a Culture of Learning

Bob Little 

October 24, 2014

What do you do when, as a learning and development professional, you need to embed a learning culture in an organization that has no track record of making learning a priority?

Where – and how – do you start with such an exciting, but challenging, prospect? What – and maybe who – do you need to know?

Culture Takes Priority

You need a strategy but you also need to bear in mind that, in any human context, “culture” is more important than strategy. In a corporate context, these cultures exist on several levels, including “representations and symbols,” “norms and behaviors,” and, at the core of the organization, “beliefs and assumptions.”

If an organization’s beliefs and assumptions don’t support learning – let alone encourage fun, engaging learning – it won’t produce or use it, regardless of what it says. Before you can invent and instill a culture of learning in the organization, you must ensure that its beliefs and assumptions will support one. Changing these beliefs and assumptions may turn out to be a long-term project and, as the economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “in the long run, we’re all dead.”

As a designer and/or promoter of L&D activities, you should understand the organizational characteristics that encourage or prevent making learning an integral part of the corporate culture. For example, a hierarchical and/or small organization is less likely to have overlapping spheres of influence among its staff, or slack within its systems. Yet you need some slack in systems in order to have the “space” to create and implement learning, as well as instill it into the corporate culture.

If you want to be successful in developing and embedding learning in your organization, you can follow a process typified by Rudyard Kipling in “The Elephant’s Child,” when he wrote, “I keep six honest serving-men/(they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who”:

  • What refers to learning content.
  • Why to the business need.
  • When is self-evident.
  • How is about the media selected to deliver the learning.
  • Where is the location of the learning delivery.
  • Who are the people in the organization.

What and Why

One of the best ways to get learning accepted in a “non-learning-oriented” organization is to tie it to a business need – and to do so in such a way that you can demonstrate that you achieve a tangible business benefit when people learn something. This is easier said than done, but among the most “helpful” business needs in this respect are compliance and regulatory training – where employees need to be judged “competent” or else the business closes.

According to Elliott Masie, head of The MASIE Center, a think-tank focused on how organizations can support learning and knowledge within the workforce, some 70 percent of corporate e-learning in the U.S. is now related to training for compliance.

How and Where

These days learning can be delivered in many ways, including mobile – via laptops, tablets, phones, and so on. This makes performance support as well as learning (especially informal) available wherever there’s access to the Internet.

Learning designers now have access to an exceptionally wide range of contemporary tools. It’s important to understand which tools are most effective for particular groups of learners and ensure you use “horses for courses.”

When it comes to getting the learning to the learners, projects can fail not because of sub-standard learning materials, but because the learners never find out that they exist. You need a high-profile launch for a learning program – and you must continue to “sell” the learning effectively throughout the organization.

Afterwards, you should attempt to evaluate the program to find out the return on investment in it. A key question here is, “Did the people who did the training get rewarded for achieving the success they achieved?” You should also ask, “Did this improve people’s attitudes to learning?”, “Did they enjoy learning?” and “Do they want more learning?”

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you’re not being successful in instilling a culture of learning in the organization.


Much has been written over the years about gaining senior management support for learning programs and enlisting the help of high-profile, non-L&D “champions” to promote them. At a more basic level, there’s a five-stage process for developing loyal customers for learning:

  • Awareness.
  • Trial.
  • Ad hoc use.
  • Regular use.
  • “Champion.”

Intervention is needed at “points of drop-off” to prevent losing the learner. This entails becoming “learner-centric” and involves John Keller’s four key characteristics of Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction (ARCS).

In driving the process of learning through the organization, it’s important to have targeted communication strategies and multiple communication channels, make use of “champions,” and have multiple feedback routes. Moreover, research has shown that it’s not always the HR or L&D departments, or even friends, who’re the biggest influence in getting someone to “do” learning. Instead, 40 percent of those questioned said that it was their line manager, while 16 percent opted for a work colleague as the major influence. Only seven percent of learners questioned cited L&D as influential in their decision.

Hugo Heij, a former managing director in the ports industry who now mentors business leaders, says: “While the ports industry isn’t particularly known as a hotbed of formal learning activity, its people are keen to learn.”

Three Principles

Hugo believes that instilling a continuing learning culture in this context involves adopting three key principles:

  • Ask questions.
  • Give people responsibility.
  • Adjust the teaching method and content to the learners’ preferred learning style.

He says: “Asking questions is a key to learning but it’s also important to follow the principle of ‘tell me and I know; show me and I remember; involve me and I learn.’ Many business owners complain that their staff don’t take responsibility for things – including learning – but experience shows that, if you give people responsibility, they’ll take it.

“Of course, it’s not just about involvement. It’s about belonging, too. If people believe they can make a difference, then they’re happy to learn. If you’re just ‘sent on a course’ – perhaps to get a few CPD points – you’re not inclined to learn because you don’t see the real purpose of the exercise.

“And, if you want to create a learning culture, you must take account of the learners’ learning preferences and adjust how you teach them. That’s more easily said than done – especially when it’s simpler to ‘put everyone through the same training program.'”

How would you embed a learning culture in an organization that has no track record of making learning a priority?

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