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Building Learning Culture – Do you have the right mindset?

April 12, 2021
Michelle Ockers
Earth from orbit with networking points

The vision and aspirations of learning professionals for learning culture in their organisation rarely goes far enough. Before you read any further do a quick check in. Take a few moments to describe how you want learning to happen in your organisation. What signs will you use to determine whether real learning is happening – at an individual, team or organisational level? What behaviours are you looking for in regard to learning?

You don’t need to share your answer with anyone. Be honest with yourself.

If you did this exercise your response probably included something along the lines of ‘self-directed learning’ or ‘self-initiated learning.’ You may even have listed some of the behaviours of a self-directed learner. In a discussion with a learning leader in mid-2019 I was told that they have 77% adoption of self-initiated learning. I was surprised by the precision of this statistic and asked how it was measured. The data represented the unique users out of the workforce who took up at least one of the services offered by the learning team. These services included, amongst other things, courses, webinars, learning apps and resources available on a portal. On the surface of it this seems like an impressive take-up, especially as it was pre-COVID. We saw a surge in the utilisation of online content in the early part of COVID, although this has since reduced. It’s certainly gratifying to have high levels of access to the programs and resources created or curated by your learning team.

However, this falls well short of the level of dynamic learning that organisations require to thrive in today’s world. In 2018 Nigel Paine and I ran a Building Learning Culture program for learning professionals. We sought to expand how participants defined learning culture and the tremendous benefits it brings. In his June 2019 Training & Development magazine article Paine wrote that ‘a learning culture enables an organisation to learn fast, rapidly adjust to changes in the outside environment and constantly evolve as its staff continues to grow and accept new challenges.’

This level of responsiveness is unattainable if learning relies on programs and resources. A true learning culture can only be built when the learning team collaborate with others to enable learning to happen continuously throughout an organisation, generally without dependence upon or control by the learning team. 

Start with your mindset

To embrace this vision of learning culture and take action to realise it requires certain attitudes or ideas about learning and the role of learning professionals – which may mean adjusting your mindset.

Attitudes are intangible. We can’t see an attitude. However, our attitudes are reflected in what we say and do. Let’s use actions as an indicator of your attitudes toward learning. It’s time for another check-in. Take a moment now to list up to five initiatives or activities you’ve worked on in the past three months to support others to learn in your organisation (or your clients’ organisations). Choose the activities where most of your time has been allocated in this period. As you read the following description of the four learning culture mindset essentials compare your recent activities to the examples of actions that indicate a learning professional has adopted these attitudes. How consistent are your actions with the mindset required for you to build learning culture?


1. Learning culture is part of organisational culture, not separate from it. 

You have a single organisational culture which values or emphasises different things. Of course, there can be variations in different parts of your organisation such as functions, teams or regions. However, organisational culture is not like a pie assembled from wedges with different flavours – like safety, performance, diversity or learning. Your organisational culture will either promote or inhibit learning. 

A learning professional equipped with this attitude will partner with others to build a culture where learning is valued. A key partner is the team whose remit includes culture-shaping initiatives. This is often Organisational Development or someone in your People and Culture / Human Resources function. 

2. Most learning happens naturally as people work. 

Humans are wired to learn. If you stopped delivering courses in your organisation and took all your eLearning offline people would continue to learn. They would solve problems, build skills through practice, share tips with each other, find resources to meet their performance needs and improve how things get done. Separation of work and learning is an artificial division created by learning professionals when designing formal learning interventions. 

A learning professional who recognises that learning happens naturally as people work will identify and remove barriers to learning while working. They will provide accessible performance support resources and assist people to develop independent learning skills and practices. Importantly, they will use courses as a last resort rather than a default solution.

3. People are capable of driving their own learning. 

Towards Maturity’s 2019 research report The Transformation Journey found that many learning practitioners have an unduly negative view of the willingness and capability of people to drive their own learning. Their data indicates that ‘the modern worker is more engaged with learning than their L&D colleagues think.’ A common perspective is that people are conditioned through their experience of school to expect to be trained; that they equate training with learning. While people may have had a broken experience at school, this doesn’t have to be perpetuated by continuing to view them as passive recipients waiting to be told what and how to learn.

Viewing people as capable learners and contributors to team and organisational learning leads to the adoption of new approaches by learning professionals. More proactive listening and involving people in design of learning solutions improves understanding of how they want to learn and what support they need. An excellent example is the human-centred design approach used to reinvent the learning blend at Reece, as described in episode 39 of the Learning Uncut podcast.

4. Learning is a shared responsibility

It follows from the previous three attitudes that the learning team does not own learning. Rather, in a learning culture responsibility for learning is shared with others – business leaders, managers and individuals. We have already addressed some of the ways in which learning professionals can support individuals. The role of managers in creating development opportunities and supporting learning is well documented. Equipping managers to develop their people is a high leverage learning culture activity.

More than any other group, senior leaders can make or break critical conditions for learning culture. During research for his 2018 book on Workplace Learning, Paine identified a high trust environment and a common purpose as essential for learning cultures. Are you trying to shoehorn a learning culture into an organisation where these conditions do not exist? While it may seem a real stretch to your view of the role of a learning professional, if you are serious about building learning culture you will need to engage your leadership team to ensure that these conditions exist.

What next?

How did you go with your check-in against your recent activities? Are your actions consistent with the four essential attitudes of a learning professional for building learning culture? If not, this may indicate an opportunity to shift your mindset. Alternatively, it may suggest that something is constraining your confidence or freedom to act in a way that is consistent with your mindset.

Is your vision for learning culture set high enough and your motivation to rise to the challenge strong enough to achieve it? While very challenging work the benefits to your organisation and people are enormous.

To keep exploring:

  • Download the Building Learning Culture Primer that I developed with Nigel Paine, and
  • Join our next Building Learning Culture program

Note: This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine March 2018 Vol 45 No 1, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

L&D Mindset, Learning Culture, Learning Transformation, Self-Directed Learning, Workplace Learning

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