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The 'learning culture' debate: Is the term still valid in today's climate?


The ‘learning culture’ label has been around for several years now and has gained wide recognition among the L&D community as something that is highly challenging to obtain, yet worthy of striving for. But in an age where learning should be business as usual, should the term be dropped altogether?

18th Jan 2022
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In an article written for Harvard Business Review back in 2018, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Josh Bersin discussed different ways of creating a so-called ‘learning culture’ in a team.

A few years prior to this, in an article for SHRM, Robert J. Grossman offered this definition: “A learning culture consists of a community of workers instilled with a ‘growth mindset.’ People not only want to learn and apply what they’ve learned to help their organization, they also feel compelled to share their knowledge with others.” 

As I think about learning culture in the current climate, I wonder whether this term is outdated. Is it still a concept we should be labelling or something that should be incorporated into business as usual?

Here are my first thoughts on this – it would be great to start a debate and see what ideas this sparks for others.

The case for not talking about a learning culture

1. If we label something, it becomes something separate and different. 

If we want to create an atmosphere where ‘every day’s a school day’, my thinking is that talking about a learning culture may be detrimental and confusing in an organisation exploring a range of different ways of operating. This leads to my next point…

2. To what extent is it possible to have a range of cultures living side by side in an organisation?

We live and work in organisations that operate in a multicultural world. We interact in the global marketplace and we are shaped by local, national and international influences.

We can see that a range of cultures can exist side by side in the wider world, but do we acknowledge this in our organisations?

When we talk about a culture change programme, we often talk about moving from one culture to a different (one) culture. For example, “let’s move from a blame culture to a culture of continuous improvement”.

Because of this, I wonder if our team members would believe that they could operate, for example, a results-driven culture alongside a learning culture or would this be too confusing?

And my final point for this side of the debate…

3. Many individuals have less-than positive associations with the word ‘learning’.

This is often related to their educational experiences and results in the word ‘learning’ being linked to the classroom rather than the myriad ways in which learning actually takes place.

In turn, this leads to resistance to anything labelled learning rather than developing the curiosity and growth mindset that characterise a learning culture. 

Perhaps we can re-define ‘learning culture’ so that it feels like an imperative. Or perhaps we should choose other language to describe what we, as L&D professionals, call a ‘learning culture’.

The case for talking about a learning culture

1. If we are going to debunk the myth that learning only takes place in a classroom, we need it to be as much a part of the organisational language as the words ‘productivity’ or ‘results’ and ‘performance’.

Perhaps we should consider the ways in which we can talk about learning every day and build the word into most of our workplace conversations.

2. We often define culture as “the way we do things around here” and therefore why would we not want to talk about a learning culture?

If we want learning to be part of our way of doing things, then surely we should be talking about it openly and readily?

If we are committed to performance improvement, which happens through openly discussing our learnings from experience, errors and mistakes, then what better way of making this type of conversation acceptable than to call it a learning conversation which is part of our learning culture?

3. Looking at the definition of learning culture in the article quoted here, surely a learning culture would incorporate much of what we now know builds a successful organisation.

A learning culture will reduce blame by being focused on the future.

A learning culture will promote trust by encouraging feedback, sharing knowledge and fostering ideas across the organisation.

A learning culture is responsive, flexible and resilient – all qualities that as a result of the pandemic we know are essential for organisational survival.

Redefining learning culture

As I reflect more on this, I have to say I am not sure which side of the debate I am rooting for.

I have been involved in learning and development for over 30 years now and so the ‘L’ word is part of my DNA and I would love to believe that it should be part of the minute-to-minute language of the workplace. 

However when I mention learning to managers – from the C-suite to the front line – the manager often struggles to pull themselves away from the immediate issues to something that they perceive to be long term and time consuming. 

Perhaps we can re-define ‘learning culture’ so that it feels like an imperative. Or perhaps we should choose other language to describe what we, as L&D professionals, call a ‘learning culture’.

What do you think? Please share your comments and experiences so that we can keep learning together.

Interested in finding out more about this topic? Read 'How to create the right environment to grow a learning culture.'

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