Building a Learning & Development Culture: Strategies for Success [Part 2]

How to Create a Learning & Development Culture

There’s been a lot written on the subject of “How to Create a Learning Culture.” Academic treatments tend to focus on the ideal qualities of a learning culture. Consulting papers tend to reflect with clients on the tactics and mechanisms used to drive change into their organization. Scholarly articles written by independent industry analysts, journals, or other “think tanks” report the results of exhaustive surveys on the matter. But looking across all these sources, there seem to be some common themes.

“Everyone says they want a learning culture, but in many cases, that’s still just something they say and not something that ties to a change in structure or process. In more mature organizations, we’re seeing the convergence of performance management, employee engagement, and learning and real change in how companies are measuring the values and behaviors of learning.” (Todd Tauber, VP product marketing, Degreed).”

Change Management to Support a Learning & Development Culture

As with any other organizational change, successfully introducing a shift in the corporate culture benefits from the principles and practices of solid change management. This includes the importance of senior sponsorship, leadership alignment, consistent communication, organizational and talent systems alignment, supportive champion networks, and effective training and performance support.

Sponsorship – One of the most consistent requirements for supporting a development culture is the need for visible C-Level sponsorship. When asked in a 2021 McKinsey article what most organizations are missing when they try to promote learning, Elizabeth Young McNally (Global leader of McKinsey Academy) responded, “Some elements that I have seen in organizations that are successful at doing this start with storytelling and role modeling by senior leaders that learning and long-term perspective are important.” Her colleague Matthew Smith (CLO, McKinsey) agreed. “Like so many things … it starts with having a CEO or a senior leader who actually values learning and talks about it very actively. That to me is honestly table stakes.”

Communication – It’s not just who is talking, but what and how they communicate. “As well as being consistent in your communication, you need to be inspirational if you want to promote a culture of learning,” says Austin Swain, Partner at EY.  “We’re turning up the volume of communications as a driver of change in learning…particularly in terms of the time and space to consume bite-sized offerings ‘at desk’ during billable work time,” adds Patricia McEvoy, People Development Director at EY

Champion Networks – It shouldn’t stop with the CEO. Change Management professionals know you need a network of change champions to drive change throughout an organization. In 2021, PWC was named No. 2 in CLO Magazines LearningElite Awards Top 10, primarily due to their “Infinite Learning strategy,” which embraced a 100% digital learning environment through the pandemic – part of a $3 billion commitment to providing digital reskilling to all of its employees through 2022. As part of the strategy, “Executive leaders champion new learning programs, facilitate courses, and participate in training and development events throughout the year. Their public commitment to reskilling sets the expectation for continuous learning and motivates everyone to make it a priority.” says Leah Houde, Chief Learning Officer at PwC. Moreover, as part of the “Your Tomorrow program,” designed to future-proof the organization for a digital world, “each employee has access to a development leader and a coach to guide their learning journey. These guides deliver frequent informal feedback designed to validate accomplishments and identify opportunities to close other skill gaps, which helps learners make the most of their training time.”

Measurement – “Always assess the results of your efforts. Besides determining your effectiveness, this will give you the information you need to keep your business case updated for management. Such assessments can be difficult in the short term,” says Eric Duffy, chief executive of the enterprise learning platform provider Pathgather in New York City, “but conducting employee surveys to establish benchmarks in areas such as knowledge and performance is a good way to start. Over time, you can then measure against those variables to gauge learning’s impact on retention, internal mobility, business results, and other factors.”

“If you do employee engagement surveys, you should start to see improvement in answers about employee development and learning,” says Paul Wolfe, senior vice president and head of human resources for Indeed.com in New York City. “In addition, he recommends conducting curriculum-specific surveys to get ongoing feedback. That will help you keep up with your organization’s changing needs.”

Learning Design to Support a Learning & Development Culture

It is critically important that the formal learning mechanisms support the overall learning culture we seek to create and vice versa. This would include the strategies, processes, modalities, technologies, subjects, and design of formal learning systems and the learning organization which supports them. Below is a highlight of some of the most prominent themes from recent research.

Teaching Resilience

Deloitte’s 2020 Human Capital Trends report focuses almost its entire learning chapter on the topic of Resilience. “The skills landscape is shifting drastically and rendering exercises to define needed skills of limited use and longevity … We suggest an approach that treats workforce development as a strategy for building worker and organizational resilience – equipping workers, and thus the organization, with the tools and strategies to adapt to a range of futures.” The authors define resilience as “Workers who can constantly renew their skills and learn new ones.”

Matthew Smith (CLO, McKinsey) would agree. “We think of [Learning-How-to-Learn] as one of the most fundamental capabilities that a person can develop for themselves. It makes you better at getting better at things,” says Matthew Smith (CLO, McKinsey). “The need for resilience has never been higher… When I talk with my peers at other organizations, this is probably the number-one need that comes up… But we need to do more to support people… Building these skills of resilience is something that more and more companies can invest in.”

Determine a Blended Modality Strategy

A common theme across research is the need to develop a strategy to employ all the various technologies available to support learning: Virtual Learning, eLearning, distance learning cohorts, curated microlearning pathways, social communities of practice, mobile learning, and more.  “L&D is no longer the expert on what or how to learn; it’s not about compliance or the delivery and control of learning consumption,” says Patricia McEvoy, People Development Director at EY. “Instead, we’re meeting the evolving needs of our learners by meeting their desire for mobility, variety, and flexibility in the way they build their capabilities to be fit for the future working world. In practice, this means more focus on agility, adaptability, integration, and learning that directly supports workplace performance.”

Several learning industry leaders interviewed by SHRM in 2018 agreed. “Make sure your content is available through a variety of channels ‘so people can learn in the way that works best for them,” says Paul Wolfe (SVP, Indeed.com). ‘If the content you’re using isn’t the right stuff in the right format, it’s not going to work,’ adds Eric Duffy (CEO, Pathgather). ‘Put another way; you should offer content through the channels and devices that employees are using outside of work.’” Maria Ho, research head of the Alexandria, Va.-based Association for Talent Development, continues, “Organizations need to figure out how to give employees effective forums to communicate new knowledge,” By that, she means exploring the use of social media and access to self-directed learning platforms and online learning centers.”

Embrace Learning In-the-flow-of-Work

In their 2020 Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte recommends, as it has in years past, pushing more and more learning to systems that deliver training ‘in-the-flow-of work.’ “Organizations should work to provide workers with guidance and information in the flow of their work and look for opportunities to help workers learn through experiences.”

One of the most straightforward ways to do this is to introduce a Learning Experience Platform (LXP) to your organization. LXPs, a rapidly growing technology in the learning field, are tools that curate existing content and transform it into customized learning paths for the individual. They can curate both internally and externally developed content available to the organization. Most leverage AI technology algorithms to help with the curation. In particular, they are designed to work not just at the course level, like your LMS – but with bite-sized, on-demand learning nuggets that can be consumed in the flow of work (articles, videos, podcasts, etc.). However, for people to use and benefit from such systems, the culture must support them.

Patricia McEvoy warns, “The culture in which the learning framework sits is essential. As we transition to the new norm of learning in the flow of work, enabled by blended learning offerings, EY is deliberately reshaping its learning culture.”

Leverage Adaptive Learning Solutions

One key trend that many learning leaders agree on is the need to develop highly customized solutions for learners. Patricia McEvoy explains, “At EY, we are seeing the demise of the learner as passive recipient and rise of learners as intelligent consumers who expect fast, convenient, and tech-enabled learning. Therefore, learning resources must be easy to find & navigate, relevant and immediately applicable to the learner’s current experience.”

One solution that provides this customization at the course or learning path level is Adaptive Learning technologies. Katy Tynan (Forrester Analyst) defines Adaptive learning technology this way, “Traditional learning solutions offer the same content to all learners regardless of their level. This is both inefficient and disengaging. Today’s learning technology tools have a variety of capabilities — from robust assessments that pinpoint an individual’s current capabilities to advanced AI and machine learning tools that develop and recommend custom learning paths aligned with career development, skills, and interests. These are powerful tools that improve the efficiency of learning.”    These technologies are especially helpful in customizing digital content.

Transform your L&D Team

As the culture and the nature of learning and work change, the L&D organization must also transform. Instructional designers focused primarily on learning content and activities will not be enough. “Corporate training departments must become “learning experience architects” (to use a term from design thinking), building a compelling and dynamic experience for employees and helping employees learn how to learn,” predicted Bill Pelster, US Talent Development Partner in Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends.

Katy Tynan (Forrester Analyst) would agree and go further, “Level up your L&D department. Learning drives essential business outcomes, including innovation, adaptivity, and retention. Yet, in many organizations, the learning function is still buried within HR, with limited strategic access. L&D spending is often fragmented across departmental budgets, making it difficult to connect the dots between investment and return. In the same way, IT came out from under finance and operations to have its own seat at the table; the learning function needs to level up to the C-suite and take its place as an essential part of business performance.”

Organization Design/Development of a Learning Culture

“Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast.” – Peter Drucker.

Changing a culture is about much more than org charts and job descriptions. It represents a campaign to motivate, create and reinforce desired organizational behaviors. This would include steps related to demonstrating and supporting learning’s value, leader stewardship activities, employee empowerment activities, and talent systems alignment.

“Changing a culture is no small undertaking, and most agree that knitting learning into your organization’s DNA takes time and care. “Don’t try to do it all at once,” says Eric Duffy (CEO, Pathgather). “Work your way into the process.”

“At New York Life Insurance Co. in New York City, for instance, supporting a learning culture means “trying to make each moment about learning, about establishing the intention to learn in every interaction, every relationship and every chance to lead,” says Michael Molinaro, Vice President of Talent Management.”

According to our research, a thriving learning culture requires four things: 1) Stewardship, 2) Career ownership, 3) Informal structures that demonstrate & reinforce learning’s value, and 4) Formal structures that build learning into the fabric of everything.

Stewardship

Stewardship consists of all leaders’ activities to empower, model, and guide their people. Leaders who are good stewards personally invest time, money, and passion in the long-term development of their people, with an understanding that they are investing in the company’s future.

Austin Swain, Partner at EY Lane4, asks one of five questions “leaders should ask when creating a learning culture – Is learning part of your leadership identity?” Swain explains, “Anyone can stand up and say that learning is important, but when a leader considers learning to be an integral part of their identity, they are constantly thinking about how they can help the people they support to become better than they were yesterday. Going beyond consistent and inspirational communication, they create high-support and high-challenge environments where learning is acquired, applied, and transferred into people’s daily lives.”

Katy Tynan (Forrester Analyst) underscores the critical value of creating a coaching culture “Coaching is an essential skill for all leaders; it’s the key capability that underpins a learning culture. By creating time for conversations around current capabilities, career interests, and learning resources, managers, and employees develop a strong partnership that drives engagement, retention on the employee’s side, skills development, organizational adaptivity, and innovation on the organization’s side.”

Career Ownership

Career ownerships represent all the steps employees take direct their development. It begins with a growth mindset focused on actively managing one’s personal development journey. It includes holding oneself accountable for the development goals they set for themselves and a commitment to using all the tools and resources available to them. It also allows the agency to take all the necessary steps to move forward by learning about the world of possibilities, experiences, and exposures available to help them realize their potential.

Elizabeth Young McNally (McKinsey Academy) highlights the value of a growth mindset. One of the elements of that learning culture that … we talk a lot about at McKinsey Academy is how to cultivate a growth mindset. … This is the idea of seeing challenges as opportunities to get better. … [which is] critical for all organizations that want to use learning and adaptability as a way to outperform.”

Her colleague Matthew Smith (CLO, McKinsey) discusses the importance of building personal habits of learning. “Set small and clear goals over a three- to six-month period for what you want to learn … Not too many of them; usually, I would say three maximum. And then tell other people what you’re working on so that they can support you…Three goals, three months. Maybe you tell three friends, and then it’s three, three, three. That will create this continuous learning loop that you’ll have … You’ll build it as a habit, which is the most important thing.”

Deloitte extends the notion of personal agency as a tool to drive business results. “In our view, the most important way organizations can unleash workers’ potential is to empower them with agency and choice over what they do… Organizations that afford workers the agency and choice to explore passion areas will be able to more quickly and effectively activate workers around emerging business priorities.”

Informal Structures that Demonstrate & Reinforce Learning’s Value

Informal structures include the values we build into the organization, such as safety to take risks and learn from them, the openness of leadership to spend time developing staff and sharing their own mistakes, the commitment of the organization to prioritize resources on learning, and the vision to reward the behaviors and recognize the people who do. Informal structures often reveal themselves as a disciplined set of lifelong learning habits – a practice of coming to work every day and helping each other get the most out of every experience.

In 2010, Bersin & Associates (now Bersin by Deloitte) conducted a survey to identify the Best Practices of firms with the strongest Learning Cultures. It remains one of the most insightful and practical guides for defining the practices which build effective learning organizations.

High-impact Learning Culture Best Practices

Several learning industry leaders highlight the importance of these practices to their organizations.

Your workforce must understand that learning and experimenting are both safe and expected—and shouldn’t be reserved only for formal training scenarios…Today, both the company and individual have to adapt continually, and skills have to be continually updated,” says Eric Duffy (CEO, Pathgather). “A learning culture understands this and broadcasts that you’re expected to improve continuously.”

It’s [about] empowering people to discuss new knowledge with co-workers and experiment on their own,” adds Maria Ho (Association for Talent Development) … “Managers need to understand that if employees take time to develop skills, it will help make them stronger contributors and team members,” says Paul Wolfe (SVP, Indeed.com).

In a 2018 HBR article, Josh Bersin summarizes, “if you want to nurture curiosity and learning in your employees, there’s no need to rely on your organization’s formal learning and development programs. Reinforcing positive learning behaviors, giving constructive and critical feedback to align employees’ efforts with the right learning goals, showcasing your own curiosity, and hiring people with high learnability and a hungry mind are all likely to create a stronger learning culture within your team and your organization.”

Formal Structures that Build Learning into the Fabric of Everything

Formal structures include the comprehensive set of formal education resources, structured experiences, developmental exposures, and continuous improvement practices built into the fabric of everything the organization does – hiring, staffing, performance management, talent development, team-based best practices, and knowledge management.

The goal of developing a Learning Culture is to build it into the fabric of everything done in an organization. Culture is not prescribed with messaging alone; culture is created by leaders living the message daily. The organization communicates how much it cares about continuous people development through the consistency of how its values are reflected in:

  • The choice of assignments made
  • The tasks that are prioritized
  • The time allocated in plans & meetings
  • The initiatives that are funded and supported
  • The training that’s required
  • The activities that are rewarded
  • The people that are promoted
  • The stories that are told

“There is a perception that we lack time to learn at work, but that’s not necessarily the case. We need to discard the idea that learning is separate from work. When we embed learning into everything we do, we accelerate results, and in the end, we save time by doing things a better way.” (Jeff Miller, Chief Learning Officer and VP of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone)”

Hiring – “Certainly you want to look to hire people who have that growth mindset and a willingness to embrace new perspectives, new skills.” says Elizabeth Young McNally (McKinsey Academy)

“Too often, with big management problems, we focus on training and development while undermining the importance of proper selection. But the reality is that it’s easier to prevent and predict than to fix and change,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup. “When selection works, there’s far less need for training and development, and good selection makes training and development much more effective because it is easier to augment potential than to go against someone’s nature. Learning and curiosity are no exception.”

Talent Marketplaces – According to Deloitte’s 2020 Human Capital Trends, “One way to give workers more agency and choice in what they do is through “opportunity—or talent—marketplaces… They’re designed to provide workers with choice by helping them match their interests, passions, and capabilities against current and future business and project demands. Such “passion projects” give workers new development experiences and opportunities to learn in the flow of work, further enhancing the skills they bring to the organization.”   Their 2021 HC Trends report added, “Culture is a foundational element in activating and establishing a successful Talent Marketplace.   If there is a misalignment between the purpose, culture, and strategy in establishing a Talent Marketplace, adoption is hindered.”

Performance Measurement – And no change program would be complete without a way to measure progress and hold the program accountable to its goals. Many organizations have mandatory training requirements or required training hours, but Matthew Smith (CLO, McKinsey) sees it differently. “A better way to build [learning] into the expectations is by linking it to your performance management or review systems. So, for example, at McKinsey … we ask people to think about what their learning-and-development plan should be over the coming months. So, when you go through your review … They will give you recommendations for what learning you should take advantage of. And then … have an ongoing conversation with your manager … about how you’re doing.”

Team-based Best Practice and Knowledge Management – “Employers must see learning as a cultural value and an essential element of daily work, rather than a siloed function that takes away from work time. Learning organizations understand that innovation requires trial and error as well as reflection on outcomes, “says Katy Tynan (Forrester Analyst).

Asked about the mechanism to promote learning at McKinsey Academy, Elizabeth Young McNally asks, “what is the formal mechanism to ensure that the learning and the continuous improvement actually happen and that there is a learning loop?” Matthew Smith (CLO, McKinsey) adds, “[Reflection] actually reinforces a lot of how learning happens for each of us. When we talk out loud to others, we deepen the channels in our brain that say, ‘OK, this is something that is important to me that I’m going to remember.’”

Conclusion: A Purpose that Makes it all Matter 

A learning and development culture is an enabler and reinforcer of a company’s overall strategy and culture. It encourages a firm to invest in its people, accelerate their strengths, unleash their potential, super-charge their teams, and celebrate the power authenticity and inclusion bring. It’s an engine that continually drives the firm forward, allowing it to reach its highest purpose.

That ‘purpose’ is the driving force of the organization as a whole. Its mission, values, and the social impact it seeks to make. From this purpose, the culture grows.

Tom Schoenwaelder, Deloitte US Leader of Strategic Growth Transformation, defines purpose as “the role [a company] serves in society connected to long-term value, including the differentiated needs it addresses for all its stakeholders.  Diana O’Brien, retired Global Chief Marketing Officer and Managing Director of Deloitte University, adds, “a clear purpose is everything to an organization. It is an organization’s soul and identity, providing both a platform to build upon and a mirror to reflect its existence in the world. It articulates why an organization exists, what problems it is here to solve, and who it wants to be to each human it touches through its work. 

Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends explains, “Purpose grounds organizations in a set of values that do not depend on circumstance. Those values, which sit at the intersection of economic, social, and human interests, serve as a benchmark against which actions and decisions can be weighed. In the face of circumstances that are difficult to predict and plan for, organizations that are steadfast in their purpose are able to infuse meaning into work to mobilize workers around common, meaningful goals… [leading] organizations use purpose as a driving force to sift through competing priorities, unite workers under common goals, drive belonging, and focus energy and resources on their most pressing organizational and societal goals.   “In short,” Schoenwaelder concludes, “good purpose strategy is great business strategy.” 

Purpose provides meaning to the whole endeavor, a mission employees believe in, so they want to get better each day and bring the best version of themselves to a place they love working, surrounded by people they admire. That desire is what drives the learning culture. If ‘purpose’ is the promise we make, then learning culture unleashes the promise of our potential.

Download the full Whitepaper