How to Promote a Learning Culture in Your Organization

This article shares insights from L&D professionals leading cultural change in their organizations. Learn how changing the status quo works in action!

Employees in an organization with a strong learning culture

Insights from L&D professionals leading cultural change in their organizations. Learn how to:

  • Determine what a learning culture could look like at your company
  • Place employee impact at the core of your strategy
  • Collaborate with senior leadership to spread buy-in
  • Find and recruit often overlooked influencers in your company to spread cultural change
  • Motivate staff to become accountable for learning
  • Use technology to spread a learning culture more widely in your company 
  • Identify business impacts of learning culture to drive home the value of a learning culture

Top-performing organizations are five times more likely to have learning cultures, suggesting that a culture of learning is a key component of business success, according to a report by the ATD. “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage,” according to Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric.

Stephen Gill co-owner of Learning to be Great, LLC, a resource for creating and sustaining a learning culture in organizations, characterizes a “learning culture [as] a work environment that supports and encourages the continuous and collective discovery, sharing, and application of knowledge and skills at the individual, team, and whole organization levels in order to achieve the goals of the organization. [It] is a culture of inquiry; an environment in which employees feel safe challenging the status quo and taking risks to enhance the quality of what they do for customers, themselves, shareholders and other stakeholders. [It] is an environment in which learning how to learn is valued and accepted. In a learning culture, the pursuit of learning is woven into the fabric of organizational life.”

What does that look like in action?

To find out, we’ve identified several L&D leaders who have worked to lead a holistic cultural shift in the communities of their organizations. They come from a diverse array of industries and organizational sizes, and have shared their experience and insights in leading cultural change.

There is no one-size-fits-all learning culture

Learning cultures come in “a lot of different flavors, a lot of different smells, and a lot of different styles, because every organization is different,” says Steve Garguilo, who led a cultural revolution at Johnson & Johnson through a grassroots movement which included the world’s first global corporate TEDx program.

Everyone who we spoke with described finding an optimum organizational learning culture as an ongoing process; one of continuous exploration and discovery of what works best for their tribe.

Keep employee impact at the heart of what you do

A healthy professional learning culture is “one which puts the employee at the center of everything,” says Kim Edwards, Talent and Leadership Development Manager at Getty Images and co-presenter of Learning Now TV.

It is crucial to help learners understand how their individual learning makes a positive impact on business success; to connect personal learning as the driver of organizational success underpins a learning culture.

After solidifying the connection between what employees do and how that contributes to
the organization, Edwards says Getty Images employees have “more awareness that they’re always absorbing information and making decisions in all that they do – therefore always learning and applying that learning – and realize that our company encourages and appreciates that time and effort.”

Work with senior leadership

Executive-level support is key in any learning initiative but it is more essential than ever when taking on the endeavor of transforming company culture.

In our survey to U.S. L&D departments, the number one comment from professionals about how they encourage a culture of learning is through meaningful and overt support from senior leaders. This support may look like personally modeling engagement in learning, connecting employee learning directly to promotions, and giving L&D leaders the funding to support research, creation, and implementation of programs.

“Our senior leadership team champions the initiative,” says Edwards regarding each launch of a new learning campaign. If you need to attain buy-in, we recommend pitching senior management with specific desired business outcomes that can be met with an improved learning culture and tying each culture campaign tightly and measurably to organizational goals.

Connect with key cultural influencers

Although executive buy-in is paramount, it’s important to draw on key influencers, and they may not be individuals you have previously worked with. Driving a learning culture can be helped by “building a relationship with the internal communications team. They’re always in the know, with direct partnerships at the executive level, and can help promote L&D activity, aims and brand,” according to Edwards.

“Our senior leadership team champions the initiative.”
— Kim Edwards, Getty Images

You can also work with catalysts in your organization who exemplify the culture you’re trying to create. “As opposed to trying to drive change from within an HR function or from the senior executive level, it’s critical to amplify voices buried within the organization who are connectors and who are making new ideas happen.

So if you’re an L&D professional, what can you do to start building up an army of people in diverse places in your organization to help you with your goals? We all know that we never have enough resources in L&D to do everything that we want to do, but by empowering more people in your organization, that’s where huge change happens,” says Garguilo.

Use technology as an enabler

Technology can be a powerful ally in cultural transformation. “If we’re not tech literate as L&D teams, then we’re at risk of falling incredibly far behind,” says Garguilo. What all high-performing learning organizations seem to agree on is that technology is the enabler and not the starting point.

Technology has played an important role in increasing knowledge-sharing and
collaboration, according to Sian Musial, an L&D specialist at Pepper Financial Services Group. However, they “remain committed to bringing people into a room to experience training in group settings where the status quo can be challenged and productive discussion can drive the change and improvement agenda.”

Technology has endless applications in helping you enhance learning culture. It could take the form of encouraging learner groups in social platforms like Slack, enabling learners to share their knowledge through video platforms, or helping employees track and visualize their learning progress through an LMS.

Push for accountability on all ends

Individual accountability for learning is a linchpin in any learning culture; when corporate learning becomes “pull” instead of “push,” the organization wins. This behavior needs to be modeled by the L&D department.

Embracing accountability as an L&D department by encouraging and acting on feedback, will go a long way. “I think [a healthy professional learning culture] is one where feedback and recognition is encouraged and appreciated, and valued as an important aspect of development and progress,” says Edwards.

This also means prioritizing your department’s professional development. “As a team we are practicing what we preach, with several of our L&D members undertaking further studying for further or higher qualifications,” says Musial.

“ [A learning culture is] an environment in which learning how to learn is valued and accepted. ”
— Stephen Gill, Learning to be Great, LLC

Be specific about the impact you're looking for and then measure it

During Stephen Garguilo’s time at Johnson & Johnson, he focused on measuring the rise of employee engagement throughout the company through metadata on digital and social technologies, their improvement in critical skills, and net promoter scores. But for him, “stories were also a really important measure. I’d constantly be on the lookout for impact stories of product development and people development, and collecting dozens of those stories was really valuable in being able to demonstrate value as well as inspire others to realize similar outcomes.”

At Pepper Financial Services, one of their desired impacts was for progress in their business measure of being an employer of choice. They became specific in what they considered impacts, including enhanced internal promotion and movement, lowered attrition, and brand and cultural awareness.

Make it part of a larger cultural transformation

It’s no surprise that a learning culture is intertwined with business performance, so if your overall company culture is suffering, your battle can be an uphill one. On the flip side, your department has the capability to positively impact your organization for years to come.

“What happens culturally throughout an organization is linked to what happens with learning and career development and viceversa,” says Musial. In order to inspire a learning culture, organizations that we spoke with recommended promoting learning from failure as well as success, advocating for employee freedom to challenge the status quo with new ideas, supporting and publicizing innovation that springs from learning, and if possible, giving learners encouragement and a platform to collaborate with each other after training events have taken place.

Featuring practical advice from professionals who led cultural transformations at Johnson & Johnson, Getty Images, BPS World and more, this article is part of the U.S. L&D Report 2018: Benchmark Your Workplace Learning Strategy. 

Download the report free-of-charge below:

U.S. L&D Report

What's included?

  • The employee training budgets, highest priority training topics, and most-used training methods of today.

  • Down to earth advice from L&D leaders to help you work with emerging technologies, develop your learning culture, and measure and promote the business impact of workplace learning.

  • What challenges L&D professionals rate as #1 in 2018, how they rate executive engagement at their company, assess the impact of training and more!

U.S. L&D Report: 2018
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This article is sponsored by The Association for Talent Development.