Building a Learning Culture – which type of culture are you?


You may not even realize it, but every organization has a learning culture – it’s the way learning is naturally happening day-to-day. It’s important to understand because learning culture strongly impacts company success.

“Among all the HR and training processes we study, the single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.”

– Bersin by Deloitte, High Impact Learning Culture

But how do you understand and grow the strength of your learning culture?

This is the first of 3 posts exploring this.

Post 1: What goes into a learning culture?

Post 2: What are the tradeoffs of different types of learning culture?

Post 3: How can you change your learning culture?

Learning Culture: How your employees learn each day

What goes into a learning culture?

Learning culture brings the challenging need to align three stakeholder groups whose priorities don’t fit neatly together. At some point, you need to choose which stakeholder will be the focus. The 3 stakeholders are:

  1. Learning & Development team
  2. Business Leaders
  3. Learners

Truth is, I’m not sure that the perfect balance of all 3 exists. There are pros and cons with any combination. Leave any one group out and you’ll see problems. Each organization will have different needs dictating what kind of learning culture will add the most value. For example:

  • Compliance driven industries need to put the business first.
  • Highly specialized businesses that need unique skills that no one else in the world has will need strong L&D to organize training employees just can’t get anywhere else.
  • Companies in the most competitive talent arenas can use a learner-focused environment to attract and retain talent.

Example: Google X

“I think being afraid to fail is almost a guarantee of glass ceiling on the success that can be achieved.”

– Astro Teller, Google X

In a BBC spotlight, Astro Teller unveiled some secrets of how Google X is run (hint: it’s with a learner focused culture).

Googlers at Google X can:

  1. fail
  2. choose to leave their manager

Those 2 cultural elements encourage employees to learn. Fear of failure and fear of manager are two main reasons we don’t learn. Failure is part of any learning experience. And if you fear your manager, you worry they may think you are “wasting time” when learning, or that they will think less of you if you don’t already know something.

The 5 minute interview from the BBC article is great, as is Astros TED talk about the benefit of celebrating failure.

While X is a unique company project, the concepts they use to pursue success are worth considering when we look at how they have honed their learning culture to match the types of problems they are solving.

Assess your learning culture

So, every L&D professional should spend time evaluating these two deceptively simple questions:

1. Which group is the current focus of your learning culture?

2. Which group should be the focus?

In other words, what problem are you solving? Like a thesis statement of a paper, clearly articulating the problem to solve makes everything else easier. As a product manager, my goal is to center my work around the problem to solve, and it’s more difficult to do than it seems. In the interview on the BBC page about Google, the reporter tells Astro that clean water is a major problem. Astro responds that clean water has been mostly solved, and that corruption is the real problem to solve in that scenario. Interesting viewpoint.

Any time I find projects falling apart, the most likely issue is that we aren’t all clear on the problem to solve.

As part of my work as a product manager at Degreed, I put together a 20-questions cultural assessment to help you reflect on what type of learning culture you have at your company.

Here are a few of the questions to help you think about the current focus of your learning culture:

Do business leaders come to you with problems that need solving?

How do business leaders and employees think about L&D? Is it “just training”, or more comprehensive?

Do Learners know where and how to access learning at your company?

Do employees volunteer to help lead sessions, and create or curate content?

Do you celebrate learning? How?

Take the questions and spend some time examining them. I’m going to post part 2 about the tradeoffs of each type of learning culture, and part 3 about how you can change your learning culture? in the coming weeks, with examples from my experiences as an employee at LinkedIn and Degreed.

The main question to focus on today is, “Where are you and where do you need to be when it comes to your learning culture?”

Originally published on


Ryan Seamons writes about more human approaches to modern management.

Join Patterns for weekly ideas about making work better.

Also check out Manager School to become a better manager.