Nine evidence-based reasons to create a culture of learning

Have you ever considered exactly what a culture of learning is? What does it look like? How does it feel and operate day to day?

Oracle defines a learning culture as ‘a set of organisational values, conventions, processes and practices which encourage individuals – and the organization as a whole – to increase knowledge, competence and performance’.

This blog looks at the evidence behind a successful culture of learning (which we’ll come onto shortly). However, research from the CEB suggests only 10% of organizations have actually managed to successfully create a productive learning culture, and just two in ten employees are demonstrating effective workplace learning behaviors.

There are likely to be many reasons why organizations noted within CEB’s research haven’t managed to adopt a culture of learning. Stephen J. Gill’s work on developing learning cultures, albeit specifically within nonprofits, highlights several barriers which many businesses could be facing, including passive leadership, short-term focus and resistance to change.

Here are nine evidence-backed areas that help to explain why developing a learning culture can be so beneficial:

Employees are happier when they are learning

Perhaps a surprising piece of research to start off with; whilst the next eight points focus on employee and organizational performance, this first point looks at research indicating that a culture of learning can directly influence employees’ happiness.

This report released by learning platform provider Docebo showed that around three out of five employees from U.S. and U.K. workforces surveyed believed learning opportunities affected their workplace happiness. Thirty-six per cent of those employees surveyed – and nearly half of millennials – would actually consider leaving a job that didn’t offer them any learning opportunities. In other words, a lack of a learning culture could make it very difficult to hang on to the best talent within a company. 

Learning is a key ingredient of great leadership

Research from Bersin by Deloitte revealed the importance of a learning culture for developing great leaders. The paper identified that high-impact leadership organizations spend on average around one and a half to three times more on management development. Development is seen as being absolutely essential for building and connecting leaders who are able to go on to successfully lead the company.

Yet ‘building’ leaders takes considerably more than expecting them to sit through an extensive repertoire of training sessions. Instead it demands a culture where learning creates a space for great leadership skills to be nurtured and that broadens opportunities for leaders to develop in new ways.

Learning through failure

“Failure” is often regarded as a dirty word. Yet the potential value of learning from it is significant. This is a point that’s made by Matthew Syed in his book Black Box Thinking, where he explains how transformational it can be to see the opportunities presented by every failure, for vital learning. The existence of a learning culture is an essential part of adopting that mindset.

In this article Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School Amy Edmondson, highlights research that identifies how important this form of learning is – yet how infrequently it happens in organizations. As she explains, a learning culture which acknowledges the value of failure, can coexist with high standards of performance.

A growth mindset is consistent with someone who wants to learn

Stanford University research psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck has carried out extensive research into the concept of mindset. Her work has identified that individuals can display a “growth mindset”, where they seek to continually learn and find ways to deal with the challenges life throws at them. Unlike those people with a fixed mindset, there’s a belief that talent isn’t finite and that abilities aren’t set. Instead, it’s believed that through learning, it’s always possible to develop and improve.

Organizations can have a growth mindset too

As well as pioneering work in the field of individual growth mindset, Dweck has demonstrated how an entire organization can demonstrate a growth mindset. In conjunction with Senn Delaney, she conducted a two-year study into several Fortune 1000 companies to understand the impact of an entire organization’s outlook.

Whilst the research didn’t show direct learning benefits, it did demonstrate that companies which have a growth mindset enjoy many positive attributes, including having employees who feel they are valued, more ethical behaviors from the workforce as a whole, plus a greater ability to innovate and take considered risks.

A strong emphasis on learning leads to a more engaged workforce

Organizations which place a strong emphasis on continuous learning, where effective training and development opportunities are readily available, can make a considerable impact in striving for a more engaged workforce. This study by Deloitte looking at employee engagement found that organizations with strong learning cultures had engagement rates that were around 30-50% higher than companies without such cultures.

Employees want to learn to achieve their potential

There should be no doubt that employees want to work in an environment that encourages and invests in learning and development, as much as employers want to create those environments.

An extensive study conducted by Middlesex University’s Institute for Work-Based Learning, highlighted just how important continued learning was for employees. Of those they surveyed, 77% said they wanted more opportunities to develop – so much so, that more than three-quarters would be willing to invest time at home to study and financially contribute to fund a course.  

Read more: 11 evidence-based reasons why employees quit

Time and again, the evidence tells us employees want to learn. For example, this research from Gallup revealed 87% of millennials said professional growth and development opportunities were among their top priorities. None of this should come as a surprise to leaders, yet companies that don’t make learning accessible run the risk of demotivating, disengaging and even losing their people.

A learning culture can create a significant competitive advantage

Josh Bersin’s team at Deloitte discovered that organizations that can effectively facilitate employee learning, were around 30% more likely to become market leaders. The research suggests that companies with strong learning cultures were a staggering 92% more likely to be innovators, developing novel products and processes, as well as becoming 17% more profitable than competitors.

Learning and sharing knowledge go hand in hand

This research analysis by academics from the universities of Valencia and Coimbra examined the link between learning and knowledge within the context of high competitiveness between organizations.

Building on previous work by Lytras and Poulodi, who suggested that ‘the inevitable relationship of knowledge and learning seems to be taken for granted’, the study combined primary research of 50 manufacturing firms with historic analysis, to confirm a correlation between the existence of a learning culture and a company’s capacity to capture and distribute knowledge.