The phrase “learning culture” is used frequently by many in our field. Soon-to-be-published research on high-impact learning organizations shows that those that have fostered learning cultures achieve the highest business value. But what exactly is a learning culture? How do you know if your company has such a culture? And perhaps most importantly, how can you create one?

Performance-driven learning, which focuses on solving timely and urgent business problems, is typically the focus of most learning organizations. Ranging from training employees to using a new application to learning support for a new product rollout, performance-driven programs drive near-term, measurable business impact and potential competitive advantage.

The success of performance-driven programs depends on your organization’s ability to:

1. Clearly diagnose the problem to be solved (performance consulting).

2. Understand the audience and its learning needs (needs analysis).

3. Build interesting and engaging content (content development).

4. Deploy and manage the program effectively (program management).

5. Implement new technology where needed (e-learning, simulations, games, etc.).

6. Measure results and find areas of improvement (metrics).

Most CLOs recognize the importance of continuously improving and updating processes and skills in these six areas. However, in order to create a true learning culture, learning organizations must give equal focus to learning that helps the company grow, adapt to change, cultivate employee talent, innovate and develop strong customer relationships. Programs in this category, which we categorize as talent-driven learning, go beyond skills development. Rather, they focus on key corporate competencies, select behaviors and attitudes.

Talent-driven learning solutions take many forms. A multi-tiered leadership development program (where almost 25 percent of corporate L&D dollars now get invested) is an archetypal example. Others include comprehensive, end-to-end sales training programs, as well as corporate-wide quality and process-improvement programs.

Talent-driven programs must be integrated with career development models and performance management in order to succeed. The programs take years to build and mature, demanding long-term investments and sustained executive commitment. Talent-driven initiatives generally result in intangible benefits, such as employee satisfaction and engagement, innovation and customer loyalty.

However, while such benefits are more difficult to quantify than those from straightforward, performance-driven programs, they have profound impact on a company’s success in the long term.

The primary hallmark of a learning culture is an equal focus on both performance- and talent-driven learning. Learning cultures recognize the need for performance support and improvement, but also embrace individual and organizational learning as a component of business strategy.

The following are questions you can ask to assess your organization’s learning culture:

• Does your company have a formal employee development process coupled with its performance management processes?

• Are formal coaching programs available for managers and supervisors to learn how to listen and develop employee performance?

• Does your company accept that some new ideas will fail and, rather than “punishing” those who dare to innovate, recognize that such experiences can provide valuable learning?

• Are there processes in place for employees to give suggestions and improvements? Is such feedback taken seriously?

• Is the company attuned to market changes and customer input?

• Does your company have experience with change and adaptation?

• Does the company have the talent and processes in place to shift its business when required by market and/or competitive changes?

The bottom line is this: A learning culture is built through a symphony of business processes — driven by the executives all the way down the organization. Your role as a CLO is to conduct this symphony. You ensure that learning is balanced, that some programs drive immediate business results and others are investments in the future.

Data Point

Bersin & Associates research finds that performance consulting yields the highest business value out of all tasks a performance-driven learning function executes.


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