Learning Culture

What is learning culture?

Learning culture is a combination of policy, processes, values, habits and behaviour in an organization focused on stimulating curiosity, continuous learning, sharing knowledge, experimentation and trying new ways of working. Learning culture aims to enhance organizational agility, increase the speed of change and improve performance.

We would be happy to help you with the development the learning culture of your organization.

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Should you care?

In just a few decades the core driver of organizational performance has shifted from efficiently organizing human labour to imagining, improving and optimizing largely automated or virtual processes. People are therefore doing less leg work and more analytical, technical or creative jobs. Working smart, instead of hard has never been so important. Organizations need to adapt their culture to this fundamental change.

There are very few industries that do not need to deal with fundamental transformation in one way or another. When new technology or new business models become available, the companies that are able to move first or adapt quickly have a vast head start on slower movers. We all know the examples of Kodak and Nokia and we would all prefer to be the next Google, Amazon or Apple.

Learning culture may cause some discomfort, especially at senior levels of the organization, because it challenges the status quo and pinpoints where an organisation can innovate or improve ways of working. Learning culture helps people to embrace new developments or technology and that builds agility, a highly valued organizational ability in volatile times. This helps to mitigate the risk of external disruption and can even open previously unexplored roads for innovation.

People who possess relevant knowledge and skills want to keep them up-to-date and develop new ones. A culture of learning attracts these people and helps to retain them too. Learning culture helps keep employee’s knowledge and skills fresh, which keeps them flexible and employable throughout their careers. This, in turn enhances organizational flexibility.

Organizations with a strong learning culture have a fresh, lively atmosphere and employees exude a special kind of self-confidence. No one needs to defend or protect their relevance, based on their existing competencies. Instead, people dare to leave their comfort zone, relying on their ability to solve problems and develop new approaches.

What does learning culture look like?

Flexible, growing and learning people play a key role in growing a learning culture and delivering the benefits on an organizational level. However, learning culture is not the same for every organization. An effective learning culture should fit the organization, its industry and its strategic environment. Even so there some strong common threads between effective learning cultures.


For most organizations, developing learning culture requires a fundamental shift in attitude towards work and learning. In a learning culture learning, exploring and experimenting are a normal part of daily work. Finding new ideas, running experiments, sharing feedback, reflection, coaching and many other forms of learning are considered work and not a waste of time.

In organizations without a learning culture, status and self-confidence are related to experience and mature skills and knowledge. Curiosity and learning skills are less valued. Time and energy therefore get wasted on demonstrating ability and preventing mistakes. If things do go wrong, this is a cause for embarrassment and sometimes even a reason to cover up, wasting a valuable opportunity to learn from the event. Letting go of the mask of perfection is at the core of Learning Culture. Once it is accepted and safe not to know or be able to do it all, valuable time and energy can be refocused on learning and creating value for the business. We call this a shift from a “can do” to a “can learn” mentality.

Leadership attitude and behaviour is crucial to the successful development of learning culture. It is a strategic decision to aim for a learning culture in the first place. This means that it cannot be left to the HR or L&D functions by themselves but needs full endorsement, sponsorship and walking the talk by senior business leaders.

In fast learning organisations, leaders can’t possibly know everything. That is one reason why directive leadership is less relevant in a learning culture. Instead coaching and supportive leaders are needed who exemplify a can learn attitude. Curiosity, taking initiative, daring to try and fail, asking for feedback, reflection, taking time to learn new things and stimulating others to do the same are examples of leadership behaviour that boosts a learning culture. Leaders in a learning culture are fully aware that continuous learning is prerequisite for long-term organisational success.

“The attitude and behaviour of leadership is crucial to the successful development of learning culture. Leaders need to exemplify a can learn attitude.”

Thomas Benedict – Director and founder InContext

Learning instruments

A learning culture requires a set of learning tools:  traditional courses and seminars, online learning, simulation, on-the-job learning and platforms for sharing experience and social learning. As these tools are continuously developing and complementary, organizations build learning ecosystems, in which employees can actively look for, share and apply new knowledge and skills in order to contribute to the organizational mission and goals. Linking learning goals to organisational goals helps to focus learning on important themes for the future of the business.

In a learning culture individuals and teams define their own learning needs and choose preferred learning tools. The degree to which managers and learning experts influence these choices differs per organization and learning culture maturity.

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