A culture of learning fosters business growth

A culture of learning fosters business growth

Training spend doesn’t automatically breed a ‘learning culture’. Mark Williamson and Neil Wilson set out the distinctive features of a true learning environment – and explain how to go about building one.

Partner, People Powered Performance



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  • Use learning strategically to develop new business models.
  • Learning and development shouldn’t be seen as a cost: it’s an enabler.
  • Use collaborative tools to put learning at the heart of the workforce.
  • An ‘academy’ approach, using a blend of channels, can be highly effective.


The time when learning opportunities were seen as a non-essential perk is long gone. In our experience, many boards across a wide range of sectors embrace learning as a critical enabler for developing capabilities.

This recognition that organisations need to develop their own people is partly a result of not being able to recruit skills quickly enough in the external market.

However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they get the most from their learning investment. Too many organisations use learning to cover for gaps or in reaction to a crisis. “We’ll go and train them again” is a knee-jerk response that’s unlikely to lead to long-term success.

One of today’s big HR challenges is to promote a strategic approach, ensuring that learning activity functions as a capability to develop new business models faster and more competitively.

Deliver high-precision learning

Learning and development shouldn’t be seen as a cost: it’s an enabler. But organisations risk squandering their investment unless learning activity is linked directly to business goals, and then delivered selectively.One of our Utility industry clients can testify to the power of targeted, personalised learning. The business recently changed its operating model, with a particular impact on the roles of people in the finance function. Confidence that these teams were on top of their new responsibilities was critical to the business.We worked with one of our alliance partners, Cognisco. Their technology assesses an individual’s skills in meeting defined business needs. And it goes further by providing a psychological assessment of the individual’s confidence – on the basis that an employee who is unaware that he or she lacks competence poses a higher business risk.

Approaches like this enable learning to be matched to strategic objectives, personalising learning interventions to focus on specific needs. As a result, the organisation maximises the value invested in learning.

Turn strategy into learning 

One way of encouraging a learning culture that can be highly effective is to set up a learning academy.

Some organisations take this approach to boost capability in a specific domain; others apply it across a broader set of topics. Either way, it translates strategic requirements into relevant learning initiatives.

The NHS Leadership Academy was formed in 2012 after a series of inquiries into patient safety pointed to a need for stronger leaders in the service.  Working with the Academy, our consortium is now delivering the largest, most innovative investment ever in NHS leadership development, with learning that sets new standards of excellence by changing leadership culture, transforming services and introducing new levels of professionalism and compassion, thereby driving national standards.Like most academy environments, getting people collaborating is essential. We remember one NHS leader saying simply: “It’s got us talking.” Leaders in big trusts, who might never have spoken to each other much before, now learn together and support one another.

Get tech savvy

Conversations among colleagues help to ensure learning and development isn’t about knowledge for its own sake, but is brought to life in the daily work of the organisation. Social media can continue the conversation inside an organisation and spread the message much wider.

Collaborative tools are part of the stable of new technologies that leaders need at their fingertips to deliver tightly targeted and effective programmes. These range from learning management systems to interactive scenario-based modules that involve individuals working their way through storylines to solve problems.

It’s no surprise that the tech sector is leading the way in the creation of learning environments – staying ahead of new advances is second nature to these companies. But it’s also an industry that demonstrates a natural tendency for collaboration.Finally, your board needs to do more than sign off on learning investment linked to organisational outcomes. Leaders must be seen to be genuinely engaged in their own personal development – and involved in the learning conversation with the rest of the workforce.

Learning and development

Learning and development

Rapid and complex change in the business environment means new challenges for boards and HR directors.

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