The hunt for the optimal learning culture

What does an optimal learning culture look like?

Learning culture is an industry hot potato. Creating it, building it, complaining about it – learning culture has been a big issue for L&D practitioners for some time now. But what does an optimal learning culture look like? I guess it depends on who you ask!

Ask an L&D manager who has invested heavily in a solid management system and excellent content library – they might describe an optimal learning culture as self-directed, motivated learners with time to learn any time, any place, anywhere.

For busy line managers with a shed load of additional people responsibilities added to their already busy workload – the most appealing optimal learning culture would be one where their team members can go away for the minimal amount of time but come back ready and raring to go!

For business executives questions about an optimal learning culture might be completely ignored when they are more interested in establishing a completely different culture altogether – a business culture that reflects trust, innovation, collaboration, data-driven or customer-centric.

For individuals – the optimal learning culture might provide us with opportunities and time for growth or a chance to get away from the treadmill.

Those of us who are external advisors and analyst will have a textbook answer for describing the optimal learning culture – dependent on the textbook we are writing or reading 😊

Starting with the end in mind

In our hunt for the optimal learning culture, it might be helpful to draw on some of Steven Covey’s wisdom and start with the end in mind – what does the optimal learning culture need to do for each of our stakeholders?

Initially the answers will vary widely – the line manager will probably want convenience and results, individuals will want time and opportunity, business execs will want more for less, L&D will want engagement. But when we start to apply the 5 Why’s and dig in deeper, we will start to see convergence.

When it comes down to it, are most stakeholders ultimately looking to work in an environment where everyone can be equipped and ready to flex, adapt and deliver? Would they all agree that this requires a climate of trust, safety, and opportunity to share, reflect and collaborate?

Perhaps now we are getting closer to describing an optimal learning culture – one that works for everyone.

The trouble with culture!

The trouble with establishing any type of culture is that it is not just the responsibility of one party but collective responsibility of all. Currently L&D blames everyone else for not making time to engage with learning[1], managers blame lack of L&D strategic influence or having a short-term vision for holding them back from achieving critical goals[2].

An optimal learning culture is not one which focusses on blame. It is one where everyone is happy to contribute and recognises the value of learning in their own context.

Beth Hall said something when she was working as the Head of People and Experience at the Cotton On Group Australia that continues to resonate with me: “Everyone is the CEO of culture – we all own culture. Every interaction, every transaction, everything we do on a daily basis either deposits into our culture bank account or takes its toll.”

How can L&D help to influence the optimal learning culture?

It is easier for us to see what others can do to build an optimal learning culture for our business. But instead, it might be more fruitful to ask what we can do to deposit into our optimal learning culture bank account?

At the risk of being dismissed as an armchair expert, I thought it might be useful to dig into what the data says. In Unlocking Potential, we explored what L&D behaviours correlated back to wider cultural issues such as innovation, collaboration and being an attractive place to work. The culture influencers in the study provide some pointers that remain useful today[3]:

  • Help individuals and teams learn how to connect and share (Citi were great at this in their #BeMore programme[4]).
  • Help managers develop challenging stretch tasks or new work experiences for their teams to help build new skills.
  • Begin and end your formal learning interventions in the workplace – routinely work with managers to ensure objectives are discussed up front and to help them help their team members apply learning.
  • Create a great learning culture in the spaces that you are responsible for. Let managers experience how trust, safety, reflection, and space to practice can make a difference in the learning you design for them. Help them see the power of learning through working. Give them experiences to change their lives and tools to transfer that back to their teams (Check out how this worked for Ahmed[5]).
  • Celebrate successes – recognise achievement and let managers and business leaders know.


Laura Overton, Learning Analyst continually curious about learning innovation and business impact. Founder of Learning Changemakers.


[1] Engagement is reported as a top barrier in the CIPD Learning at Work 2023 survey and the MTB Learning Performance Benchmark 2023 part 1.

[2] MTB Turning Pressures into opportunities – a YouGov study with managers 2023

[3] Unlocking potential: Releasing the potential of the business and its people through learning page 59

[4][4] Citi Bank #BeMore

[5] The powerful impact of leaders who learn – Ahmed El Hamaky’s story

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