Establishing a learning culture: The key to success

Sandra Holm

Workplaces are constantly changing, and increased pressure is placed on employees to work faster and more effectively. Therefore, organisational learning is particularly important in today’s modern organisations.

According to Serrat (2017), the key to success in contemporary organisations is learning. Although, organisations often expect that employees themselves continuously seek ways to learn and improve their skills, as well as share the knowledge they have throughout the organisation. (Marsick & Watkins 2003.) However, as employees are expected to work faster and thus have little time over for self-development, finding a more efficient way to enhance organisational learning is important. It is not sufficient to hold employees accountable for continuous learning if the organisation cannot encourage, support, and apply that learning (Marsick & Watkins 2003). To continuously learn and develop as an organisation, people need to be supported and energised by having an organisation that have the necessary knowledge and technology for learning (Serrat 2017). Therefore, organisations shall strive towards creating a learning culture where learning is encouraged, supported, and appreciated.

According to Smerek (2017), one of the main challenges with organisational learning is how to increase learning in an organisation. Organisational learning is challenging as it is based on the behaviours and routines established in the organisational culture. However, organisations can change and develop by changing their routines, social norms, and behaviours. Thus, it is important that learning becomes part of the organisational culture and part of the routines and behaviours of the employees (Smerek 2017). Establishing learning as part of the organisational culture integrates learning in the values and norms of the organisation. Essentially, it becomes the way things are done at the organisation. Therefore, when learning becomes part of the culture, it can outlast any individual, meaning that employees may change, but the routines and behaviours within the organisation last (Smerek 2017). Therefore, organisations should focus on creating a learning culture to foster learning at the workplace, which in turn enhances the organisation’s readiness for change (Paine 2021).

Definition of a learning culture

The factors that distinguish a learning culture from other organisational cultures is that in a learning culture, learning is one of the core values in the organisation. A learning culture refers to an organisational culture which focuses on promoting and facilitating learning among employees to enhance organisational performance and development. (Rebelo & Gomes 2011.) Furthermore, a learning culture can be described as an organisational culture that values, encourages, and promotes employees’ individual learning with the aim that individual learning and knowledge sharing will contribute to organisational success (Rebelo & Gomes 2011). Additionally, Škrevalj, Song & Lee (2010) state that a learning culture includes values and norms that support approaches focused on achieving high-level organisational learning.

According to Paine (2021), a learning culture is not only about learning, but also about acquiring new information and sharing it rapidly within the organisation as well as applying that information in the organisation. The aim of a learning culture is to build a workforce which is ready for changes in both the internal and external environment, and who are confident in their growing skills, knowledge, and competences and therefore confident to go through change. Thus, a learning culture is about managing change.

What constitutes a good learning culture

Paine (2021) argues that a learning culture is built on five key elements: trust and respect, staff engagement, technology, autonomy, and space. The main element of a learning culture is trust. People must be able to trust each other in order to collaborate and share knowledge. The staff should also be engaged in the purpose of the organisation and want to learn and develop themselves. Furthermore, autonomous teams can more easily decide how to manage their work and thus have more opportunities to promote collaboration and knowledge sharing. Moreover, Paine (2021) explains that here must also be space to share knowledge, both physical and virtual places, where employees and managers can exchange their thoughts and ideas. Thus, the organisation needs to have the necessary skills and technology needed for collaboration and knowledge sharing. It is important to consider how these five aspects of a learning culture can be defined and developed within an organisation in order to build a functioning and encouraging learning culture.

Similarly, Marsick and Watkins (2003) argue, that to develop a learning culture within the organisation, seven dimensions need to be considered. These are:

  1. Creating continuous opportunities for learning to take place
  2. Promoting dialogue within the organisation
  3. Encouraging increased collaboration and team learning
  4. Have systems available for sharing knowledge
  5. Encourage staff to work towards a collective vision
  6. Connecting the organisation and its environment
  7. Have strategic leadership for learning in the organisation

Furthermore, Serrat (2017) discusses the importance of the key pillars for a learning organisation, which are people, organisation, knowledge, and technology. Each of these key pillars support each other in the organisational learning process. Serrat (2017) highlights the importance of people who are interested in their work and reflective about their strengths and limitations. Reflective individuals contribute to increasing knowledge and learning in the organisation, both collaboratively with others and individually.  Thus, considering the different views on learning organisations, the five key elements presented by Paine (2021), the seven dimensions discussed by Marsick and Watkins (2003), and the key pillars presented by Serrat (2017), organisations may evaluate their own position, which aspects they already have in place within the organisation and which dimensions need to be further developed in order to create a learning culture.

Paine (2021) highlights that there is no learning culture without a high degree of trust within the organisation. Trust is especially important because it is essential to building an organisation which is free from fear and thus open for exploration and organisation-wide learning. Therefore, building trust is in the centre of fostering learning, sharing, and engagement in the organisation. Similarly, Schoonbeek and Henderson (2010) recognise that trust and sharing are essential for a positive learning environment. Thus, to build a learning culture, mutual acceptance and connection must be present between the managers and the staff. Additionally, positive relationships and open communication is needed to create a behaviour for learning within the workplace.

For an organisational culture to change and for a learning culture to take root, the changes must be reinforced within the organisation. It is the leaders within the organisation that shall lead by example, set the right tone, and live the values and behaviours that the organisation communicates (Serrat 2017). Therefore, the role of leadership is extremely important when talking about change. Communication about the reasons for change and the benefits the change will bring is essential. Additionally, the main role of leaders is to establish the conditions through which employees will want to start learning, and establish the routine of learning (Serrat 2017). According to Paine (2021), organisations that have developed a learning culture share more information and knowledge and can openly look at things that are not working, then learn from their mistakes and adjust. However, implementing a learning culture in itself is not sufficient, and it cannot stand alone in the organisation. A learning culture is an important building block for a more open, aware, and creative way of working.

Benefits of building a learning culture

As today’s contemporary organisations face global and increasingly uncertain environments, change is necessary for an organisation to be successful and to survive (Ahmady, Nikooravesh & Mehrpour 2016). Thus, organisations must more effectively manage their learning and development. A learning culture results in useful and up-to-date knowledge for the whole organisation, which leads to increased innovation and process optimisation and therefore positively affects organisational performance and success. A learning culture is necessary to promote learning in organisations in a productive and effective manner. (Rebelo & Gomes 2011.) Additionally, as the environment is uncertain, a learning culture prepares the workforce for change (Paine 2021).

Research shows that organisational learning has a positive impact on organizational commitment in higher education institutes. Organisational commitment on the other hand affects organisational performance and competitiveness. (Hanaysha 2016.) Thus, these findings suggest that educational institutions may benefit from implementing organizational learning practices and striving toward creating a learning culture. Furthermore, establishing a learning culture helps with continuous learning practices, which have been a focus especially in Finnish educational institutions for the past few years due to the continuous learning reform (Finnish Government 2022).


Building a learning culture is an essential part of organisational learning and the continuous learning process, which is considered increasingly important not only for the workforce, but for the whole organisation in order to develop. To create a culture in which learning is valued, encouraged, and appreciated by all members of the organisation, and enhancing the understanding that learning is what makes the organisation and its workforce competitive and successful. Organisations which have successfully implemented a learning culture tend to be more open, critically examining their work to find better ways of working, and more adaptable to the environment in which they operate (Paine 2021). Thus, building a learning culture is important to make learning a part of the organisational culture and to establish a workforce prepared for change (Paine 2021). However, a learning culture itself is not sufficient enough, but the culture and actions shall be present in the daily activities and become part of the routines and behaviours of the organisation.


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Finnish Government. 2022. Competence Secures the Future. Available at: Referenced 14th October 2023.

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Paine, N. 2021. Workplace learning: How to build a culture of continuous employee development. 2nd edition. Kogan Page Publishers.

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Smerek, R. 2017. Organizational learning and performance: The science and practice of building a learning culture. Oxford University Press.

Škerlavaj, M., Song, J. H., & Lee, Y. 2010. Organizational learning culture, innovative culture and innovations in South Korean firms. Expert systems with applications 37(9), 6390-6403. Available at: Referenced 14th October 2023.

Sandra Holm
RDI specialist
Centria University of Applied Sciences
Tel. +358 50 478 6943