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How to create a sustainable learning culture in 2021

Whether it’s environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, or sustaining a healthy work-life balance, sustainability is now a critical consideration in most areas of life, and one from which L&D is not exempt. As such, we look at how to create a sustainable learning culture in 2021.
Dom Murray
2021-02-10

Too often, L&D teams are seduced by short-term thinking. In fast-paced environments, it can be difficult to see past your immediate goals and plan for the long-term. However, in a world where ‘sustainability’ is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, L&D must adapt. 

Whether it’s environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, or sustaining a healthy work-life balance, sustainability is now a critical consideration in most areas of life, and one from which L&D is not exempt. 

In fact, with the shelf life of skills shrinking and the cycle of unlearning and relearning in full swing, creating a sustainable learning culture should be a top priority for L&D teams in 2021. 

With this in mind, we’ll outline the importance of creating a sustainable learning culture, before asking what a sustainable learning culture looks like in 2021, and offering four practical tips to create a sustainable learning culture. 

Ready to put sustainability front and centre? Read on. 

The importance of creating a sustainable learning culture

If, like us, you’re a firm believer in lifelong learning, then the value of a sustainable learning culture is self-evident. However, to put it in more concrete terms, teams who create sustainable learning cultures also tend to be more successful in areas such as revenue, growth, and talent retention. 

Training Zone outlines the strategic importance of having a sustainable learning culture, saying, “Linking work-based training with an organisation's strategic goals and objectives can significantly improve business performance and, importantly, develop an organisational culture that nurtures innovation.” 

According to a recent report by Docebo, which surveyed 832 talent development leaders, just 31% believe that their organisation currently has a culture of learning to a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ extent. Only 6% of respondents said they didn’t have a learning culture at all, with the remaining respondents split between having a learning culture to a small or moderate extent.  

While most organisations recognise the importance of developing a sustainable learning culture, these findings show that doing so is an ongoing process, and there is usually room for improvement. 

Business benefits of sustainable learning

Organisations that cultivate a sustainable learning culture reap the rewards, with Docebo’s report finding that high-performing organisations are 5x more likely to have an extensive learning culture. Top performers are also twice as likely to say their learning functions help meet organisational business goals and 3x more likely to hold leaders accountable for demonstrating the importance of learning. 

Additionally, top-performing learning cultures are 6x more likely to “discuss an employer’s commitments to ongoing talent development during pre-hire interviews.” Such companies are also 3x more likely to leverage their learning culture in the recruitment process, showing that teams with entrenched learning cultures have a better chance of securing top talent.

Given these findings, building a sustainable learning culture is beneficial on multiple levels. Obviously, learning is its own reward, and the pursuit of knowledge is always a worthy goal. Yet, from a business-centric perspective, organisations with sustainable learning cultures tend to outperform their counterparts in many areas. As Docebo explains, “robust cultures of learning are distinct hallmarks of organisations that consistently produce the best business results — companies that lead the world’s markets in revenue growth, profitability, market share, and customer satisfaction.”

What does a sustainable learning culture look like in 2021?

Sustainability can mean different things to different L&D teams, whether it’s securing L&D’s position in the global marketplace, ensuring your team’s goals will be viable in 5 years, or upskilling employees to maintain relevant skills in a changing L&D landscape. Whatever sustainability means to your team, there are a few overarching traits of sustainable learning cultures in 2021. 

What is sustainable learning? 

A study by the Association of Talent Development provides a useful definition of sustainable learning, highlighting several shared characteristics of successful learning cultures. They explain, “A culture of learning...is one in which employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills to improve individual and organisational performance. The importance of the pursuit and application of learning is expressed in organisational values and permeates all aspects of organisational life.”

A sustainable learning culture shares these characteristics, but with extra emphasis placed on long-term planning and repeatable, future-ready processes.

Characteristics of sustainable learning cultures

Deloitte’s 2021 Human Capital Trends report identifies several notable trends in sustainable workplace learning cultures, such as, “integrating workers’ physical, mental, financial, and social health into the design of work itself”, “creating teams and superteams that use technology to enhance natural human ways of working”, and “developing and acting on forward-looking insights using real-time data to harness workforce potential”.

Perhaps most importantly, they identify “capitalising on worker agency and choice as the means to drive learning, adaptability, and impact” as a key pillar of sustainable learning cultures. Unsurprisingly, when learners have agency over their professional development, results are more likely to be positive in the longterm. 

According to interviews with talent development leaders, other characteristics of sustainable learning cultures include “closely aligned business and learning strategies, organisational values that affirm learning’s importance, and an atmosphere in which learning is so ingrained that it simply becomes a way of life.” 

Collaboration and personalisation lead the way

Deloitte's Human Capital Trends report lays out the top factors for sustainable workplace design. According to their research, 39% of respondents believe ‘introducing collaboration platforms’ is key to sustainable work, while 36% say ‘allowing for personal choice in determining how work gets done’ is vital to sustainable workplace design. 

Similarly, Docebo’s report identifies collaboration and open knowledge sharing as crucial factors in sustainable learning cultures, saying that in top-performing organisations “employees share knowledge with their colleagues at a rate four times greater than that of workers in lower-performing firms.” 

Likewise, the Association of Talent Development believes that ‘making time for learning’, ‘personalised development plans’, ‘creating accountability’, and ‘using culture to attract new talent’ are key contributors to sustainable workplace learning. 

While this may sound straightforward, simple things like learner collaboration, prioritising learning, and personalised learner development plans can go a long way to creating a sustainable learning culture. 

Summarising sustainability

These findings paint a picture of sustainable learning cultures in 2021. It seems workplaces must take a holistic approach to employee wellbeing to reduce burnout and increase sustainability, while also removing barriers to allow open communication and knowledge sharing. 

Further, sustainable learning cultures tend to place employees in control of their learning, via initiatives such as personalised development plans, learning in the flow of work, and technologies which facilitate learning anywhere, any time. Over time, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where learners actively seek out knowledge, and learning becomes a way of life. 

Four practical tips to create a sustainable learning culture

While creating a sustainable learning culture is likey a high priority for most L&D teams, achieving this goal isn’t easy. As we know, only 31% of organisations believe their learning culture currently performs to a high or very high extent, leaving the rest in a state of development. 

To help you take the next step towards a sustainable learning culture, here are four practical tips. 

1.  Harness your leaders 

Embedding a learning culture on an organisational level starts with your leaders. After all, why would employees take sustainable learning seriously if leaders don’t practice what they preach? 

Harnessing your leaders is good advice for any form of organisational change, with McKinsey finding that “good implementers were 1.4 times more likely than poor implementers to have change leaders who had personally led multiple change efforts.” 

In the context of sustainable learning cultures, high-performing organisations are 3x more likely to hold leaders accountable for demonstrating the importance of learning.

2. Put your learners in control with lifelong learning and learning in the flow 

As mentioned above, learners are more likely to succeed when they have autonomy over their learning. This just makes sense: would you rather someone tell you what you have to learn, or listen to your needs and help you develop a personalised learning plan? 

The stats back this up, with ‘allowing for personal choice in determining how work gets done’ ranking second among the most important factors for sustainable workplace design. 

For further insights on this topic, we analyse the importance putting your learners in control in our recent blog post on making the shift from formal education to lifelong learning and our recent webinar on learning in the flow of work

3. Implement a growth mindset to develop a culture of knowledge sharing

Once again, it all comes back to mindset. As we discussed in our recent article on fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets, adopting a growth mindset opens up a world of possibilities for L&D teams — including embedding a sustainable learning culture. 

By doing this, you will remove communication barriers and develop a culture of knowledge sharing. As mentioned, high-performing learning cultures share knowledge 4x more than other organisations, so this should be a high priority.

The more you share knowledge among teams, the more you learn and grow, and the more sustainable your learning culture will become!

4.  Focus on future-ready skills 

It’s fantastic to have a good learning culture now, but developing a sustainable learning culture is all about planning for the future. Having a future-ready learning culture has become more important for L&D teams, as the shelf-life of skills is shrinking, forcing a wave of reskilling and a shift from hard skills to soft skills. 

Put simply, L&D teams must focus on skills of the future to ensure their learning culture will be sustainable in the long run. 

Unsure what skills your team will need in the future? Don’t worry, we cover that in detail in our recent blog on closing the L&D skills gap.

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