It’s the Secret Sauce...What is a Learning Culture?

What do industry leading companies like Apple, American Express, Bridgewater Associates and the Container Store have in common? They’ve realized the key to being a high reliability organization is to nurture a learning culture that permeates their organizations from top to bottom. A culture that promotes a “growth mindset” among all leaders and staff to not only have a hunger for learning but the passion to share knowledge as well. Staff who have these qualities approach “every interaction, every chance to lead, and every moment” with the intention to learn something new. Staff who are eager to learn are the building blocks for every high reliability organization. Organizations who can not only innovate and provide high quality services, but also quickly adapt to their environment.  

Despite increasing research supporting the development of learning cultures¹ in organizations, linking it to its real world benefits, you can’t just flick a switch and suddenly have an organization full of learners. Research has shown that most organizations are inefficient at training their staff, in the US, spending more than $162 billion annually and overspending by 11% globally. Only 1 in 10 organizations are estimated to foster a “true” learning culture, where staff are encouraged to pursue knowledge and have the autonomy to question the status quo to move the organization towards its missions and goals. Understanding the pitfalls and truly understanding what industry leaders are doing to foster this culture is the secret sauce to bringing high reliability to your organization. 


Achieving a learning culture starts with CEO buy-in. One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is expecting behaviors of excellence from their employees without demonstrating it at the highest levels of leadership. C-suite executives and leaders must be just as committed to learning as anyone else in the organization, displaying and communicating their belief that “it is no longer about how much you know or how adept you are at avoiding mistakes. Instead, it’s about being a critical thinker, a motivated learner and an effective collaborator to further the business.” 

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Translating this old adage for a modern day application, organizations must teach “how” not “what.” Show staff “how” to identify solutions independently, not “what” to do in a given moment. According to Bridgewater Associates, even the best and brightest from Ivy League schools require time and investment to transform from “superstars to independent thinkers.” 

Along those lines, organizations should also strive to create teams not stars. Challenge teams with assignments that will push them out of their comfort zone to encourage innovation and creativity. Reward staff based on their teamwork not individual accomplishments. 

Transforming an organization’s culture is a daily job with no definitive end. It requires effort and adherence to the recommendations above while constantly seeking out new ways to improve in order to maintain your learning culture and push it forward. For more recommendations and a deeper dive into what makes a learning culture, check out Robert J. Grossman’s article “How to Create a Learning Culture” in the Society for Human Resource Management.

If you’re ready to become a high reliability organization, check out goShadow’s free baseline assessment and contact us if you’d like to learn more!

Source: Grossman, R. J. (2019, August 16). How to Create a Learning Culture. Retrieved November 10, 2021, from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/0515-learning-culture.aspx






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November 12, 2021

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