Blog Post

3 Ways to Build a Top-Down Learning Culture

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller’s column "The Science of Workplace Motivation" on

Modern technology enables employees to access information anytime and anywhere to get jobs done. But access to information does not always equate to "learning" at work. If your organization wants their employees to continue stretching and growing, you don't just need a curriculum -- you need a culture of learning.

Executives often pin the responsibility of creating this culture on human resources. After all, if human resources manages the training and development program, shouldn't they manage the culture, too?

Not quite. While human resources is certainly a contributing force, they can't succeed in a silo. A recent Deloitte study found the gap between the importance of learning and development in organizations and the ability to act on it has grown by more than 200 percent.

In order to bridge this gap, creating a learning culture needs to be a communal effort -- and this effort starts from the top down. The actions, values and language of company leaders shape how everyone in an organization operates, and can make or break a learning program.

After nearly three decades in both classroom and corporate learning, here are a few things I've learned about how leaders can help shape learning.

1. Have the mentality of a professor.

I always tell company leaders to "be the professor" in their organizations. Perhaps this is a leftover symptom from my years as an educator, but I've found that it can make a profound difference in how employees approach growth and learning.

As an executive, you didn't reach your position overnight -- you've worked hard, you've failed, you've learned lessons. Sharing your journey can forge stronger relationships, build trust and encourage resilience. In fact, a study from Edelman found that 68 percent of people want to hear their CEO's personal success story and 73 percent want to know about the obstacles their CEO has overcome.

2. Don't be afraid to take the student's seat.

A culture of learning is one in which every person is dedicated to improving themselves and others. It's important to share your knowledge, but it's also important to welcome knowledge.

At my company, Cornerstone OnDemand, we host "Development Day" -- a full day of classes taught by Cornerstone employees -- every other month. People submit to teach their coworkers about everything from coding and working remotely to baking cake pops and taking iPhone photography. Our CEO and other C-suite executives attend these workshops, ready to learn from the instructor like anyone else -- whether she's an entry-level sales rep or a senior designer.

3. Align learning to business strategy.

Leading by example, as both a teacher and a learner, can foster a culture that's open to growth. But in order to solidify and sustain this culture, you need to align learning with your business goals.

Fewer than 45 percent of organizations have a written business plan for learning, according to Deloitte. Don't make the mistake of investing money in people, resources and time without a clear understanding of how these investments contribute to your bottom line.

Bring your human resources team to the table, and tell them your one-, five-, and ten-year plans for the organization. Then ask them, "How do we make this happen? And what do you need from me?"

Building a learning culture from the top down demonstrates that taking risks and stretching yourself is not only valued at an organization, but also valuable. If you demonstrate your investment as a company leader, both personally and financially, you'll create an organization where employees naturally seek and share knowledge.

Photo: Creative Commons

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