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Is your organization harnessing the proven power of learning?

Bonnie Dowling

Partners with clients to achieve and sustain their strategic priorities through a focus on their people and building the skills, capabilities, and culture needed today and in the future

Advises organizations on developing learning strategies to drive reskilling and capability-led transformations

Stacey Dietsch

Helps organizations accelerate and sustain performance by enhancing the capabilities of their people and linking talent to value creation

A “vibrant learning culture” sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Somewhere you’d like to work? It is indeed well established that a focus on learning and renewal attracts and generates an engaged, productive, and loyal workforce.1 Learning is also a critical fuel for an organization's ability to influence, adapt to market conditions, and thrive over the long run. Indeed, during the forced work from home experience of COVID-19, organizations have used virtual learning as a way to connect, inspire, and keep employees focused on future growth.

Not surprising, then, that numerous organizations are either actively creating a culture of lifelong learning, or are planning to. They recognize the connection between inspiring their employees to learn continuously and keeping their organization in step with today’s pace of change – whether COVID-related or otherwise.

Competitive talent advantage

Despite this awareness, however, more than a quarter of employees feel alone in developing the skills they need. Similarly, only 8 percent of senior leaders see clear business impact from L&D.

This discrepancy between intention and impact is a significant challenge organizations must address as the demand for upskilling rises. Those that get it right will achieve the competitive talent advantage necessary for success.

Three critical attributes of a learning organization

So how can an organization build a culture that inspires effective and impactful learning across all employees, at speed? It must address both content and courses (the “supply side” of learning) together with capability-building needs and proactive participation (the “demand side”). Learning should become part of the organization’s core DNA and culture, by being:

  • Essential
  • Meaningful
  • Accessible

Essential learning

Organizations make learning essential by building it into their strategic, financial, and talent planning processes. These organizations acknowledge the direct correlation between skilled talent and business value, and factor this into their governance model and vision. They recognize the importance of the business taking ownership for learning strategy and working alongside L&D as a critical enabler to realize the vision and ensure the organization maximizes impact from both formal and informal learning moments at work.

An effective learning organization provides personalized, adaptive learning journeys and integrates everyday learning into the organization’s culture and working practices. Essential learning goes beyond this: skills, aspirations, and expectations are reviewed regularly and publicly communicated by leadership across the organization. Appreciable financial resources and other investments, such as executive time, are allocated and learning is fully infused into the day-to-day rhythm of work.

Microsoft is a standout example of an organization that has made learning essential. In 2014, new CEO Satya Nadella committed to developing a growth mindset culture that rewards learning. Shifting the organization from a “know it all” to “learn it all” ethos involved close collaboration with the L&D function. Microsoft successfully incorporated open learning days, informal social learning opportunities, learning data for internal career pathing, and new platforms and products for its partner network that integrated self-directed learning paths.

Meaningful learning

Organizations make learning meaningful by enabling and promoting individual choice and self-directed/self-determined learning. This allows employees to achieve personal value, purpose, and growth. Recognizing that learning includes personalized explorations that tap into emotion and a sense of individual purpose, these organizations place value on generating and celebrating learning moments that are often ignored.

Rather than a passive "If you build it, they will come" mentality to self-directed learning, success here entails nurturing learning as a skill in itself and endorsing relevant learning options that resonate with different populations. Communities of expertise will emerge naturally, with knowledge distributed more widely than it may otherwise have been.

Novartis has undertaken an organization-wide learning campaign around “curiosity” designed to encourage creative thinking and shift away from a perception of learning as compliance-driven. The pharma company made the campaign meaningful by inviting employees to self-nominate as “curiosity storytellers.” It created physical “curiosity hives” in offices to provide spaces for open dialogue and exploration. Novartis’ emphasis on employee empowerment was rewarded through thousands of voluntary participants and impromptu peer-learning sessions.

Accessible learning

Organizations that make learning accessible place an emphasis on the learner experience.2 Beyond providing a learning platform and content, they involve learners in design and adapt learning according to each individual's role, industry context, and other personal criteria. This may require L&D to upskill their own teams to create effective and engaging design and intuitive delivery systems, inspiring and enabling employees to learn anytime and anywhere.

These organizations also embrace analytics and technology to identify skill gaps and “nudge” learning proactively to meet employee needs. They reinforce learning with feedback, coaching, and peer-learning opportunities, and actively curate the quality of learning, rewarding the acquisition of new skills.

A large European bank overhauled the way they think about learning in the organization. As part of this transformation, they built dynamic learning journeys that are accessible anytime, anywhere. Bank employees received recommendations of customized content based on the their actual work activities. Learners logged in weekly and were asked what they’d be working on that week. After selecting a topic, the program suggested the most useful and up-to-date modules – including tips from colleagues who had performed that specific work recently.


As organizations recognize the need for skilling at scale to keep up with and even anticipate the pace of change, the most successful are building learning into the flow of work and the expectations of all employees. Making learning essential, meaningful, and accessible requires a commitment from the top team and skilled leaders who are committed to developing their people – and a next generation L&D team, who are both business partners and learning scientists who can ignite inspiration in all employees to seek, share, celebrate, and be propelled by learning.

The authors would like to thank the following members of the Consortium for Learning Innovation for their contribution to this blog post: Tim Welsh, Vice Chairman, Consumer and Business Banking at U.S. Bank; Dr. Rachel Fichter, Vice President of Talent at S&P Global; Tammy Lowry, Global Head of Talent Innovation at Hoffmann-La Roche; and Bob Chapman, CEO and Chairman at Barry-Wehmiller Companies, Inc. They would also like to thank Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, a senior research science analyst in the Organization Practice in our New York office.

*This is the third of four blog posts highlighting ways to inspire lifelong learning – at the individual, team, organization and community level. Inspiring Learning for Adaptability is the theme at this year’s Consortium for Learning Innovation, convened by McKinsey.

Stay tuned for our final post in this series, where we will examine adaptability at the community level.

1 Egan, T. M., Yang, B., & Bartlett, K. R. (2004). The effects of organizational learning culture and job satisfaction on motivation to transfer learning and turnover intention. Human resource development quarterly, 15(3), 279-301. Joo, B. K., & Shim, J. H. (2010). Psychological empowerment and organizational commitment: the moderating effect of organizational learning culture. Human resource development international, 13(4), 425-441.

2 For instance, see Confessore, S. J., & Kops, W. J. (1998). Self‐directed learning and the learning organization: Examining the connection between the individual and the learning environment. Human resource development quarterly, 9(4), 365-375.

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