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Three pillars of an exceptional learning culture.

A discussion about how senior learning professionals can transform the learning culture of their organisation.

Without question Learning is one of the most critical factors of success. Whether this is for individuals on a personal or professional level. For businesses and even for nations.

It is clear when speaking to senior leaders across all industries that they and the organisation they work for consider learning to be a critical success factor. Despite this, it is also very clear that these organisations don't behave in a way that supports this thinking.

This article will discuss how senior learning professional (Director, Head of etc.) can target their efforts to develop a self-sustaining learning culture which will:

  • Improve employee experience and engagement

  • Improve employee capability and opportunity

  • Improve client experience and results.

These are all aspirations of Learning functions regardless of scale, industry and budget. This bring us to the Three Pillars.

Pillar One - Audience

This should always be the first area of focus is the learning audience. In many organisations it is a general perception that this is the front-line operational employees.

This is incorrect.

Everyone in the organisation is a member of the learning audience. And they engage with learning differently depending on their age, experience, drivers, role and availability.

It is not too bold to say that while the majority of organisations have the data available to clearly define their learning audience - and perhaps define them across numerous 'sub-audiences' - this data is, more often than not, of poor quality and/or disconnected.

With this in mind, it's worth considering the consequences of a poorly understood learning audience. Let's consider two simple examples.

Person A - Front line Operational employee.

At work, this person's available time is incredibly limited. From the start of the day until they leave for home, almost every minute is planned for them and accounted for. Learning will happen when it is planned. Learning will happen when more senior employees deem it appropriate or necessary.

If we speak to Person A we find that they are someone who loves to learn. They are the kind of person that would scroll through social media watching 'how-to' videos simply because they're interesting. We also find that they are someone who thoroughly enjoys to debate, discuss and overcome problems. They thrive on it.

Person A is also ambitious. Loves the organisation they work for and they are particularly interested in a specialism - which also appears to be a position the organisation struggles to fill.

What is the actual learning experience for Person A at work?

Person A transacts with learning. They consume it. And they move on. The majority of learning they do is compliance and process related, specifically to their current role.

Much of the learning they experience is one-way - such as reading memos, reading E-learning, listening to a trainer or manager tell them about a new process.

Person A is uninspired by learning. They harbour strong ambition to progress into their desired field and based on their current learning experiences they expect that they will need to self or part-fund an external learning opportunity, potentially leave the organisation or reduce their hours to complete it. And in many cases, they simply do not have sufficient financial stability to do this.

This is, more often than not, likely to result in an incredibly valuable employee who could deliver incredible success for the organisation reaching one or more of the following conclusions:

  1. I am just a number

  2. I am not valued

  3. I won't get the development I want and even if I get the development I need I'll always be peeking out of the window to see what's available elsewhere

  4. I'm apathetic to my employer and will do a good job. But that's it.

Let's now consider Person B. A mid-level specialist in a business support function.

Person B - Mid-Level Specialist

At work, this person's available time is within their gift. They spend a great deal of their time managing varying projects and work streams, in addition to completing a number of transactional and operational tasks and a lot of time in meetings. Person B is someone who regularly works more than their 'required' shift and often completes work at home on an evening or weekend.

Person B is driven to succeed and has clear career goals though they have no immediate desire to move away from the organisation and would prefer to progress within. That said, they would not hesitate to move to another organisation should the opportunity appear a good fit.

What is the learning experience for Person B?

This person's experience of learning falls into two categories. First, Compliance and Mandatory learning. These are things like annual Health and Safety or Financial Crime E-learning modules.

The second is personal and career development. Though this is far down the list of priorities and is often something that they seek out from external providers.

Person B is appreciative of the value of learning but sees it more as a commodity than an essential tool for achieving success. This means that anything they are asked to complete which is not mandated will be avoided, in preference for completing their to-do list.

What does this mean for learning culture?

The above examples illustrates, in simple terms, the differences in learners experience and attitude toward learning.

When looking to evolve your learning culture, the learner must be the central aspect. You must know the different facets of your learning audience and manage your cultural development to suit.

Why? If we consider the above examples, you will not achieve your ideal learning culture if you focus your attention on developing amazing digital learning for an audience who doesn't care for, or has no time in learning.

And there's little benefit investing in learning technology to provide a catalogue of amazing face-to-face experiences, for the same reason.

Your attention would be better focused on first demonstrating the value of learning and ensuring all employees are given the time and space to learn. However it is currently available.

To do this, you then need to consider Pillars Two (Tools) and Pillar Three (Specialists).

Pillar Two - Tools

Tools are the things you use to develop, publish and promote your learning products. Broadly, this can be broken into four categories:

  1. Design

  2. Management

  3. Delivery

  4. Communication

Design Tools

There are some important things to consider when choosing your design tools. Things like which tools you will use to create your digital, remote and face-to-face learning solutions. And the multimedia within them.

Above all of this is your Design Framework and Methodology.

These are the definitions of how you will approach the design of a learning experience and production of content.

I know you're asking, "What has this got to do with a learning culture?" (And if you're not, you should be...).

In it's simplest form, the Framework and Methodology will become your Learning Brand. This is how your employees know that you are the source of the learning experience, for better or worse. This could be the visuals, the tone, the interactions or the whole experience. And whether you realise it or not, you already have a learning brand. Whether this is good or not is something you probably know already.

Fundamentally, this matters because if your learning brand perception (reputation) is poor, it's highly likely that your learning culture is not as strong as it could be.

Having worked across some of the biggest organisations in the world, across Finance, Energy, Charity and Public sectors. I'm yet to work with a client who has not required the creation of, or improvement of their Learning Framework and Methodology. In almost all cases, the result of their existing (or non-existent) Framework and Methodology is that their learning resources are not targeted correctly, they are reactive and they are acutely aware that the products they are producing are far below the benchmark they want.

This is because they work to time, with loose guidelines on the learning brand. Ugly or ineffective content and tedious experiences become synonymous with the internal learning function. This is what the learning brand becomes and consequently learners are often uninspired as soon as they hear the word learning.

Turning this around means:

  • Being crystal clear on your learning strategy and how this translates to benefits both for the organisation and for individuals

  • Articulating a robust framework for designing, developing and delivering learning.

  • Setting high quality and experience standards. And hitting them.

  • Providing tools and templates that reduce the effort when creating transactional learning experiences - such as briefings or job-aids.

A well designed learning Framework and Methodology will allow your specialists (Pillar Three) to use their expertise when and where it is needed, without simply becoming a production line for sub-par learning.


When you have your Framework and Methodology for developing world-class learning experiences you then need to manage it. I despair of the approach I've seen, generally speaking, even in some of the most innovative organisations I've worked with.

Managing your content can be compared to managing a library, or stocking the shelves in a store. Think about visiting your local supermarket, or even small store. Dairy products will be signposted, and you'll find them in the same area. And it's the same for the cleaning products. And even the alcohol. You know where to go, quickly. And at the end of each day, you'll notice staff bringing the perishables to the front of the shelf. Anything beyond expiration dates will be removed. So that only the latest, most fresh and relevant items are available.

Managing your learning content should be treated in the same way. Easy for users to find, access and consume. Likewise for your learning designers (or the people in charge of managing your catalogue). It should be simple, clear and accessible.


Continuing the grocery analogy, you should provide multiple entry routes for your learning. Compare the in-store, online, click and collect options available at the most successful supermarkets today.

This would translate into multi-mode learning. With traditional facilitated or virtual facilitation workshops (because some things are simply more effective do face-to-face), digital learning, social learning and a whole array of on-demand self-led learning modes there really should be something for everyone.

And any learning platform should be comfortable for your users.

Again, in the world of supermarkets, you can access the online store on any device. You can visit the store and speak to a real person. You can even call the help-desk for assistance.

The expectations of learners are much higher today than they were two or three years ago. Why would anyone jump through ten hoops to learn something if they can just Google it, watch a YouTube video, or ask around on their social media?


The final part of Pillar Two is communication.

You've probably heard the phrase "Build it and they will come."

Well. It's wrong.

You can build it and some will come. But most won't. Unless you tell it's coming. Tell them it's here. And tell them why they should spend some of their limited time to take a look.

Communication is not a transaction. It's a conversation. And it start long before anything is launched.

Think about the way organisations use mutli-channel communication and use it regularly, trailing up and coming products or experiences and making it relevant for the target audience. This same approach should apply to anything related to your learning service.

Keep people up-to-date. Make it relevant. Make it interesting. Developing a conversation will become the seeds of your learning culture.

With a focus on the learning audience and a toolkit design to deliver the right experience, Pillar Three is all about your Specialists. The engine room that pushes your learning culture forward.

Pillar Three - Specialists

Often referred to as 'Learning and Development' or 'L&D', this is the team responsible in the organisation for delivering learning services, content and experience.

There are a number of critical roles in which you will require specialists who will drive the learning culture you want:

Learning Business Partners

These are the people who engage with your stakeholders. You may consider them 'Business Partners', 'Engagement Specialists', or 'Account Managers'. These specialists will be the people who engage with stakeholders to identify learning needs, opportunities to promote learning experience and manage the relationship.

If you were to operate as an 'external' provider of learning to your organisation, your Business Partners would be the people who would manage the client relationship, agreeing the scope, the deliverables timelines and cost of the products and/or service you provide.

These are also the people who, from a mid-senior level in your organisation, would be the advocates and sales representatives of your learning strategy.

They will also translate the stakeholder requests and needs into projects to be supported by the other specialists in your learning function.

Content Specialists

Working under a variety of labels (Designer, Developer, Curator, Writer - to name just a few) these are the specialists who will create your learning experiences. These are the specialists who will populate your 'catalogue'.

While there are many successful models of content specialists in organisations, all have something in common. These common elements ensure the transformation from learning need (captured by the Business Partner) into learning experience (Delivered by your delivery specialists). These are:

  • Expert knowledge of how your audience learns best

  • Expert knowledge of creating engaging and effective experiences, with the tools you have available

  • Expert knowledge of the tools you have available

With these three things, Content Specialists are the 'Chef' of the learning world. Using the ingredients to make a five-start meal to suit any palate.

Critically, they ensure the Delivery Specialist has what they need to deliver the experience.

Delivery Specialist

Whether self-led or facilitated, the delivery specialist is the person who brings the experience to life for your audience.

Facilitated Experiences

Expert facilitators are the most effective tool in bringing learning to life for a learning audience. Invest in them, enable them and then watch them shine!

An expert facilitator will translate words on a page and resources in a room into an experience that makes a real difference to anyone fortunate enough to be in their presence.

And the best facilitators know their audience, deeply. They pull on the levers that make people tick. They are master storytellers and they leave the audience in no doubt that this experience matters, and will help them do more, be more and achieve more.

Developing your Delivery Specialist requires time and investment. If a delivery specialist is trapped in day-after-day delivery of the same learning content for month on end, do you really have a right to complain when fatigue sets in and they lose their spark?

Enable your Delivery Specialists to learn, grow, think and practice. They do what they do because they love it. And when you nurture this passion, you will find them one of your strongest assets in achieving the learning culture you want.

Self-Led Experiences

However you put self-led learning in the hands of your learning audience, your Self-Led Delivery Specialists are critical. With a clear strategy and strong governance, it is these specialists who make it happen.

They are the people who manage any digital platforms (such as Learning Management System) and they are experts at making it easy for people to find what they need.

As with Facilitated Delivery Specialists, they require time to learn, understand the audience and tailor the experience to meet their requirements. Empower these experts to find the right solution, deliver in the right way and make it easy.

More than anything, hold true to the controls and governance they have in place.

The first 'exception' to the rule is the crack in a foundation that will spread. Trust that the reason for process, procedures, testing and validation is necessary (and it is) to ensure the best experience, every time, for your learning audience.

With Delivery Specialists who set the standard, your learning culture will come to life. Your organisation's own Learning and Development function becomes the learning provider of choice, and not just necessity.

Your stakeholders will come to you first because you know them best, you deliver success, and you encourage improvement.


It is worth considering any 'Learning Administrators' as the 'engine room' for your learning culture. This is the group of specialists who plan, prepare, document, report and maintain your entire learning operation. You need them.

Too often Learning Administration Specialists are at the bottom of the learning hierarchy in both remuneration and respect. It could be argued that they are much more deserving of the reverse.

What would happen if your Business Partners all left today? It would be simple enough to re-arrange their activity to be supported by other members of the function.

What about Design and Delivery Specialists? It would be just as simple to source an external resource at short notice.

What about your administrators? What if they all walked out today? How easy would you find it to replace them?

Learning Administration Specialists are just that - Special. They are the hidden part of most learning functions and often the conduit for all other areas of the function.

To deliver the best learning culture it can be said that ensuring the true value your Learning Administration Specialists is known, and respected, by all - including themselves.

Pillar Three is all about people. And just like your audience you must know them, respect them, value them and invest in them. They bring it to life.

How does this translate to an exceptional learning culture?

Transforming a learning culture is a multi-year project. It's not inexpensive and it's worth-it.

Before you consider the three pillars, you must articulate your desired learning culture. You can't arrive at your destination without knowing what it is. It should, at a minimum:

  • Improve employee experience and engagement

  • Improve employee capability and opportunity

  • Improve client/business experience and results.

With engagement, investment and planning you can use the Three Pillars to create your exceptional learning culture. They will help you create your own guiding principles for learning means for your organisation and become the framework against which everything else rests.

And remember: They are inter-dependent and equal in importance, impact and relevance. If you don't build them all, the support for your learning culture is incomplete.

About the Author

Andy Appleby is a Learning Expert who has worked at all levels of organisational learning across Learning, Telecoms, Energy and Finance sectors since 2004. He supports a global client base with a clear vision make learning easy, always.

Questions about this article or want to chat?: Leave a comment, Call me (+44)7984920360 or E-mail me

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