Build an effective L&D culture

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Written by Jonathan Kettleborough on 1 October 2013 in Features

Jonathan Kettleborough takes you through the six steps for developing an effective culture for your L&D department

As learning and development professionals, you will have almost certainly come across a range of articles and blogs that ask if you have a 'learning organisation' or talk about how you develop one - but few exist that will help you develop the right culture for an effective L&D department - and without the right culture in place you'll never achieve the success you ultimately strive for - until now, that is!

Why bother developing a culture?

You're a busy professional and probably already have more than enough to do. So why would you need to develop an effective culture for your L&D department - and what benefit would it give you anyway?

Well, according to James L Heskett, culture can account for 20 to 30 per cent of the difference in corporate performance when compared to 'culturally unremarkable' competitors1. In today's marketplace that's a heck of a difference when spread across an L&D department that may touch virtually all of any given business.

Creating cultures

Creating cultures within organisations is tough - it takes time, dedication and tenacity - and for these reasons L&D cultures are often inherited and passed on without any real change taking place. This is a missed opportunity!

Putting effort into creating the right L&D culture will be time and effort well spent so let's begin by looking at the six steps necessary to creating an effective one. They are:

  • vision
  • values
  • alignment
  • people
  • execution
  • learning.


Trying to develop a culture without having a vision is like trying to steer a ship without a rudder - almost impossible. Great cultures start with great visions and the vision for your L&D department needs to provide a clear direction of what's important and what you are all about.

Sadly, some business vision statements can be rather long and tedious, trying to be all things to all people, but here are a couple from two well-known brands:

  • Amazon's vision is to be Earth's most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online2
  • Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and internet offerings.

The above examples are short(ish), direct and clear. Although they apply specifically to these companies, just replacing a few words could make the same vision statement applicable to others. Take Apple's vision statement, for example, and replace the word 'Apple' with almost any major consumer electronic or computing brand and it would all still apply and make sense. So, as well as keeping your vision statement short, it's even better if you can make it work for you and very few others - although that is a tall order!

The real learning regarding vision statements can be taken from the not-for-profit sector. Oxfam's vision, for example is "a just world without poverty". This is short, to the point and isn' t something that could easily be adopted by others.

For your L&D department, it's important that your vision is something the rest of your business can align with and believe in. Just as Amazon wants to "to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online", so you may want your department to read 'XYZ L&D department is committed to delivering highly effective learning, on time and on budget'.  Although this statement could be used by virtually every L&D department - proving the point of just how difficult it is to be unique - these words will help you form a core that clearly states what you are about ('committed to delivering highly effective learning') coupled with performance criteria ('on time and on budget').

This vision works in a number of ways. First, you can't deliver 'highly effective learning' unless you understand the business need, the audience and the desired outcomes. Also delivering 'on time and on budget' has a big impact as it clearly demonstrates that you will deliver on your promises - something that is essential in any business.

Take time to craft the words and get your vision statement right and as unique as possible, as it forms the foundation of your culture.


Having set out your vision for a great L&D department, it's now time to decide on the values that will guide you on a daily basis. If your vision represents what you are doing, your values represent how you behave. Your values will be the core of your culture - the piece that doesn't change and provides you with a compass to guide you during tough times.

Although businesses have widely variable products and services, it's amazing how many share similar values such as customer service, quality, safety and so on. In some ways, this is no bad thing as it demonstrates that certain key values work across many organisations but the key here is the way in which you choose to articulate the value.

Many organisations will cite 'customers' or 'customer focus' as being one of their values. Marks and Spencer, for example, encapsulates this in the value 'service', saying "service - is about delivering the highest standard of services to our customers" 3. Compare this to Amazon, which has the value 'customer obsession'. It doesn't talk about pleasing a customer or making them happy or getting them to come back for more - it talks about obsession and that word emphasises the focus that customers have for the business.

One organisation I've worked with had the value that 'nuclear safety is our overriding priority' - not just important, or even a priority but the overriding priority. I can tell you, having worked on all of their operational sites, that this value is lived by everyone - the value actually means something to them. Compare this to BP, which lists a number of values and at the top of that list is 'safety'4. BP says: "Safety is good business. Everything we do relies upon the safety of our workforce and the communities around us. We care about the safe management of the environment. We are committed to safely delivering energy to the world."

I realise that the events of the Gulf of Mexico and Deepwater Horizon are still a hot topic but BP doesn't visibly put a stress on safety - it's not visible as an overriding priority and they are not visibly obsessive about it, therefore there's a danger that safety becomes just another word for BP people to remember rather than being a solid, guiding principle.

As values become the guiding behaviours and mindset for your L&D department so you should choose them carefully and articulate them in such a way as to drive performance. Too many businesses merely state a collection of corporate 'buzz words' and wide-ranging 'feel good' statements rather than sending out any clear messages as to what really drives them - don't fall into that trap!

Although there are a range of values you can chose from that should be immediately identifiable within your business, Guru Software has a great list and explanation5. I'd like to suggest three that you should certainly include:

  • trust
  • embracing change
  • problem solving.

Let me explain further.

Trust is a critical value in today's L&D environment. According to Management Today, 28 per cent of managers and 31 per cent of non-managers have little or no trust in their leaders or management teams6. In addition, research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests that "trust is known to be a fundamental enabler of many workplace benefits.

"If trust levels are high, organisations experience more, and superior, problem-solving and co-operation, a reduced need for constant monitoring and quality checks and increased information sharing. There is also greater acceptance of organisational change initiatives. Fundamentally, research has shown that a sense of high trust between different levels creates a climate of well-being amongst all people in the workplace with better job satisfaction and greater motivation as beneficial outcomes"7.

Stephen Covey said: "My experience is that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done."8

But what of organisations where trust abounds? In 2004, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations developed eight principles for a strong nuclear safety culture9 - something that is essential in all nuclear operations. One of its principles was "trust permeates the organisation". The INPO recognised the special relationship that trust pays in ensuring any business works to its maximum.

And for those of you wanting more facts, a study by Watson Wyatt showed that high-trust businesses outperform low-trust businesses by nearly 300 per cent10. Now that's a result worth having!

But, remember, don' t just list trust as a value - add your own emphasis. Perhaps you can be 'trusted to do the right things no matter what the pressure' or perhaps you are 'trusted to deliver the right solution for the business regardless of current fads'.

Embracing change According to research by Pat Zigarmi and Judd Hoeksra, up to 70 per cent of all change initiatives fail11. As an L&D professional, your whole life will be involved in some form of change - perhaps you're introducing a new IT system, perhaps it's a leadership development programme or perhaps you're supporting a new product roll-out. We just can't get away from change - it's what we do - so I'm strongly suggesting that embracing change becomes one of your core values.

And if you're not convinced about the rate and pace of change, cast your mind back a few years to when to 'Google' something would have seemed somewhat rude, Skype would have been a typo and Twitter was just something the birds did! In the last ten years we've seen an explosion in e-learning and in the use of internet tools, and the maturing of social learning.

Again, don't just list 'embracing change' as a value - make it come alive with an emphasis that means something in your L&D department.

Problem solving One thing that L&D professionals do on a daily basis is solve problems. This can be anything from sorting out logistics for an international leadership conference to purchasing shatterproof CD cases or getting large-scale printing done and delivered at small-scale prices. We've all got our 'war stories' but we cannot escape the fact that, within L&D, we have to solve complex problems - and fast - so I'm strongly suggesting that problem-solving becomes one of your core values.

Work with your team to solve problems as swiftly and practically as you can - and celebrate your successes as this will help embed problem-solving as one of your core values.

Other values You may also want to add other values to your list depending on the business you're serving. Don't feel that you need a massive list - Rolls Royce manages with just three values, Apple has seven and M&S has 11. Focus on the meaning of the value and the way in which you can make it unique within your L&D department.


The concept of business alignment had been around for some time but is now becoming a hot topic, particularly for L&D. It is essential so that not only does the department align to the needs of the business but that the business recognises and rewards this alignment.

Alignment consists of three key elements: clarity, consistency and commitment.


  • does your L&D department thoroughly understand the plans and priorities of the business?
  • does the business recognise that the L&D department has a thorough grasp of the business plans and priorities?


  • does your L&D department develop training and learning that is consistent with the agreed needs of the business?
  • does the business recognise that the training and learning developed by your L&D department is consistent with its agreed needs?


is your business 'putting its money where its mouth is' and providing adequate funding and resources for agreed interventions?

does your L&D department execute, and deliver on, its promises and interventions as planned?


Okay, so far, so good. You've got a vision and values and have aligned your activities to the needs of the business. However, no business can build an effective culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace them. As a study by found, applicants who were a cultural fit would accept a 7 per cent lower salary and departments with cultural alignment had 30 per cent less turnover12. People stick with cultures they like, and bringing on board the right people reinforces the culture a business already has.

But bringing new people on board isn' t something we can all do - not because we don't possesses the skills but because, for many L&D departments, the budgets are so tight that new people may be impossible to justify. For the majority, it's about making the most of what you have and that means developing your existing people to be the best possible. Don't be cobbler's children - invest in your own people to make sure that you have a great understanding of core L&D skills such as analysis, design and delivery, and ensure they stay current with the latest industry trends and development.

Don't worry if you don't have people with every skill for every situation - you'll always find gaps no matter how big your department is - but make sure that you have identified external organisations that can help you in areas of less-common use, eg video, audio and e-learning.


As Yoda famously said in The Empire Strikes Back, "do… or do not. There is no try". Execution is all about doing - not trying. It's about delivering on time and delivering on your promises. It's about making sure that the e-learning actually works, that courses run as planned and that the learning delivered has a positive impact on the business. Execution is one of the hardest elements of developing and maintaining an effective L&D culture.

There are two key things you can do to improve your execution:

  • empower your front line This means giving your trainers, administrators and course designers as much responsibility and authority as possible. Having a trainer sort out a problem for a delegate at a hotel is much better than waiting until everyone returns to base - and it'll be cheaper in the long run
  • remove as much waste as you can This means streamlining your processes, or getting rid of some altogether. Waste in any form should be removed, be it paper, time, money or resources. Everything you can do to reduce and eliminate waste will increase your ability to react and execute.


Being a 'learning organisation' is another buzz word that's doing the rounds at the moment but, to develop an effective L&D culture, you'll need to demonstrate that you can learn faster than anyone else. Being able to learn from mistakes, to spot and track trends, and to rework courses at high speed are just some of the things you'll need to do. Stagnant L&D departments have been for too long the scourge of our industry and you now need to be as agile as possible.

Use your learning to inform your decision-making and design processes. If you know that sales staff will only attend training course on a Monday, use this information in your scheduling. If you know that senior managers all like an electronic copy of course materials, make sure you provide these as part of every programme. Learning isn't just something you want others to do; it must also be an integral part of your L&D department.


In this article, we've looked at the six steps necessary to building an effective L&D department and learned that a good culture can account for a 20 to 30 per cent difference in performance.

So go on, give it a go, and begin developing your effective L&D culture.

A fully referenced version of this article is available upon request.

About the author

Jonathan Kettleborough is founder of the TenCORE User Group and former chairman of the e-Learning Network. He is a consultant, author of Seeing Eye to Eye - How people professionals can acheive lasting alignment and success within their business, blogger, conference speaker and lecturer, and can be contacted at or @JKettleborough on Twitter



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