The Biggest Myth in Building a Learning Culture


“The millennial generation requires belonging to an organization where a strong learning culture is present.” 

It’s common knowledge employees increasingly value a workplace that nurtures learning. Employees want to work in an organization where there is time for self-discovery, time for reflection, debate and thought. They want their potential nurtured, and efforts recognized.  On all of this we can agree.  What I can’t agree with, is that having a culture of learning within an organization is because of a “new generational requirement.”

Question –  Did we all go to sleep in 1990 and wake up in 2014 thinking only millennials require a learning culture? And herein lies the myth – that organizational culture, learning or otherwise is a requirement only of certain generations.  I’m here to tell you that if you are basing your learning strategy on what millennials want – you will fail. There are a lot of people out there making A LOT of money informing organizations that unless they address the “Millennial” population they will soon be at a tipping point of talent drain. I don’t begrudge people who sincerely believe that addressing a subset of the working population will lead to organizational success, I’m sure they mean well. However, let’s deal with reality.

The reality is, everyone – EVERYONE, wants to be part of a business which values knowledge and learning.  

Generation quote

Those organizations who don’t value knowledge share have deeper issues, trust me. This not about a millennial base, this is about people and once you start building your learning strategy in the silo of generations, you are on the path to failure. To this point, I take issue with the term of “building” a learning culture. In my opinion, it’s not about building it’s about nurturing. Let’s review the definition of culture:  In short, culture is about everyday actions. Actions you don’t think about, behaviors which are ingrained in the environment, hard-wired into our heads – it’s the way we naturally do things. Having a learning culture means people are naturally, as part of their everyday work life, seeking out information; naturally looking to self-discovery, investigating mistakes and failures and learning from them. That, my friends, is a learning culture, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the year in which you were born. If you can tell me there is a process for developing a learning culture just targeted for millennials as opposed to Baby Boomers and the like, I’m listening. Seriously.

Here are Learning Rebel benchmarks for supporting a culture of learning within any workforce:

  1. Make learning part of the organization’s strategic success, learning as a strategic thrust platform.
  2. Encourage a “Show Your Work” environment making work educational. Knowledge sharing should be a daily organizational habit.
  3. An organization which allows for mistakes, and at times celebrates them is one with a healthy learning culture. Mistakes are valuable sources of learning, and leaders should intentionally allow mistakes in select situations to challenge deeply held assumptions.
  4. Make nurturing learning part and parcel of leadership. Leadership should be willing to take ownership of the overall learning culture and is not assigned to just HR or L&D.
  5. Organizations can use onboarding programs to encourage employees to take personal responsibility for learning and also to demonstrate their commitment to development.
  6. Empower employees to listen, speak the truth, make decisions, and control their environment, without which organizations fail to learn.

Now take these same benchmarks and insert the word millennial.
 Example: “For millennials, make learning part of the organization’s strategic success, learning as a strategic thrust platform.”  Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Are we so arrogant to assume that Boomers, Gen X’ers, Gen Y’s, and other generations, do not have a need for improvement or somehow they are lacking the inquiring minds millennials have? Isn’t it time we take generations and supposed generational needs out of HR and L&D conversations? Aren’t you tired of being put in a generational box? I am.

Key is understanding not what generations require out of a learning organization, but what PEOPLE require out of organizations, period.

nurture1 As I said at the beginning of this post, if as a business, you are searching for a way to “build” a learning culture you have deeper issues. There is no “building” without nurturing and this requires transparency, trust, commitment, accountability, and the ability to question and debate. If your workplace is not set up to support these core values then perhaps that’s where you first need to start.  If those values are not addressed, count on losing talent and know it will have nothing to do with generations, or whether or not your organization has a culture of learning. It will have everything to do with the strong possibility of your organization being dysfunctional.  Forget nurturing, it’s time to pull some weeds!

Focus People!

Let’s stop worrying about past and future generations in the workplace. Let’s start worrying about the fact that learning still operates in silo’s (that we create); that we say we want transparency (but we really don’t); that we are still counting butts in seats as a measurement of learning (even though we say we aren’t); and that for the sake of time we still take out learning exercises rather than delete or shorten lectures (Because we still value words over actions).

Let’s focus on creating collaboration areas for people to share experiences. Let’s focus on acknowledging what didn’t work in the past and move forward without looking in the rear-view mirror. Let’s focus on the need to change and on the need to adapt. Let’s focus on nurture and learning support.

Focus on the people, not the year they were born.


Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

12 thoughts on “The Biggest Myth in Building a Learning Culture”

  1. Thanks Shannon for opening up my eyes to this tragic boxing in we have been doing of people in organizations by their generation as if we ALL behave the same way. We are a product of the environment we inhabit, so if these common or unique traits that are identififed in one generation is simply a snapshot of the reality at that time – the values we think are different may be deep down adaptations to the current status quo.
    This helps me as a teacher trainer to make teachers avoid labelling students that way and to help my academic department to push ourselves to grow personally and professionally.


    • Stephan – Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I believe what happens is that it is easy to label what we don’t understand. In this case millienals. Rather than to think about what may be driving certain behaviors in an organization, like a poor learning culture, we point the finger at a supposed generation gap. It’s easier to swallow this explanation than to point the finger at a dysfunctional business culture which will be difficult if not impossible to adjust. The point youmake about us being a product of the environment we inhabit is far more on target than more common generational “profiling”.

      Keep sharing your comments! I enjoy reading them, there is so much to share and learn between corporate learinng and academic education levels. Cheers!

      • yeah Shannon,

        I guess every now and then, academic research does make sense in the “real world”. In fact, the best research is that involves people and how they act in their environments – business or otherwise. The comment you made in reply to Con echoes the dangers of culture – it shapes us and defines us, but when the shape needs a little readjusting, the same culture acts as a straighjacket.

    • Thanks Con! Over engineering is a great phrase. Why over-think learning, or business culture, essentially forcing people into a box? Is forcing a generation gap really easier than doing the research necessary to find the root-cause of a cultural issue?

  2. I’m going to have to disagree with you on this, Shannon.

    It’s a widely known fact that learning is something that was only discovered in the past few years. As the millennial generation came on the scene, they saw the value of learning things, and so this idea of education grew into an industry fueled by e-learning modules, twitter feeds and Starbucks coffee.

    This is the main reason why ignoring anyone over the age of 30 is not just good business, it only makes sense for learning professionals. Anyone older than that has no idea how to use a computer, much less a smartphone, and spending any time trying to educate them is a quaint idea, but ultimately fruitless.

    Or, maybe not…

  3. Shannon,

    Interesting thoughts. I agree with what you’re saying here. I wonder, though, if there is at least a pinch of validity to the idea that you dispute. Here’s why I wonder: there are an estimated 83 million millennials, compared to 77 million boomers, which makes this generational cohort a potentially powerful lot. I think to not keep an ear to the ground for their movement in considering the future of workplace learning is also dangerous.

    For the record, I am a GenXer. Talk about being put in a box! 🙂

    • Lisa:

      The demographics you cite are certainly food for thought, but I feel the fact that you’re applying a label to yourself would seem to illustrate (at least partly) the issue Shannon is trying to address.

      The “silos of generations” is akin to Learning Styles (or even Zodiac signs). While it cannot be disputed that we are a product of our times, the Generational issue is often Western-centric (as acknowledged by Strauss & Howe) and does not address the more global nature of our workforce. For example, could a North American Gen-Xer find common ground with someone of similar age from Southeast Asia? India?

      We should be ensuring that our constituents get the experience and learning they deserve but not by pigeon-holing them (I know that wasn’t what you implied) through pre-defined assumptions and constraints. Our first step, I would think, is to help them to become better learners so they can consume the offerings – formal, informal, and otherwise – in the way(s) that make(s) sense to them.

      The only label we should consider applying is that of “learner”.

      • Mark,

        Thank you for understanding I do not mean to pigeon-hole generational cohorts on this, because I don’t and I also don’t disagree with Shannon’s thoughts, or yours. Considering the content of the post does however cause me to reflect upon the group Tapscott refers to as the NetGen as as whole, and that they may have some very distinct general expectations for workplace learning. Expectations that are at least in part based on a more participatory approach to life and learning that is (in my opinion) a generational phenomenon. Really, now that we have discussed it a bit, I see two different topics here.


        • Lisa and Mark –

          Great discussion. It is easy to say that one generation values learning in a way that is unique to them, however, I find people in general all choose how learning will be discovered and consumed dependent upon personal preference. Our mission (if you choose to accept it), is to be able to provide a solid learning experience, learning space or resources for people… giving them the information they need, when they need to have it and I don’t believe this to be unique to NetGen. The key is the environment in place within organizations – are we making people jump through hoops to find a simple job aid? Why do they have to log into a LMS system to have discussions with peers about shared learning experiences? These are areas of informal learning people crave and look for, regardless of age. Everyone has expectations and requirements about their learning path, therefore our role is all about performance support and when it comes to building a learning culture, performance support needs to be an embedded element otherwise it dies on the vine. Therefore, I don’t see this as two separate points. Learning is learning, (informal, social, formal, online, offline etc) and everyone comes from a different place regardless of age/generation.

          Again – great discussion and thank you for your comments.

  4. I find this article very interesting!, The millennials are sons and daughters of globalization. They are always connected to the world and are better adapted to change. They want to learn something new and make a difference in the world. I think that role rotation, routine changes the design of new challenges and, in general, a working environment that integrates technology and people are central to develop millennial and maintain they interest in the work they do.

    • Hi Camila – Yes, indeed. You are correct. I still go back to saying that if we focus our strategy on a subset of people (and the year they are born) organizations are setting themselves up for failure. It’s about people. All people. We all want basically the same things out of a working environment. Let’s take work-life balance. Everyone wants work-life balance…to what extent is the question. Organizations need to determine what is best for the humans in their business. Not just those of a millennial age group, as there are generations above and below the millennial line. As people we are unique – so I encourage organizations to not think about millennials, but think about humans. Humans, in general, want to do better, learn more, be more productive – they want to have time to enjoy the pastimes that fuel the soul. Everyone wants that. Everyone wants to spend time with their children, or dogs, or cats, or away with a good book or binging on Netflix. Whenever you read something about the “needs of the millennial” I’d challenge you to replace the word millennial with “people” and see if you don’t’ arrive at the same outcome.


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