How to build an inclusive learning culture

One thing that sets successful organizations apart is a culture that prioritizes employees’ learning.

Written by Melanie Bell
Published 11 February 2022
How to build an inclusive learning culture

This means giving everyone continuous access to knowledge and development opportunities that help them excel in their jobs.

According to the Association for Talent Development, high-performing organizations are five times more likely to have “extensive learning cultures” in place. [1]

While 98% of learning and development professionals aim to create a positive learning culture, however, only 3% think they have achieved this goal. [2] And less than half of the workforce claim that their job offers good skills development. [3]

These are important gaps to address, and learning opportunities need to work for everyone.

What is an inclusive learning culture?

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) notes that learning-focused work cultures enhance job satisfaction and motivation among employees. [2]

A workplace culture that values learning includes knowledge acquisition in the day-to-day routine. Employees are supported and encouraged to apply their learning.

Learning becomes a core part of the company’s mindset, supporting its mission. As workers learn more, they contribute new ways of doing things and make more informed decisions.

Inclusiveness is key to a learning culture’s success. Learning must be accessible and relevant to all, ensuring a sense of belonging and a shared vision. Teams are encouraged to reflect and innovate. And diversity helps drives innovation. [4]

How to understand learners’ needs

An inclusive learning culture creates support between line managers and their teams, among team members, and beyond. Communication is key, with people maintaining an attitude of curiosity and staying open to differences of opinion. L&D anticipate systemic barriers that might exclude some learners, and work to remove them. They encourage discussion and listen to what people tell them they need.

Data gathering helps with understanding learners’ needs. Fredrik Högemark suggests setting up focus groups and sending out surveys to gather more information from employees on their learning preferences and needs. [5] You can also ask employees for feedback to identify skills gaps.

Companies with the best L&D strive to understand problems before constructing solutions [6], and they measure the success of their efforts continuously. [7] Having clear KPIs for the success of L&D efforts helps [5], as does regular analysis of workers’ jobs so that L&D professionals can understand the skills that are needed. [8]

Barriers to inclusive learning

Building an inclusive learning culture takes effort and intention. Leaders and line managers need to model the value of learning. According to 64% of L&D professionals in a survey, however, “management sees learning as a cost centre rather than an investment” [2], or as something that takes employees away from their “real” jobs.
Another pitfall is defining “learning” too narrowly. Informal learning, through discussion and collaboration, can be just as important as more formal activities. So can tools like search engines, cited as important by 70% of learners. [9] Individuals also need to be supported to learn in their own way. If there is too much rigidity in the learning they’re expected to do, it may prove counterproductive.

L&D, for many organizations, suffers from being reactive. Our own research indicates that learning is offered when leaders deem it necessary, rather than where employees have a genuine need. This means that learning can quickly date, and rather than growing talent and innovation, organizations fall behind. [6]

The complexity of many companies presents another challenge. L&D efforts need to be coordinated across the organization rather than offered piecemeal, with sometimes drastic differences between levels and departments.

Another key consideration is making learning accessible across the organization. This means recognizing the barriers and inequities in access employees may face based on gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, age, socioeconomic factors, and disability. [10] Inclusive learning serves a multiplicity of needs and circumstances. For instance, the social model of disability proposes that accessible content removes “disability” entirely. 

Practical ideas for inclusive learning

How people learn best varies according to a complex mix of strengths, preferences and needs. And they take in and apply information and skills in different ways at different times. [11]

Learning resources should be created to take account of this. For example, resources could be presented in both auditory and visual ways. A course might include both solo learning and group work. Multi-approach learning has the added benefit of keeping people engaged through variety.

When designing learning materials, consider differences in ability, including those that may be temporary. [12] Build in different ways of perceiving information, such as alt text or sign language. Design materials that can be accessed through multiple ways of operating, such as input options beyond the keyboard.

Högemark offers ideas for initiatives where employees learn from each other. He suggests pairing new employees with a mentor who is not their manager [8] and setting up “reverse mentorships” where senior and junior employees share skills and learning flows both ways. [5]

Workplaces can encourage “inclusion allies” for different demographic groups, enabling employees to raise challenges they face. These champions can speak up and ask for adjustments, including those around learning. They should span a spectrum of ages, genders, and seniority levels. [8]

Learning should reflect more agile ways of working and learning, too, with digital content accessible on any device and tailored to suit busy schedules. [8] With many organizations adopting a hybrid approach to work, L&D professionals can create blended learning materials that people can use either remotely or in the office, some at the same time, others on their own time. [13]

Learning opportunities and scenarios should be created with authenticity in mind, including a variety of people, cultures, and real-world experiences, such as everyday work situations your employees encounter. This might involve using real people rather than actors or seeking more diverse speakers and trainers. Be alert to unintentional bias or negative representations too. [14]

As you build inclusive learning into your company culture, seek feedback from learners and be open to adapting as needed. Today’s flexible work world provides great opportunities to offer learning that meets individuals’ varying needs and encourages them to progress in their own ways.

[1] ATD (2016). Build a Culture of Learning [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022.]
[2] CIPD (2020). Creating Learning Cultures: Assessing the Evidence [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022.]
[3] CIPD (2019). Over-skilled and Underused: Investigating the Untapped Potential of UK Skills [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[4] Chandrashekar, Sam (2018). How to Become an Inclusive Learning Organization [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[5] Högemark, Fredrik (2018). How to Design and Deliver an Inclusive Workplace Learning Strategy [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[6] Barnett, Anna (2021). Organizational Success Starts With Knowing Your Organization Better [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[7] Feffer, Mark (2017). 8 Tips for Creating a Learning Culture [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[8] Högemark, Fredrik (2018). How to Design and Deliver an Inclusive Workplace Learning Strategy [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[9] Mind Tools (2021). Learning at Work Week: Reflecting on Your L&D Inclusivity [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[10] Unionlearn (2012). Breaking Through the Barriers: Equal Access to Learning for All [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 10, 2022].
[11] Mind Tools (2021). Learning Styles [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 10, 2022].
[12] Anderson, Kim (2020). Inclusive Learning: How to Make Your L&D Initiatives Accessible to All [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[13] Mind Tools (2021). Learning at Work Week: Reflecting on Your L&D Inclusivity [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].
[14] Estes, Melanie (2020). 3 Core Design Principles for Inclusive Learning [online]. Available here. [Accessed February 7, 2022].

About the author

Melanie Bell

Melanie Bell

Content Editor/Writer
Melanie has worked as a writer, freelance and in-house editor, university writing instructor, and language teacher. She is the author of a short story collection, Dream Signs, and a non-fiction book, The Modern Enneagram. She has written for several publications including Huffington Post, Cicada, and Contrary Magazine. She is a certified teacher of the Enneagram, a personality typology which illuminates people's core motivations.

You may also be interested in…

Are your people too busy to learn?

Is “I’m too busy to learn,” a common phrase you hear in your organization?

May 2023

Read More

10 things managers should never say - and what to say instead

Do you think before you speak? See our roundup of the top ten things managers should never say to their team members. And tips for what you should've said.

March 2023

Read More

How to create a culture of feedback

When’s the last time someone praised your work? Or shared an idea that helped you crack a problem you’d been chewing over?

February 2023

Read More