By Corporate English Solutions

27 March 2023 - 15:12

How the British Council is cultivating a culture of learning

To be truly successful, a learning culture has to be part of the fabric of organisations. It must involve everyone, be embedded in strategy and lived through values and behaviours. L&D teams have a crucial role in this. 

Read on for valuable insights into how the British Council is creating a thriving learning culture and the part talent initiatives and L&D play in it.


Reading time: 8 minutes

Creating a learning culture is vital to any organisation that wants to stay innovative, agile and competitive. Especially in current times, where fast-paced changes have become the norm. 

With almost 10,000 employees in more than 100 countries, the British Council has developed deep expertise in learning. It’s been an integral part of our mission for more than 80 years as we build connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries. And we bring together all this knowledge and expertise to promote a learning culture both internally and externally – no matter where we are in the world.

We caught up with Anita Lucas, Head of Management and Leadership Development to learn about how to create a thriving culture of learning and the important role HR and L&D play in it. 

How do you lay strong foundations to build a learning culture?

We believe that a learning culture is not separate from everything else, but an integral part of organisational culture

Learning has to be at the very heart of organisations and go beyond formal learning, permeating everything employees do. A culture of learning starts with the organisation’s strategy and is shaped by its values. Values determine employees’ attitudes and behaviours, influencing how they communicate, collaborate, approach tasks and make decisions. 

The British Council’s values encourage learning behaviours:

Open and Committed

This value emphasises behaviours that demonstrate a growth mindset: listening, questioning, asking for feedback, and tackling challenges with openness and honesty, along with taking responsibility for decisions and actions.

Expert and inclusive

This value highlights our commitment to our own and others’ learning, sharing expertise so that everyone benefits. A key part of this is being inclusive, creating a sense belonging and trust to empower all colleagues to contribute.  

Optimistic and bold

This value encourages us to experiment with new ideas, take risks and view failure as a learning and growth opportunity. It emphasises working together to be creative and believing in our ability to make a difference. 

Our values and behaviours apply to all of us. And we believe that creating a culture of learning is everyone’s responsibility. It’s the space we all inhabit. 

How does L&D contribute to employees understanding and living these values?

We have created learning resources such as toolkits for managers, who can run sessions with their teams on the values and how these are demonstrated in our work. We supported the work of Corporate Governance and Employee Engagement to create a values-based decision-making framework that is available to ensure they are embedded within strategic and operational discussions where decisions are needed. Teams are then able to bring these values to life in projects and initiatives they engage in.

During training and conversations, we frequently reference the values and behaviours - whether it’s a conversation on the power of feedback, managing upwards or intercultural collaboration, they are built into everything we do. 

We have also introduced the values into the performance enablement process. When setting objectives, employees have to note how the values and behaviours support their goals and tasks. And 50% of the end of year rating is about how these tasks have been carried out, including a demonstration of the values. 

How important are managers in creating a learning culture?

Managers are the people who drive the organisation’s learning culture. They are responsible for modelling the learning behaviours that demonstrate the values. They have a lot on their plates and may feel that they don’t have time, but they need to prioritise and make space for their own learning. This sends a clear message that continuous learning is valued within the organisation and can inspire employees to take ownership of their own learning and development.

They need to make a point of talking about their learning, show that they are comfortable with being vulnerable and that they don't know everything. They make space for and welcome questions from their teams. 

We have some really great role models in our organisation. One of our regional finance directors has described how when she was focusing on wellbeing, she invited her team to join her in watching a short video. By embodying a growth mindset during change, she has enabled a learning culture in her team. 

We also emphasise that learning happens every day – not only during special events or formal courses. Managers reinforce this by highlighting learning in team meetings and making time for informal learning opportunities. We encourage them to share interesting articles and videos with their teams, so they learn in the flow of work. 

Managers can help team members recognise that every time they read an e-mail that they don't understand or feel anxious because somebody asks them to do something outside their comfort zone, they're learning. Every time there's a problem, they're learning. And if they can chat to somebody to try and unpick it, they will learn more.

How have talent initiatives encouraged managers to create a culture of learning? 

One of the most important initiatives we’ve accomplished is to define the learning culture and embedding it into the role of people manager. As a people manager, their purpose is to develop others to achieve their potential and to create an inclusive culture where learning and well-being are prioritised.

Primarily this has been through our performance enablement process. This has been critical for not only supporting performance, but also allowing employees to really thrive in the organisation. 

How does this work? We expect managers to have regular conversations with their teams. And we're really clear about the areas to discuss. Although tracking progress against objectives is important, it doesn’t have to be part of every conversation. We encourage a whole person approach, including well-being, learning and development, coaching and feedback. We need to make sure that people are talking about their career aspirations and the learning and development they need to realise them. 

A manager’s role is not to give people everything on a plate but to create the environment in which learning can happen. It’s about facilitating learning through a coaching approach and asking the right questions. 

If learning is a critical ingredient in these conversations, team members understand it is something the organisation values. They are also more engaged, motivated and committed to the organisation.

How does L&D support managers and their teams to adopt a learning culture?

We have implemented learning initiatives and resources to support our managers and their teams, including:

  • an online learning portal with a wide range of learning content in curated playlists, including online courses, videos and infographics. 
  • an external mentoring platform through our corporate membership of the Whitehall and Industry group (WIG). Their purpose is to bring the public and private sectors and non-profits together to share best practices. 
  • an online module on how to build a culture of learning within teams.
  • change readiness learning and coaching for leaders
  • a 1-2-1 internal coaching programme, which brings benefits for both coaches and coachees, building trust and improving relationships across teams and levels of hierarchy. 
  • informal learning opportunities such as learning festivals, networks and sharing sessions

We aim to provide learning opportunities people can easily access no matter how much time they have available. We’re constantly working on what learning we need to offer and how – balancing formal and informal, between articles that are a quick read and online courses they can attend.

How have a growth mindset and learning culture helped the British Council navigate the challenges of the last few years? 

We emphasise learning about change itself. Our employee engagement team conducts surveys at critical points during a workstream’s experience of change.

Using these surveys to gather data helps us ensure we cover the key aspects of change management. And our learning mindset helps us ask: Are people ready to think about change? Do they have enough information to address their concerns? What do they need to access to help them handle change?

We have resources available to everyone to help them prepare for and handle change. We get people thinking not only about how to lead in times of change, but to acknowledge they are also experiencing change. 

Final thoughts

To be truly successful, a learning culture has to be part of the very fabric of the organisation. And it must be an organisation-wide priority, involving everyone so that it becomes a strategic driver of engagement, retention and performance.

HR and L&D teams play a crucial role in shaping a culture of learning through designing and implementing effective learning programmes, providing resources and support, and measuring the impact of learning initiatives.

British Council has been partnering with organisations to develop their talent for more than 80 years. Through our 4-step process, we work closely with teams to ensure learning programmes are engaging, relevant and develop the skills your people and organisation need to embed a culture of learning.


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