learning organisationAccording to Fortune magazine, the successful organisation of the future will be "something called a learning organisation."

Just what constitutes a ‘learning organisation’ is a matter of some debate. We explore some of the themes that have emerged in literature and contributions of key thinkers like Donald Schon and Peter Senge (writer of The Fifth Discipline). Is it anything more than rhetoric? Can it be accomplished?

In a previous article I wrote about Rewarding people for their learning, not their imitating.  It takes an example of training dolphins.  Read it here.

A learning organisation has five main features:

  • systems thinking,
  • personal mastery,
  • mental models,
  • shared vision
  • team learning

A learning organisation is one in which:

  • every employee is actively engaged in personal development in and out of the job
  • people accept the notion of lifelong learning·
  • a range of activities are taking place which help people to learn new skills ·
  • people ask others for help and get it·
  • people listen to one another·
  • everyone is working towards personal achievement goals·
  • nobody says: "I know it all" or "I'm better than you"·
  • nobody holds back on any information which they think others can use
  • people accept change as the norm.

It encourages organisations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking. Organisations should become more like communities that employees can feel a commitment to. They will work harder for an organisation they are committed to.  It promotes exchange of information between employees hence creating a more knowledgable workforce. This produces a very flexible organisation where people will accept and adapt to new ideas and changes through a shared vision.

One quote says

"A Learning Organisation is one in which people at all levels, individuals and collectively, are continually increasing their capacity to produce results they really care about."

The learning organisation is an ideal which is difficult to setup.  There are two important things here:

  1. While there has been a lot of talk about learning organisations it is very difficult to identify real-life examples. This might be because the vision is ‘too idealistic’.
  2. Second, the focus on creating a template and upon the need to present it in a form that is commercially attractive to consultants has led to a situation where effective working templates have not been developed.  Standards and tools for assessment are lacking.

In saying that, if you don’t follow the notion of a learning organisation, it is likely that you will experience some of the following:

  • Do your employees seem unmotivated or uninterested in their work?
  • Does your workforce lack the skill and knowledge to adjust to new jobs?
  • Do you seem to be the only one to come up with all the ideas?
  • Does your workforce simply follow orders?
  • Do your teams argue constantly and lack real productivity?
  • Or lack communication between each other?
  • And when the "guru" is off do things get put on hold?
  • Are you always the last to hear about problems?
  • Or worst still the first to hear about customer complaints?
  • And do the same problems occur over and over?

"A Learning Organisation is one in which people at all levels, individuals and collectively, are continually increasing their capacity to produce results they really care about."

So how do you convert your company into a learning organisation?  Without being over simplistic, here are some starting points:

  • Corporate learning is “informal” and HR doesn’t own it.  
    Management should provide the supports for people to learn on the job.
  • Promote and reward expertise.  
    High-impact learning organisations unleash their own talented experts (employees) and put in place programs to promote and reward even greater levels of expertise.
  • Unleash the power of experts. 
    Build an internal directory of your own experts.  Get them to show-off their own skills and knowledge.  It’s easy to build and something every company should have.
  • Demonstrate the value of formal training.  
    Formal training still plays a huge role in career development and professional networking. If you encourage formal training, managers should be incentivised to promote such opportunities and help people make time to learn.
  • Allow people to make mistakes.  
    The best organisational learning (and individual learning) occurs right after you make a huge mistake. These are the most important learning opportunities your company has.  Jack Welch blew up one of GE’s factories. He wasn’t fired and he learned from it.  In your organisation, if someone makes a mistake, do you point blame or do you take the time to diagnose what happened and put formal programs in place to improve?
  • Awareness:
    Organisations must be aware that learning is necessary before they can develop into a Learning Organisation.
  • Environment:
    Centralised, mechanistic structures do not create a good environment.  Local politics within a company can interfere with the larger picture.
  • Leadership. 
    Company leaders should foster the Systems Thinking concept. They should encourage learning to help both the individual and organisation in learning.
  • Empowerment:
    This means that the centre of control moves from managers to workers.
  • Learning:
    Small scale models of real life settings, called Learning Labs, can be setup. This is where management teams learn how to learn together through simulation games.

Finally, if you want to follow the Learning Organisations concept, you should thrive on change and don’t be scared.  Encouraging experimentation is a necessary risk.  Communication is key.  Your surrounding environment, both internal and external, is a superb area for facilitating learning.  Employees and their skills are regularly a companies biggest assets – Learn from your employees.  People like to be appreciated, therefore reward learning.  The company should know its objectives – to make profit is not enough.  Learning Organisations want everyone to learn and they go to great effort to make that possible.  This is how they show that they care.


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