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Creating a Culture of Learning in Your Organization

By: Guest | January 25, 2011 | 
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Gina Abudi is the founder of Abudi Consulting Group and is a foremost expert on the topic of leadership.

According to Wikipedia, a learning organization is defined as “an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself.”

The concept of a learning organization was later refined by Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell in The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development, as:  “An organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself and its context.”

Too many organizations believe, because they provide training to their employees, that they have a learning culture.  However, training alone is most certainly not enough to create a true culture of learning within the organization.  

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipine, discussed the concept of learning organizations.  Senge defined learning organizations as “organizations where people continuously expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together.”

Why Be a Learning Organization?

There are many benefits associated with having a learning culture within the organization, including:

  • Being innovative
  • Being able to compete effectively
  • Being people-oriented
  • Embracing change
  • Trust and open communication
  • Retention of customers
  • Retention of resources (employees)
  • Improved problem solving
  • A customer service orientation
  • Commitment to the organization
  • No silos between departments
  • Improved collaboration
  • Increased teamwork/sharing of knowledge
  • Flexibility/adaptability

How Do You Get There?

Moving toward becoming a learning organization requires a strategy.  It doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes commitment from everyone in the organization and it needs to be part of the organization’s long-term strategic objectives.

The Fifth Discipline discusses the following five characteristics of a learning organization:

  1. Systems Thinking: Organizations are a system of interrelationships and by understanding these relationships organizations can move toward eliminating the obstacles to learning.
  2. Personal Mastery: Personal development of the individual is as important as commitment and work for the organization. In addition to working on organizational goals, employees must be permitted to grow and work on their own personal goals.  Employees in a learning organization want to learn.
  3. Mental Models: These are the company culture and the various assumptions and mindsets of employees that serve as a framework for how the organization functions.  A learning organization focuses on how these mental models effect organizational development.  An open culture of trust and communication is needed for an organization to be a learning organization.
  4. Shared Vision: In a learning organization, all employees share a common vision that is built upon their personal vision.  Individuals’ personal goals are in sync with the organization’s goals in a learning organization.
  5. Team Learning: Teams are of importance in a learning organization and for a team to learn the individuals on the team must be in sync with each other.  By learning as a team, the employees can grow and develop much quicker and the organization is better able to work together to reach their common goals.

To start, an organization must strive to create a supportive learning environment.  This includes a safe environment to learn, where individuals respect their differences (ways of thinking, doing things, and cultural differences) and support each other.

They must be collaborative and open to new ways of doing things.  There needs to be an environment of continuous change – not just for change’s sake, but for improvement and continued growth and to remain competitive.

In a learning environment, individuals are not afraid to take risks – they won’t lose their job if something goes wrong and mistakes are part of the learning process. These are individuals who try new approaches to getting something done; individuals who look for a better way of reaching the end goal, and, individuals who do that in collaboration with others – not as a lone ranger.

A learning organization is about sharing knowledge and best practices.  Learning organizations have a one source location where individuals can collaborate and share best practices.  This knowledge base should enable individuals to share information, problem solve as a team, engage in conversations, collaborate on projects, and build on their knowledge.

Learning organizations ensure that there is always time for the individual to invest in himself.  If people are too stressed about their jobs, it is impossible to have a learning environment.  Part of the job needs to be investing in one’s development and there needs to be time allocated to do so.  In this way, learning becomes an expectation of one’s role.

Leadership reinforces the learning by looking for input from employees.  When leaders have active discussions with employees about the business and their thoughts on improvement and direction, it helps to facilitate continuous learning and transfer of knowledge. Employees’ points of view on the business are considered.

In most circumstances employees have the most contact with the client – they have information, knowledge and expertise that should be paid attention to by the higher-ups.  When leaders want to know what employees think about the business, its direction, etc. – the employees are encouraged and want to participate.  In this way, the employee becomes an active part of the company – looking at the company with a more holistic view.

Gina Abudi founded Abudi Consulting Group, where she provides project and process management and IT strategy and business intelligence consulting services to clients of all sizes in nearly every industry.

24 comments
Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Awesome post Gina. I have worked in almost every industry except Mining. And one thing I was always curious about what how each client operated. I asked my customers plenty of questions unrelated to my own business with them because that is how I learned why some companies excelled over others. Why moral was poor or good. Why there was turn over etc.

You hit on so many of these reasons. But there are plenty of businesses that don't care. The Executives make enough money on the backs of the rest of the company that there is no reason to be more than a middling organitzation. Not sure how to fix that because there are so many companies like that.

But if you want to be best in class you just presented a great roadmap!

Dialogue
Dialogue

In many organizations, scorecards share the vision of the organization, and all employees are often directed to these company goals. Team buiding activities, and exercises are often "orchestrated" in an attempt to foster this learning culture and buidling team desire. Most companies make sure their employees have individual performance plans that are used in quarterly, or year-end reviews. These tools are supposed to "help" employees identify their goals, objectives, and growth plans. We know how a learning organization should look and operate. We know that tools are made available to help with this as well. The problem is the how...how do we motivate or increase an employees' desire? How to get an employee to "want" to care about learning? What are solid steps to bridging the gap from what it should look like, to actually getting it there?

hackmanj
hackmanj

I am going to forward this to a couple of people I know that will truly appreciate it. Excellent tips for building a better culture in any organization.

sarabroderick
sarabroderick

Gina, great post. One key aspect of a learning culture you point out is collaboration, the team. For an organization to truly embody a learning culture, all employees, at every level and in every department, must have a desire to learn and grow, and must support one another in doing so.

dinodogan
dinodogan

These attributes are so obvious and yet so seldom implemented.

lgdrew
lgdrew

My favorite part of this is that a learning culture creates a cycle of giving. Every part of the organization becomes mutually invested in one another and in the company...Going for that shared vision.*

But my favorite-ist part is that it becomes more difficult calling work, work; it be comes so much more...personal fulfillment and passion!

On a side note, a company book club would be fun and advantageous. Perhaps unofficially and outside of the office so it doesn't cause stress on those who may not participate.

Gina
Gina

Thanks Howie. I have noticed that as business picks up again and the economy improves, an increasing number of employees are beginning to jump ship to other opportunities. This means those companies that just don't care will find they lose their best talent. Over the long term, that just won't work and they can't survive - competition keeps increasing. Some companies will change because they just have to (and they are forced to do so); others will likely never change and will find that the talent walks out the door. Thanks for your comment! Glad you found the post of value.

Best,
Gina

Gina
Gina

Yes he does! Also, if you haven't already - check out his book: Drive. Well worth the read!

Gina
Gina

Hi,
While many organizations have these tools in place – that is about it. The desire for learning has to be integrated into the very fabric of the organization. That is done through making it part of the everyday world of the employee. For example, many times individual performance plans are developed, but then tucked away in a corner and never referred to again – or only once it comes times for performance reviews again. Rather, each individual performance plan should be tied to an action plan that includes learning components – however that looks (meaning it doesn’t have to be training courses). Organizations must do a better job of allowing employees – and supporting them in this effort – to grow both personally and professionally. It may mean taking on special projects, transferring to another business unit or department for a short period of time, or permitting projects “outside of work” that benefit personal growth. Employees care about learning when they believe management actually cares about them and they can use that learning. For example, management who engage employees to be more active in the business – innovative ideas, change processes, etc. – have an employee who is interested in learning. Learning-focused organizations want to hear from employees – at the lowest levels – on how to improve the business, engage with the customer, open new paths to revenue, etc. That is a learning organization.
Thanks for your comment!
Best,
Gina

Gina
Gina

Thank you Joe. I'm glad you found it of value.

Best regards,
Gina

Gina
Gina

So true Sara! By supporting employees in their professional and personal growth - and frankly making it a part of their roles and responsibilities - it just becomes a natural part of the organization. Those companies that support this growth - and encourage learning new skills and knowledge - attract and retain the best talent.

Thanks!

Best,
Gina

hackmanj
hackmanj

@dino_dogan it's funny Dino - you are so right. So much is "obvious" when you take a couple of steps back. Not always so clear when you are close to the issue.

Gina
Gina

Thanks for the comment. A learning-focused culture offers so much for an organization it is always amazing to me that many companies just won't focus in this area. While I understand it is not necessary so simple to implement and move toward a learning organization. The benefits make the effort worth it! To compete effectively in today's global competitive marketplace - organizations must become learning-focused.

Thanks!

Best,
Gina

Gina
Gina

Thanks Drew - I'm going to want to hear that story! So glad you found the article of value.

lgdrew
lgdrew

@Gina I couldn't agree more with everything you mentioned. Integrating a social aspect to our list of services has been an interesting process but I'll spare the details. Long story short, not enough learning and information sharing.

Thanks for putting a wonderful article together, you really hit home with this one.

--Drew

Gina
Gina

@lgdrew

Hi Drew,

Thanks for your comment. I agree completely (and I love the company book club idea - because I'm such a avid reader myself!). A learning culture engages employees - the more engaged employees are, the more committed to the organization, the more innovative they are, and the more likely you are retaining your talent! Too often organizations don't think about sharing information with their employees - such as long-term goals, strategic plans, new product/service ideas, etc. - but those companies that do (and a few of my clients are counted in that group) have found that they are better able to meet their long-term goals, their customers are better served (happy employees = happy customers!) and they have more ideas for new products and services then they know what to do with!

Thanks again!

Best,
Gina