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
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:
- Systems Thinking: Organizations are a system of interrelationships and by understanding these relationships organizations can move toward eliminating the obstacles to learning.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.