Learning Organizations: How To Create One

Four Key Strengths Of A True Learning Organization

Today’s business realities teach us that individuals and organizations must learn, unlearn and relearn faster, better, and more often. For a growing number of leaders, learning and innovation are considered the only truly sustainable competitive advantages. In his landmark book The Art and Practice of the Learning OrganizationPeter Senge defines a “learning organization” as one that is “continually expanding its capacity to create its future.”

From our experience of working in partnership with customers as they create and develop their learning cultures, and from our own core values ​​as a leading learning organization, we see the path to becoming a true learning organization as rooted in four key strengths:

  • Leadership of learning
    Continually learning and improving, this form of leadership recognizes that there are many different approaches to learning and finds new innovative solutions to challenges.
  • Openness to the environment
    A deep understanding of your competitors, market trends, employees, and suppliers.
  • An open culture
    Where employees at every level can vocalize their ideas and share their experiences with the entire organization.
  • Managing change through learning
    By experimenting with new ideas and looking ahead to the next big trends, the knowledge base is widened and ready to take on change.

For each strength, there are key points for what is best practice (versus bad practice) when planning a strategy that will engage employees and create an organizational learning culture.

1. Leadership of Learning

An organization won’t learn well if it is risk-averse and worries over mistakes. The world’s leading learning organizations (think Apple or Google) are those who have made their fair share of mistakes and overcome them, becoming stronger than before.

Communication is everything in leading a learning organization. If management does not share vital information with employees, or if people are reluctant to express differences of opinion with senior management, then trust in leadership is damaged and barriers built. When the leadership of learning is done well, we see senior management as willing to accept the ideas of employees, and a place where people have no fear of admitting mistakes.

Leaders must have good contact with those in customer-facing positions and those in senior roles should share best practices through teaching or mentoring junior colleagues. Having a dedicated budget for learning in the flow of work is a clear signal that there is a leadership of learning.

2. Openness To The Environment

No organization can learn well if they believe that things are fine staying the same as they always have been and that their industry does not change much. To be a learning organization there must be a willingness to work hard in listening and learning from customers, suppliers, and competitors, whilst encouraging people to collaborate and be innovative. True learning organizations never believe that “the competition has more to fear from us than we do from them”, instead, they are well informed of the competitions’ strategies and take note of others’ successes.

3. Open Culture

An organization cannot be open to learning if there is a culture where people concentrate upon their own jobs and departments or are seen to be hoarding information and jockeying for positions. To create a truly open culture, rewards must be company-wide and based on shared visions and goals. People in all roles need encouragement to network inside and outside of the company. Clearly stated core values ​​are also of high importance.

4. Managing Change Through Learning

When managing change through learning, a successful learning organization will always be ready to question business assumptions and check their validity. It should clearly discriminate between what is important and what is not, outlining the bigger picture to all.

An organization will learn well if it is focused on the potential of its people, reflects on its failures, and revises its approach accordingly, possibly through introducing a stream of creative new initiatives. Welcoming new and even radical ways of looking at things (such as a willingness to copy the competition) can also create a true atmosphere of learning. But it is crucial that these ideas are defined through expected outcomes and use statistical techniques in order to measure success and to learn from those successes in turn.

Ultimately why is it so important to create a true learning organization? Josh Bersin answers this unequivocally as he concludes in his article “5 Keys to Building a Learning Organization”: “If you build a culture which gives people time to reflect, develop and share expertise, stay close to customers, and learn from you will outdistance your competition and thrive in the face of huge market change.”

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