Learning Organisations

by Sharon Varney

Practical tips for busy managers

These practical tips for busy managers come from a range of books and from practical experience. For ease of reference, they’re grouped under the headings of the five disciplines. But each individual tip may relate to more than one of the disciplines.

Personal mastery

Tip Why do it?

Tell others what you personally have learned. Share your surprises, ask for help sometimes.

  • If you feel under pressure to have all the right answers all of the time, chances are that it’s a non-learning environment.
  • Changing the environment starts with you!

Give everyone responsibility for their own personal development budget to spend as they wish on development.

  • This supports people in taking responsibility for their own development.

Develop the leadership capabilities of your team members.

  • This supports empowerment.

Take time to develop yourself.

  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the more senior you become, the less development you need. As you take on bigger jobs, the more complex the issues you face, so a good case can be made for more development rather than less.

Mental models

Tip Why do it?

Invite someone to ask questions – maybe a new team member or a colleague from another part of the organisation.

  • Challenging your own mental models isn’t easy. Not least because they exist below the surface. They’re part of you.
  • A new person can take a fresh look and ask questions about why you do certain things.

Be prepared to hold your own ideas lightly and really listen.

  • Can you hear through your own assumptions?

Be willing to really see your own shortcomings and to change your thinking.

  • Our thinking is part of the whole system.

Shared vision

Tip Why do it?

Get people together to talk from different teams, departments and locations.

  • This fosters increased cooperation.
  • It improves information and knowledge-sharing.
  • It enhances decision-making.

Rotate the chair of the team meeting.

  • Brings in different perspectives

Bring everyone – or at least representatives – together to take part in strategy and policy-making.

  • There are many Large Group Interventions (LGIs), such as future search, appreciative enquiry and open space, which are designed specifically for this purpose. Ask your organisational development or learning consultant about them.

Team learning

Tip Why do it?

Introduce experience-sharing sessions where frontline people – police officers, project managers, customer service staff and so on – talk about dealing with challenging situations.

Note: Some people call these after-action reviews.

  • Supports learning through reflection
  • Enhances sharing of ‘know-how’ – not just information

Reorganise your office space to help people connect better. Where are your spaces for informal conversations?

  • Informal learning opportunities are just as important as formal ones.

Consider the diversity in your team. This is about more than race, gender, age and so on. It’s about also welcoming diversity of thinking – even when there are potentially conflicting views.

  • A point of difference is a point for learning.

Consider bringing people together with different learning styles.

  • A point of difference is a point for learning.

Adopt a culture of enquiry when things don’t go well. Encourage reflection to learn about contributing factors (they might go quite deep). Avoid jumping quickly to conclusions about what went wrong, who is to ‘blame’ and what the solutions might be.

  • A blame culture will inhibit learning.

Systems thinking

Tip Why do it?

Emphasise principles, rather than being prescriptive.

  • This supports empowerment.
  • Limiting the potential downside reduces variability and also, therefore, works to limit the upside.

Extend connections – across teams, divisions, countries and organisations.

  • Brings in new perspectives
  • Supports wider learning networks

Start where the energy is.

  • Worried about where to start?  Well, the good news is that the interconnectedness of a system means that you can begin the process by starting anywhere.

Creating your own vision of the learning organisation

Create your own vision of the learning organisation. There are no set templates, so get together with your people and create your own. Consider what it will look like when you are the learning organisation that you want to be.

  • What will we see people doing?
  • How will we see them interacting?
  • What might people be saying?
  • What might we be saying to ourselves?
  • How might it feel?
  • What might the energy be like?

If you have a large team, then split into smaller groups (say four to six people) for this exercise, as it’s vital that everyone has a chance to be heard. Now think about how you might embody the essence of your learning organisation. Be creative – use a playlet, story, song, or picture.


Maintaining momentum

In order to consider how well you’re maintaining momentum, take time to consider the following questions. You can do this individually or with your team.

  • Are we continuously reflecting and testing our own experiences – in good times as well as bad?
  • Are we creating new knowledge from this reflection?
  • How is that new knowledge shared?
  • Is the learning relevant to our core purpose and is it usable?