Learning Organisations

by Sharon Varney

The manager’s role

The magic of the Learning Company has to be realised from within.

Mike Pedlar, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydel

A learning organisation is created by those involved, from within, rather than copied from elsewhere. It’s not about having the ‘right answers’ or following best practices.

As a manager, you are central to creating a learning organisation. Your thinking and actions have an important part to play in encouraging experimentation and prototyping (testing). Key behaviours are

  • A willingness to try new things – courage, a spirit of enquiry
  • A willingness to learn from those trials – hold your ideas and thoughts lightly, be willing to listen, be willing to reflect, be willing to change.
Key point for managers

Many people worry that building a learning organisation always has to start at the top. But that’s not quite the case: many of the conditions can be effectively shaped and influenced by individual managers.

For example, managers can involve people in developing team strategies and policies, even if this does not happen at a company level. Managers can foster cross-team collaboration and information-sharing, even if this does not happen in every part of the organisation.

In fact, developing some of the characteristics is most appropriately led by team leaders and line managers: for example, developing a learning climate and supporting self-development for all.

Through their connections, managers have the potential to affect others and some capacity to influence what happens in their organisation overall.

Using it with your team – a practical approach

Consider this. You have one person in your team who is eager to sign up for all the training they can get. They’re proactive in finding opportunities and can always see the potential for how it might help them – now and in the future. Another is very sceptical and tends to avoid attending training events at all costs, even when they’re recommended. They tell you that they’re too busy or it’s not going to help them with the job they’re doing.

Which attitude is more helpful if you want to cultivate a learning culture in your team?

OK – so neither is ideal. There is a balance to be struck.

Keen to train

Let’s first consider the person who’s always keen to attend training. Their behaviour indicates that they believe training will benefit them and hints that they might have a positive attitude to learning. The fact that they are proactive in finding opportunities suggests that they’re active participants in their own development. Recognising that development is about future potential as well as current reality is another promising sign, if you want to foster a learning culture in your team.

The potential shadow side is that developing a learning culture is not about everyone becoming serial attendees at formal training events. Being able to ‘tick off’ lots of courses, workshops and seminars doesn’t mean that learning is happening. Sometimes, being too keen might mean missing out on the learning. Occasionally, individuals just prefer training to doing their day jobs. As a manager, there are a number of things for you to consider here:

  • How relevant and appropriate is the training to the person’s needs – both now and in the future?
  • What time and opportunities are there to reinforce learning back in the workplace?
  • What might be the underlying causes for this behaviour?

The training avoider

On the other hand, constantly being too busy might also be a problem. Let’s now consider the person who never finds time for training. On the positive side, they do seem to be thinking about relevance – but only in the short-term. Chances are that being busy is their reality. It may also be that they place greater value on being busy than on creating space for learning. As a manager, there are a number of things for you to consider here:

  • What kind of learning might this person value?
  • How might you encourage them to actively explore learning opportunities that relate to future potential as well as their immediate reality?
  • What might be the underlying causes for this behaviour?

Learning versus training

The other point is that both people seem to focus on formal training. So, are they valuing other ways of learning? As a manager, there are a number of things for you to consider here:

  • Is there too much reliance on formal training opportunities?
  • What focus could be put on ‘squeezing’ the learning out of everyday situations?
  • How could you increase the sharing of learning across your team?

Developing a culture of learning in your organisation means leading by example. The ethos of self-improvement starts at the top. As a manager, there are a number of things for you to consider here:

  • Do you find time to engage in both formal and informal learning?
  • How do you demonstrate that knowledge and skills are valued and shared?
  • How do you encourage the spread of knowledge and learning?