Learning Organisations

by Sharon Varney

Why learning organisations?

The rate at which organisations learn may become the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.

Ray Stata of Analog Devices
Sloan Management Review

The idea of the strategic importance of learning in organisations came to life in the 1990s. Interest was ignited by the notion that mobilising collective learning could help organisations to gain and sustain a competitive advantage. Claims that learning may be the only sustainable source of competitive advantage fanned the flames of this interest and caused a lot of previously-sceptical business people to sit up and take notice.

Drivers for learning organisations

Learning organisations are not just ‘nice to haves’ and should not be dismissed as a fad. The rise in the importance of organisational learning has been fuelled by significant changes in our working world.

  1. It’s a response to the rise of the knowledge economy, with the recognition that competitive advantage lies in people.
  2. It’s a response to a fast-changing and often-turbulent working world, where long-term strategic planning no longer works and the ability to flex and adapt is an essential quality.

While these factors persist, leaders still need to consider how they can release the power of organisational learning and not just think of learning as synonymous with personal development.

Why it’s not just an HR thing

By the turn of this century, the term ‘learning’ had become associated with added value and was firmly lodged in our organisational language. Many HR departments carefully erased the word ‘training’ from the names of their departments and jobs and replaced it with learning. So you might be forgiven for thinking that building learning organisations is just an HR thing. But it’s not. Managers and leaders have a central role to play.

Indeed Peter Senge, a key proponent of the learning organisation, says that ‘leaders are responsible for learning’. When you realise that creating learning organisations is about weaving learning into how we think and into our everyday interactions, this responsibility becomes more obvious. It is, after all, leaders who set the tone.

The role of HR development professionals is a supporting one. They can provide help in a number of ways, such as

  • Coaching managers on developing their leadership style to support learning
  • Offering expertise around developing people
  • Helping managers to design and facilitate learning events with their teams.
Key concept

In the play of the learning organisation, managers take the lead roles and HR professionals are the supporting actors.