Learning Organisations

by Sharon Varney

In a nutshell

1. Why learning organisations?

The idea of the strategic importance of learning in organisations came to life in the 1990s. 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.

  • It’s a response to the rise of the knowledge economy, with the recognition that competitive advantage lies in people.
  • 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.
  • It’s not just an HR thing; managers and leaders have a central role to play.


2. What is a learning organisation?

A learning organisation one that is able to continuously transform itself through the connected learning of its people. In a learning organisation, learning is part of every activity and every activity supports learning.

  • Peter Senge tells us that the fundamental learning units in an organisation are working teams and outlines what he calls the five disciplines of a learning organisation: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking, which brings the previous four together in a way that can lead to organisational learning.
  • Some of the really good clues that an organisation might be on the learning organisation journey are behavioural ones, such as Personal Development Plans being regularly updated, people talking about new ideas with their teams and sharing learning experiences and people understanding how different parts of the organisation work together.


3. Alternatives to the learning organisation

The learning organisation evolved at the end of last century in response to a fast-changing working world. Alternatives to the learning organisations might be

  • The bureaucratic organisation, with a clear hierarchy to command and control activities
  • The performance organisation, managing by objectives and with measures of performance.


4. Understanding learning organisations

If the fundamental learning units in an organisation are working teams, then you, as a manager, are at the heart of the learning organisation.

  • The three core learning capacities of teams are aspiration, reflexive conversation (dialogue) and understanding complexity (the bigger picture).
  • The guiding principles of personal mastery are purpose (a direction) and vision (a goal). Together, they help provide focus for continual learning.
  • Managing mental models is about recognising and surfacing our personal mental models, and then being open to testing them by listening to others and enquiring into other points of view.
  • A shared vision is generated from the common aspirations within people’s personal visions. It’s not about ‘buy in’, leading to compliance; it’s about involving people.
  • Team learning is rather like a jazz band – where everyone has their own voice (or instrument) and yet they are able to bring them together in a way that complements each others’ efforts.
  • Dialogue involves suspending judgement and listening to differing and even conflicting viewpoints, with a view to understanding how they might all illuminate a larger meaning.
  • Systems thinking is recognising that there may be connections between things that are distant from each other and that the implications of particular actions can often take time to make themselves obvious.


5. Benefits and challenges

Why develop a learning organisation? With a learning organisation you can

  • Create a great place to work – attracting and retaining people, motivating and engaging them
  • Improve performance – tapping the full potential of your people
  • Increase your capacity for change, so you’re ready for anything.


6. The manager’s role

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
  • Involving people in developing team strategies and policies
  • Fostering cross-team collaboration and information-sharing
  • Developing a learning climate and supporting self-development for all.


7. Practical tips for busy managers

There are ways of instigating a learning organisation, however busy you may be:

  • Share your surprises, ask for help sometimes
  • Give everyone responsibility for their own personal development budget to spend as they wish on development
  • Be willing to really see your own shortcomings and change your thinking
  • Get people together to talk from different teams, departments and locations
  • Reorganise your office space to help people connect better
  • Consider bringing together people with different learning styles
  • Extend connections – across teams, divisions, countries and organisations

Remember, the interconnectedness of a system means that you can begin the process by starting anywhere.


8. Supporting the learning organisation

If you are a senior manager or director in an organisation, there are a number of ways that you can support managers in building a learning organisation:

  • Give each manager space to experiment
  • Ask them for feedback, listen well, coach where necessary
  • Create opportunities for managers to get together to share their learnings
  • Invest in your own continuous development
  • Make sure your corporate culture enables building a learning organisation