Learning Organisations

by Sharon Varney

What is a learning organisation?

A learning organisation is 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 (from the US) wrote what is probably the best-known book on learning organisations – The Fifth Discipline. He 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
  • Systems thinking.

It’s the fifth discipline, systems thinking, which brings the other four together in a way that can lead to organisational learning. Systems thinking, simply put, is a holistic way of thinking about problem solving. Rather than focusing solely on the immediate problem or area for improvement, systems thinking focuses attention on context and considers the bigger picture of relationships that surround it. This reduces the likelihood that the solution to one problem will cause another problem elsewhere.

Senge’s ideas are covered in more detail in Understanding learning organisations.

In the UK, Mike Pedlar, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell have also considered the strategic value of learning in organisations. They identify 11 characteristics of what they call a learning company. They also suggest that, behind those characteristics, is a critical, energising process, linking company policy and operations with individual thinking and actions.

Further information on the ideas of Pedlar, Burgoyne and Boydell can be found in The Learning Company.

Critics of the learning organisation

Despite the popularity of the learning organisation concept, the idea also has its critics. Let’s start by dispelling a couple of myths.

Organisations can learn

Let’s face it, organisations are not beings with their own minds, so they cannot actually learn. But people can. Creating learning organisations is about joining the dots in a way that maximises collective learning potential.

We can become a learning organisation

It’s not about an end-state of becoming a learning organisation and getting the badge. As some might say, it’s a journey, not a destination. So it’s more about how an organisation works and continues to work.

Other common criticisms of the learning organisation idea include

  • It’s all hype and no substance
  • It diverts businesses from their real purpose
  • It’s not a panacea for all ills.

There is some truth in all of these. Where people have adopted the buzzwords, but have not fully understood or embraced the principles behind them, the learning organisation can appear to be all hype and no substance. There’s no doubt that building a learning organisation takes managerial time and effort. But many would argue that learning is central to the purpose of any organisation that wants to remain sustainable and competitive. Certainly, the learning organisation is not a panacea for all ills, but it does offer a useful and productive way of thinking about organisations and what makes them effective.

Recognising a learning organisation

So, how might we recognise a learning organisation? We said earlier that there’s no ‘learning organisation’ badge, so we need to look for clues. Which of the following might be clues that a company is on the learning organisation journey?

  • The Investors in People (IiP) badge
  • A Best Place to Work award
  • Lots of training and development opportunities
  • People want to come and work there
  • There’s a buzz
  • Energy is put into trying and testing new ideas
  • It out-performs its rivals.

All of the above can indicate that an organisation is on the learning organisation path.

However, while IiP accreditation does link training to an organisation’s strategy, on its own it’s a weak indicator. People wanting to work there can be a good clue. But, if considered in isolation, this might just be a sign of good benefits. Out-performing rivals could be the result of many factors. Put several of these indicators together, however, and you may well be onto something!

Some of the really good clues that an organisation might be on the learning organisation journey are behavioural ones. For example:

  • People are actively involved in continuing their personal and professional development – so personal development plans are living documents which are regularly updated, rather than being dusted off once a year
  • A range of opinions is welcomed in team meetings
  • People are often talking about new ideas with their teams – and everyone’s listening
  • There’s real energy when people talk about what they and their team are seeking to achieve
  • If someone meets a client, attends a seminar or runs a new project, they review their learning and share it with their team
  • People value the time they spend together – however brief – as it’s a source of support and challenge
  • People ask ‘why’, not just ‘when’
  • People understand how the different parts of the organisation work together to meet customer needs.
Exercise

Imagine your own organisation working really well as a learning organisation. (You might even be on the journey already). What indicators might be good clues in your own context? Consider

  • What can you see going on now that suggests your organisation is working really well as a learning organisation?
  • What can you hear people saying?
  • How does it feel?

Tip

It’s useful to write your ideas as statements, using the present tense. For example: ‘People are often talking about new ideas with their teams – and everyone’s listening’, or ‘People are happy to ask when they don’t know what to do’, or ‘People are interested in what goes on elsewhere in the company’, or ‘People want to know how the company is doing against its sales targets’.