Learning Organizations

What is a ‘learning organization’?

The concept of a ‘learning organization’ is not a new one. Management writers have been talking about it for years now. There have been numerous attempts also to define the characteristics or behaviours of a learning organization. It has been defined variously has an organization which:

" is trying lots of things, making the right sorts of mistakes; that is to say, it is fostering its own mutations." (Peters & Waterman, 1982)

"facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself." (Peddler, Burgoyne & Burdell, 1991)

"has woven a continuous and enhanced capacity to learn, adapt and change into its culture." (Bennett & O’Brien, 1994)

The key behaviours and concerns which emerge in these and other definitions are:

  • a collective willingness and ability to learn
  • a very high tolerance for change and ambiguity
  • a focus on organizational transformation.

Attitudes to learning

One thing which most writers seem to agree on is that, in order to transform itself, an organization must have the right attitudes to learning embedded into its culture. Peter Honey (1991) has a five point checklist of basic assumptions about learning which he believes must be in place before you can to create a learning organization. These assumptions are:

  • that learning is a ‘good thing’
  • that the quantity and quality of learning can be greatly enhanced if it is done deliberately and consciously, rather than left to chance
  • that learning is a continuous, ongoing process with no beginning and no end
  • that learning which is shared with other people is much easier to sustain than a solo learning effort
  • that some organizational behaviours actively militate against the concept of continuous learning, and are therefore inappropriate to a learning organization.

That’s all very well, but what if your organization doesn’t think along these lines? Changing attitudes is a jolly difficult thing to do - so how are you supposed to set about doing it here?

Achieving an attitudinal shift

Creating a learning organization probably will require a shift in attitudes, and that is not something which can be achieved overnight, by training or any other means. The challenge for trainers is to set in place a campaign of cross-organizational activity to reinforce and embed the appropriate attitudes to learning. At DBA we have found that the following mix of activities and initiatives is often the minimum required if training departments are to achieve the required attitudinal shift:

‘Learning organization’ attitudes to learning Training activity required to embed attitudes
Learning is a ‘good thing Raise awareness and understanding, wide-wide, of the benefits to be derived from learning:
  • awareness workshops
  • regular newsletters to share ideas and information
  • publicity/recognition for learning successes and achievements
Deliberate, conscious learning improves the quantity and quality of learning Enskill individuals in the use of practices and methods such as:
  • continuous professional development
  • focus groups and peer support groups
  • on-the-job coaching
  • peer feedback and review
Learning is continuous Set in place processes which facilitate the capture and communication of information vital to the organization's learning:
  • encouragement of cross-functional teams, so learning is shared and disseminated more widely across the organization
  • introduction of formal and informal procedures for communicating ideas and suggestions up, down and sideways through the organization.
Shared learning is easier to sustain Win support for and commitment to a working environment and culture in which it is normal and accepted for colleagues to:
  • share views and experiences
  • seek information and ideas freely and openly from each other
Some behaviours are inappropriate to a learning organization Training to:
  • raise awareness of the behaviours which are acceptable and unacceptable
  • develop managers’ understanding of their role in leading by example
  • develop in managers the skills required to encourage and stimulate appropriate learning behaviours in teams and individuals.

Factors requiring reappraisal

As we explained above, a trait common to all learning organizations is their concern with organizational transformation. This concern is something which clearly needs to be led and supported by top management. There are a number of organizational factors which top managers will need to be both able and willing to reappraise, if they wish to create a true learning organization. Bennett and O’Brien (1994) have identified a list of 12 key factors which we at DBA have found very useful in guiding Senior Managers’ thinking about organizational culture and processes. These 12 factors are as follows:

  1. Strategy/vision
  2. Executive practices
  3. Managerial practices
  4. Climate and values
  5. Organization/job structure
  6. Information flow
  7. Individual and team practices
  8. Work processes
  9. Performance goals and feedback
  10. Training and education
  11. Individual and team development
  12. Rewards and recognition.

Training departments and trainers have a critical role to play in facilitating and enabling clear thinking and decision making about these 12 factors at top management level. Reappraising the status quo, challenging assumptions about ‘the way things are done here’ and making appropriate decisions about the changes required against each of these factors is a prerequisite for the successful transformation of an organization into a ‘learning organization’.

For more information

DBA has worked widely with Senior Managers and Trainers in a number of organizations to help determine and implement learning organization strategies. If this is a problem which is currently engaging your organization, why not email us now?


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