According to the World Economic Forum, the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company is 40 to 50 years. While many of them are bought, sold, split, or merged, many simply cease to exist—ending years of blood, sweat and tears for a beloved product or cause.
Many succumb because they cling to the status quo; operating using outdated corporate models such as top-down force-feeding of company ideology and practices; doing what’s comfortable or familiar instead of taking risks and challenging the status quo. In fact, there’s a term for this practice: William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser introduced “status quo bias” to describe how most of us prefer to stick with what’s familiar.
Companies who shift from the familiar top-down corporate structure to a learning organization model have a better chance of creating an environment of continual growth, risk-taking, continual learning, collaboration—and a better chance of surviving in a very competitive environment.
Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, popularized the term “learning organization” in the early 90s. He defines learning organizations as “organizations that encourage adaptive and generative learning, encouraging their employees to think outside the box and work in conjunction with other employees to find the best answer to any problem” (Senge, 1990).
Senge is an advocate for decentralized leadership, a model in which all people in an organization can work toward a common goal. His Five Disciplines of a learning organization outline how that can happen:
So how are these disciplines actually reflected in a learning organization? Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell mirror Senge’s System Thinking discipline, stating that a learning organization (which they call a “learning company”) “is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself (The Learning Company. A Strategy for Sustainable Development, page 1). “Learning of all its members” means that learning organizations must embrace learning at all levels, which means that management and executive-level employees have to embrace learning and foster creative thinking from the corner office to the production floor.
Digital Learning Manager and Leadership Development Associate Tami Zacharias describes three key aspects of a learning organization: 1) Learning Environment, 2) Learning Process & Practices, and 3) Leadership. In a learning organization’s learning environment, she says, “People need to feel safe to express their opinions, take risks, examine failure and challenge dominant ideologies. Differences are appreciated, and there is an openness to new ideas because it disrupts inertia and encourages innovation.”
Learning organizations also have a deep commitment to learning processes and practices. Zacharias says, “They collect all kinds of information from a variety of sources, both internal and external, analyzing and interpreting it to solve problems and identify trends.” Learning organizations also share their knowledge through training using a variety of methods. And they also use assessments to foster continual improvement.
“First and foremost,” says Zacharias, “leaders in a learning organization are learners themselves. They set the example for others and facilitate the learning environment, as well as learning processes and practices.”
Another aspect of a learning organization is that learning is happening all the time; learning never stops. In an environment with a strong shared vision, employees and executives alike are curious and emboldened to learn what they need to be their best. Learning organizations also learn from their mistakes and actively engage in problem solving to quickly pivot to better solutions.
So now that we know what a learning organization looks like, how do they make learning happen? Organizations must develop a learning culture in which learning is continuous—in the form of online classes, tuition reimbursement, mentorships, on-the-job training, webinars, eLearning, in-person classes—the method depends on the learning goal.
Whatever the method, corporations need to meet learners where they are, which means providing learners with what they need to know to be successful and to grow in their jobs. If learners believe that what they’re learning will help them, they are very likely to be motivated to learn more, and be more engaged in their jobs.
To figure out what learners need, you have to ask them. Talk to managers and employees. Conduct surveys and focus groups. Take a trip to the production floor and conduct on-the-spot interviews. Talk to your HR Department. Shadow a few employees to identify areas of frustration and gaps in knowledge. All of these methods are not only good ways to determine what learners need, they create that all-important feeling that management cares about what they think, and wants to invest in their learning.
While training methods is the focus of another ELM article, learning organizations need to make sure that employee training is targeted—and convenient. Consider microlearning, which provides quick answers to targeted questions; gamification, which provides employees rewards such as badges and points; or mobile learning or mLearning, which is content written to be displayed on mobile devices—making it accessible whenever the learner needs it—wherever they are.
Shifting from the traditional top-down corporate learning structure has a lot of benefits beyond fostering a healthy learning environment:
Want to become a learning organization? The first step is to take a hard look at your organization. Are you open to change? What’s your current learning culture? Where are the learning gaps? Is senior leadership on board? If so, are they willing to talk the talk and walk the walk, showing all executives, managers, and employees that continuous learning at all levels is the new norm?
Assemble a team from all levels of your organization to identify shared values around company culture, learning and engagement. Remember: communicating company culture and telling employees what they must learn from the ivory tower is old school; collaboration from the bottom up creates accountability and buy-in.
Be prepared to make learning a habit, and make sure you are also prepared to allocate time for everyone to learn.
It’s worth taking risks and challenging the status quo: companies that embrace learning organization ideals are more likely to surpass that 40-50 year average life span.