May 07, 2021

What is a Learning Organization? Complete Guide

By: ELM Learning

what is a learning organization
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To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You never “arrive.” The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your ignorance.
- Peter Senge

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Many succumb because they cling to the status quo; operating using outdated corporate models such as top-down force-feeding of company ideology and practices; doing what’s comfortable or familiar instead of taking risks and challenging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.

What is a learning organization?

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:

 

  1. Personal Mastery: In an interview, Senge called personal mastery the “cornerstone” of a learning organization. Personal mastery is the development of the capacity to accomplish personal goals; learning organizations make this possible by creating an environment where employees can, through reflection, develop their own sense of vision—how they look at the world, what matters to them, and what they are passionate about contributing to. Said Senge: “Personal vision is the soil in which shared vision can be grown.” 
  2. Shared Vision: A shared vision is only possible in an environment of trust and collaboration instead of compliance to directives from on high. Corporate leadership works together with employees toward a common vision—creating an environment where employees feel heard and are encouraged to take risks. 
  3. Mental Models: With a mental model, we understand how our deeply ingrained assumptions and generalizations affect our interactions and decisions. To paraphrase Senge: Understanding the difference between hearing what someone said, and truly understanding what they said, and understanding the gap between what actually happened and what we perceived happening requires reflection. “In a nonreflective environment, we take what we see as truth,” said Senge.
  4. Team learning: Senge says that team learning can only happen when team members are “humble,” when they are willing to reflect and take into account other people’s views, suspending personal biases in order to work as a whole in a collaborative environment.
  5. Systems Thinking: Systems thinking is the idea that we’re part of an interrelated system—not a disjointed set of personal silos; systems thinking addresses the whole and creates an understanding of how parts are interconnected. Senge said, “Systems thinking is a sensibility—for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character” (The Fifth Discipline, p. 69).

What does a learning organization look like?

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.

How do learning organizations facilitate learning?

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.

Benefits of a learning organization

Shifting from the traditional top-down corporate learning structure has a lot of benefits beyond fostering a healthy learning environment: 

  • Happy employees means less turn-over. Employee buy-in and collaboration leads to happier employees, which leads to less turnover, and better news for the bottom line, as hiring then rehiring leads to higher training costs and more hours spent on training than performing the job.
  • A sense of community. When companies show employees that they care about their opinions, employees care more about the company, making them more invested and willing to work hard toward the company’s success.
  • New ideas and solutions. As Senge says, “creating an environment where employees feel heard and are encouraged to take risks” to challenge the status quo creates openness to innovative ideas and creative solutions. 
  • Success based on knowledge sharing. With more people contributing to shared goals, there’s a better chance of success: sometimes, less is not more. When executives, managers, and employees aren’t working alone in their silos and instead depend upon each other, decisions are better-informed, as they are based on multiple opinions from the bottom to the top rungs of the corporate ladder.
  • Smarter employees! Companies who invest in their employees—giving them the tools they need to do their jobs better—makes employees more efficient and confident, and leads to innovation, more productivity, and better customer service when they apply what they’ve learned.

Where to start

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.