Any company interested in surviving the turbulent waters of the modern marketplace must always be learning. Stagnant methods, training, and information become dated as quickly as a weather forecast. This need to continually be discovering ideas and acquiring habits has been the primary push behind the need for learning organizations.
What is a learning organization?
The concept of a “learning organization” dates back to the early 90s and neatly coincides with the arrival of the internet in the wider business world. Since those heady days of early technological change, the need to be continuously learning and adapting has become commonplace and the idea of a learning organization has only grown in popularity.
But what is a learning organization? While a widely accepted operative definition can be difficult to find, in essence, a learning organization is focused on continuous improvement through education, implementation of knowledge, and adaptation to new ideas.
It’s important for organizations to realize that learning is a continuous process that must be structured and propagated over a long period of time. It’s a culture, a mindset, and a way of doing business. It’s not a quick fix or a magic pill.
Some of the key characteristics of a learning organization include:
- Having a shared vision and clarity of purpose across an organization.
- A mutually supportive ecosystem that encourages everyone to work towards a common goal.
- A holistic experience that facilitates learning from start to finish.
- Making decisions by using performance analytics.
- A continual sense of collective, self-directed engagement.
- Thorough digitally supported communication that allows for the passing of ideas and skills within a company.
There are several primary activities that learning organizations are adept at:
- Experimenting with innovative approaches and methods.
- Transferring knowledge with efficiency and ease throughout their organization.
- Learning from past history and experiences.
- Learning from best practices and experiences of other organizations.
- Systematic problem-solving.
The benefits of a learning organization
A learning organization allows a company to continually be challenging itself to improve. This naturally avoids stagnant or outdated modes of business. In addition to avoiding negatives like these, this adaptive business model can help unleash the collective aspiration of everyone involved in an organization.
This collective nature is a vital component of learning success. When self-interest and separation keep coworkers apart, it can lead to concerns like burnout and workplace anxiety — which has been shown to significantly affect productivity. Over half of those that work with anxiety, for instance, report that it impacts their overall work performance.
A true learning organization, on the other hand, unlocks a collective potential that can increase interest, commitment, and success. A true learning organization that involves everyone can increase employee interest and engagement, which can boost happiness — which consequently has a direct impact on a company’s bottom line.
Becoming a learning organization
If your organization is struggling with adapting to a learning mentality, here are some tips and suggestions to help you make the shift to a learning organization.
The 5 learning disciplines
In his seminal books The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, learning organization pioneer Peter Senge outlines five learning disciplines that must be studiously followed when attempting to create a learning organization. These are:
- Shared vision: What are you trying to create? Learning organizations build shared visions that are created, not dictated, by the whole
- Mental models: Mental models, e.g. deep-seated thoughts and beliefs of “the way things should be done,” must be identified and challenged when appropriate.
- Personal mastery: While learning organizations focus on the whole, it all starts with individual self-awareness and a commitment to the idealization of perpetual learning as part of a greater whole.
- Team learning: Discovering how to communicate well in the workplace and function as a team is a critical part of learning together.
- Systems thinking: A member of a learning organization must be able to see knowledge as something that must be applied throughout an organization’s systems and methods, not simply isolated as a random fact or event.
Other tips for learning organizations
Along with the five pillars, here are four more tips that are essential to a properly functioning as a learning organization.
- Look for candidates that fit into your culture, not simply your job descriptions. Do they believe what you believe?
- Strive to provide what your employees ask for in order to be motivated. Don’t assume that, as management, you know what they’re looking for. Remember that learning is a two-way street.
- Grow with the trends and changes. Never assume that you’ve finished learning. Always be on the lookout for ways to change or improve your organization.
- Look for feedback (including criticism) and always be innovating. A leader who spurns criticism won’t last long. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to receive feedback and criticism and then find innovative ways to make necessary changes based on the information.
If you’re looking to shift your company in the direction of a learning organization, begin by creating a strategy that outlines where you are as a company, where you want to get to, how you will get there, and how you’ll measure the results. That last step is crucial. Remember, you cannot lead effectively without some form of results to measure your success (or lack thereof).
As you implement a learning culture into your organization, you’ll quickly find that everything from innovation and interest to productivity and employee happiness can spike as you begin to collectively grow and adapt to the continually changing world.
Dan Matthews is a writer with a degree in English from Boise State University. He has extensive experience writing online at the intersection of tech, marketing, lifestyle, and culture.