How do you become a learning organisation?

Eva de Cocq

The current society develops quickly on societal and technological level. This results in the demand of organisations to keep developing and changing continuously along with the society. The adaptability of organisations is more important than ever. Knowledge within organisations must therefore continuously be supplemented and updated. As an organisation you must be capable of this. That’s why a good learning culture is of essential importance.

Learning culture

In the ground-breaking book of Peter Senge The Fifth Discipline the ‘learning organisation’ was for the first time coined as a term. Organisations should quickly react to their dynamic environment. To do this a culture shift that stimulates learning is needed. This learning culture must become part of the organisation culture, but it costs time to make learning a complete and routine part of the organisation culture. This asks mostly for good leadership and a few adaptations of the commons mindset.  

Support employees to give their opinion. Deviating opinions can ensure breakthroughs in complex organisation and learning processes. Curiosity to each other’s perspectives and an open attitude are thus important. 

Accept change to be a constant factor. Organisations must constantly keep changing in order to keep innovating. As a manager you must ensure stability in this dynamic. Challenge your employees, but ensure support where it’s needed. 

Set fixed moments for reflection and feedback. Discuss with employees what they’ve learned, what they’re doing good and what they can still improve. Reflection and feedback are indispensable parts of learning. 

Stimulate a grow-mindset among your employees. Don’t reject them because of mistakes, but formulate learning goals with your employees and give compliments on the learning processes they go through.

Seven learning limitations that continuously obstruct continuous learning

When change is a constant factor, the organisation must thus continuously keep learning. Learning must become a routine and prominent activity of all members of the organisation. Senge addresses that continuous learning is often obstructed by one of the following learning limitations: 

  1. When something goes wrong, people seek someone to blame and don’t look at themselves. People deny their own influence on the final result. 
  2. People identify with the tasks they perform in their job instead of with the contribution they provide to the mission of the organisation. This lessens the sense of responsibility of people for their contribution to the organisation as a whole. 
  3. People learn best from experience, but often don’t see the long term consequences of their decisions. 
  4. People are often reactive instead of proactive. They often only start to take action when something impends to go wrong. 
  5. People often don’t see change coming. Measuring small changes is important to be able to anticipate on and ‘move with’ a big change process in a good manner. 
  6. People often believe that the management team always has the solution, but managers often don’t have the knowledge and skills to solve all problems. To solve complex problems there must be a synergy between the management and the employees. 
  7. People often think along the lines of short term goals. Learning and improving is a long term process and must be part of the daily job.

It’s thus important to keep these pitfalls in mind when you as an organisation aim for a learning culture that stimulates learning continuously.

Five disciplines of a continously learning organisation 

To fight these learning limitations Senge describes (surprisingly) five disciplines in his book The Fifth Discipline.

  1. Shared vision. Organisation must look for the intrinsic motivated employees with a grow mindset, who want to contribute to the mission and vision of the organisation, according to Senge.
  2. System thinking. Managers must realise that the organisation is an organic total, and everything is connected. Focussing on details and individual actions takes away the focus on the bigger picture. 
  3. Mental models. Employees must be able to identify with the key values of an organisation. A unified, joint image of who the organisation is, makes it easier for the organisation to achieve their goals and even to result in competitive advantage. 
  4. Learning in teams. Learning from each other as a team and starting the dialogue is important. The workplace must be a safe space to learn. 
  5. Personal mastery. Employees must have the motivation to challenge themselves and develop continuously, on behalf of the improvement of the organisation.

Knowledge sharing & communication 

In a learning organisation not only individual growth is important, but also the growth of the organisation as a whole. That’s why knowledge sharing between employees is crucial. To facilitate knowledge sharing a clear goal is important. All employees must aim for that common goal. This goal must be communicate clear to all employees, to prevent confusion. 

Besides, it’s of importance to create bearing strength among the employees for knowledge sharing. It’s important that the management and the board members also do this (top-down). They set a good example in this way. It’s also important that the management and the board give the employees time and space to adapt and work on the set goal. Moreover, enabling early adaptors (employees who are open to an organisational change from the beginning) is convenient to promote knowledge sharing within the organisation. Identify these key persons, so they can serve as ambassador of the new learning culture within the organisation. 

An open culture, based on mutual trust is a requirement for organisation broad knowledge sharing. It’s advisable for managers to be transparent, to reward desired behaviour and to bring people from various layers of the organisation together. Hierarchy must be on the background. Employees must feel valued and shouldn’t be afraid of negative feedback or change. 

A user-friendly online learning platform can also offer the solution for knowledge sharing. Implementing a knowledge platform successfully costs time, but be patient. Demonstrate practical advantages of an online knowledge platform for example, and invite a few early adaptors to ‘play’ with the platform. Make sure that using the platform becomes a fun activity, to convince sceptic employees. Platforms with forms of gamification (learning in a playful manner) can help with this for example.