The learning organisation, outdated or not?

Jaime Donata

For over 15 years it has been a magic word within the land of management; the learning organisation. What do we actually say when we talk about learning organisations? And why is it that important to be one? And is it still that way? 

Who doesn’t want to be a learning organisation? Such an organisation empowers employees to improve processes that don’t go well. It gives space to innovate where it’s needed – and to develop your qualities optimally. Which also benefits their functioning. Briefly, it brings the business further, it attaches talent to your company and it makes sure that employees won’t stay in a position that doesn’t suit them. 

So, do you want to become a learning organisation? Today is even better than tomorrow! But how do you go about it? 

We asked three organisation- and development experts bound to ‘Verbetervermogen’ (development ability), a cooperate association of organisation developers, if the idea of the learning organisation has become an outdated management concept, a fashionable word that slowly has become made of cardboard.

The learning organisation doesn’t exist

Ben Kuipers, director of the Leiden Leadership Center and as organisational developer bound to ‘Verbetervermogen’, admits that the term of a learning organisation already exists for quite some time: “Still we hear the term regularly from clients: We want to be a learning organisation. I always ask: what do you have in mind? Wat do you want to do with it?”

Eric van der Wal, founder of DenkIdee (ThinkIdea) and bound to ‘Verbetervermogen’ as an adviser, adds: “A learning organisation actually doesn’t exist: there are only learning people. This seems like a silly remark, but managers must learn that when talking about a learning organisation it’s not about the organisation, but about the people. When the organisation is your starting point your view on the employees as learning and developing individuals disappears. You start talking about systems instead of people. You automatically link systems, models and projects to the organisation from a management layer, and exactly that is the worst way to become an organisation where learning is continuous.”

Continuous reflection

Search for ways to establish continuous, bottom-up reflection among your employees. This is needed to create a sustainable learning organisation. The risk is that it will otherwise become a policy plan with a checklist. Kuipers: “We often see customers who have thought of all kinds of things to become a learning organisation, to let employers develop better senses for the world of their colleagues. They have ideas to visit other branches every month. The agreement itself then becomes the new goal; not the intention to start a conversation and learn together.”

Aligned organisation

The question that must be central in a learning organisation is: is what we are doing effective? Van der Wal: “The management must realise one thing: whats effective for one doesn’t need to be effective for someone else. You should continuously align and make the most of the talents and energy of the employees. Employees must be given the opportunity to keep developing themselves, and to become angry when something is imposed on them from the top which doesn’t work. The only thing a manager must do to become a learning organisation is creating a safe and human organisation and align needs, stakes, insights and talents in a good manner. I always say: Make a tuning station of your company!”

From network to learning community

What’s also important according to the gentlemen of ‘Verbetervermogen’ is learning from other organisations. Kuipers: “I also see a trend in cooperating organisations. Look at the contemporary approach of the corona virus. If we learn one thing of this whole situation concerning the virus, is that not one organisation has all knowledge. We need everyone: virologists, behaviourists, technicians and nurses, but also enforcers and experts in logistics. The extent to which information and knowledge are aligned between the various (scientific)disciplines during this crisis, illustrates to what extent the society can function as a learning organisation.”

This current necessity to look ‘beyond your own organisation’ is according to Kuipers also relevant in the transformation: “We must all start to think more in terms like ‘learning communities’. As an organisation you’re not alone in the world, but you’re a link in a chain of customers, partners, competitors even. They all belong to your ‘organisational ecology’.”

Who wants to become a learning organisation shouldn’t only look at the agreements within its own walls, but also what knowledge and insights are reachable beyond those walls. Kuipers: “A learning organisation must let the old reflexes go. Perhaps your company has shared aims with an organisations you actually view as a threat. Perhaps it’s more sustainable to cooperate with each other, instead of fight each other? Stop thinking in matrixes and systems, but meet each other. This may sound a little woolly and holistic, but a learning organisation is an organisation without boundaries.”