Learning to become a ‘learning organisation’ 

Learning to become a ‘learning organisation’ 

How well does your organisation learn and develop? Are you able to adapt to change, and build the organisational capability and capacity you need easily? Or are your leaders and teams stuck in the loop of doing what they’ve always done, and getting the same results? 

If the second example resonates, it might be time to consider how you can take steps to become a learning organisation.  

The benefits of being a learning organisation 

Change is inevitable, and the pace of change just keeps getting faster. We’re now well accustomed to today’s ‘VUCA’ world, in which volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are to be expected. And yet even that description doesn’t adequately reflect the incredible speed with which things are changing for many companies.  

Technological change, the rise of automation and AI, external shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic… all these things pose huge challenges and opportunities for modern organisations. Whether they’re able to mitigate those challenges and seize those opportunities, depends largely on their ability to respond quickly and effectively, by learning to do new things, or do things differently. 

Almost all organisations recognise the power of having a strong learning culture. Indeed, in its 2019 ‘Professionalising Learning and Development’ report, the CIPD found that 98% of L&D practitioners want to develop a “positive learning culture” (which rather begs the question what the other 2% wanted!). However, only 36% felt that they were achieving it. 

What is a learning organisation, anyway? 

Peter Senge, arguably the godfather of learning organisations, describes them as follows: 

“A learning organisation is an organisation that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” – Peter Senge 

The CIPD describes a learning culture as “one that embeds learning into how things are done at an individual, team and organisational level”. We’d add to the definition an emphasis on formal, informal, and social learning. This is about a diverse range of learning and development activities, including on-the job learning, team learning and learning through experimentation, as well as more traditional L&D activities such as training. 

So, it’s clear that learning organisations are both: 

  • Future-focussed, continually horizon-scanning to understand how the organisation may need to adapt and develop in order to stay competitive and relevant; and 
  • Proactively investing in meaningful and timely learning opportunities for their people (at all levels, as individuals and as teams), to meet genuine and relevant emergent and future needs.  

How do you know if you’re part of a learning organisation? 

If you want to assess whether your organisation has a strong learning culture, consider the extent to which Peter Senge’s five interconnected components of learning organisations are present:  

  1. Personal mastery: Individuals are dedicated to improving themselves and experiencing personal growth.
  2. Mental models: Leaders and colleagues are aware of their own beliefs and assumptions about the world, the organisation, themselves and others, and are open to deconstructing and challenging these.  
  3. Shared vision: A clear, inspiring and authentic vision, developed and owned by the organisation rather than imposed by leadership.
  4. Team learning: Open and constructive dialogue between team-members in which everyone can contribute to problem-solving or improvement activities.
  5. Systems thinking: The organisation is seen and understood as a collection of interconnected systems, rather than separate and siloed functions or teams. 

This is challenging stuff, and – in our view – very few organisations would meet all Senge’s criteria consistently. But they provide a great focal point to aspire to and, by bringing awareness to the different components, it can help you to identify where to focus first. 

Pecan’s top tips for boosting your learning culture 

We’ve identified our top 5 tips if you want to improve or strengthen learning within your organisation: 

  1. Bake learning into your values: Consider how learning is reflected within your current organisational values: is it already being emphasised sufficiently, or does it need to be dialled-up? How can you highlight and champion the learning-related behaviours that you want to see? 
  2. Leadership commitment: Becoming a learning organisation requires support and buy-in from the very top. Leaders should role-model the behaviours they want to support, including talking about setbacks and failure (and how they’ve learnt from those personally) and championing continuous improvement. 
  3. Involve everyone, at all levels: Consider including specific learning-related objectives within the organisational strategy, unit business plan and team plan, as well as within individuals’ development objectives.
  4. Integrate learning into the work: Learning and development should be an ongoing conversation throughout the year, not just at appraisal time. Managers should be supported to identify and enable on-the-job and social learning opportunities (such as regular team retros), as well as formal training.
  5. Support psychological safety: Some of the best growth happens as a result of learning from failure. Make it safer to fail by avoiding blame, and celebrating experiments, even when they don’t work. 

So, what’s your first step towards a stronger learning culture in your organisation? We’d love to help along the way. If you or your organisation could benefit from our support to do this, get in touch. 

Photo by Beth Jnr on Unsplash 

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