Do you work in a learning organisation? If you’ve got a training plan that reflects the needs of the business, then you’ve certainly taken the first step.
But the business itself also needs to learn and develop, to be able to adapt to change and to strive to find new and better ways of doing things.
Learning organisations do just that: They give themselves a valuable advantage by harnessing the collective strength and knowledge of their employees. And the good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money to create a learning organisation.
What is a Learning Organisation?
Leading management theorists developed the concept of the learning organisation in the 1990s. In “Building a Learning Organization,” David A Garvin, now Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, defined it as “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”
For him, there were two crucial aspects. Firstly, a learning organisation enabled its employees to acquire and create knowledge and to transfer that knowledge within the organisation. And secondly, the organisation had the capability of modifying its behaviour in response to the new knowledge.
The key to this is the culture within the company. In particular, learning organisations challenge organisational hierarchy because they will only be successful if they value every employee’s insights, no matter what their position in the business.
There is no scope for senior managers to dismiss the experiences of junior staff on the grounds of “I know best” or “We’ve always done it this way.” Similarly, there is no blame culture. Learning organisations are prepared to take risks, and to abandon unsuccessful experiments without apportioning blame.
What are the Benefits of a Learning Organisation?
Every business has to compete in order to survive. We live in a fast-changing world and businesses operate in an environment where knowledge and information are as important as raw materials.
A proactive approach towards information makes organisations agile and responsive to change, enabling them to discard unhelpful or out of date procedures and to identify fresh opportunities. This gives them a powerful competitive advantage.
There are other benefits, too. It is much easier to motivate your staff if you encourage them to take part in the running of the business and if they know that their managers will take their suggestions seriously. It is a two-way process: This kind of participation helps staff to realise their potential while allowing you to gather a whole range of ideas for problem solving and developing the business.
Creating a Learning Organisation
According to Garvin, there are a number of necessary conditions. The first is a supportive learning environment.
If you encourage your staff to learn and share their insights they will be alert to new possibilities and keen to try out their ideas.
Secondly, you need what Garvin describes as “concrete learning processes and practices.” This means not allowing learning to take place in a haphazard manner but being systematic in the way you plan training and arrange for employees to feed back and share what they have learnt.
The final element is to have leaders who will reinforce the learning culture. This is more than just enabling people to learn: It involves actively supporting them in putting their learning into practice, and being willing to listen to their suggestions.
Practical Planning for Success
Although an effective learning plan is essential, it is not sufficient on its own. You need to find ways for your staff to share their knowledge, and your plan should include a mechanism for staff to discuss learning outcome with managers (and other team members, as appropriate) soon after the event.
You will also want to find ways to transfer ideas more widely across the business. One very easy, and inexpensive, way of doing this is by setting up a staff suggestion scheme. Another is to arrange team meetings where people can ask questions, consider things that aren’t working well, and suggest improvements.
Conversations of this type become even more effective if they involve people from more than one part of the organisation, allowing a cross-fertilisation of ideas.
Taking the Necessary Risk
The most important factor is to persuade your managers (and yourself!) that the people closest to the work are often the ones who are most likely to spot problems and opportunities. This means surrendering some of your power and authority, and it can feel personally risky. But in today’s rapidly changing economy the risk of not having a fully responsive organisation could be very much higher.