Learning organization

What is a learning organization?

A learning organization is one that seeks to create its own future. It is one that assumes learning is an ongoing and creative process for its members and therefore, develops, adapts, and transforms itself in response to the needs and aspirations of people, both inside and outside itself.

What learning organizations do is set its employees free. Employees no longer have to be passive players in the equation. They learn to express ideas and challenge themselves to contribute to create a better work environment by participating in a paradigm shift from the traditional authoritarian workplace philosophy to one where the hierarchy is broken down and human potential is given a boost. Learning organizations foster an environment wherein people can "create the results they truly desire," and where they can learn to learn together for the betterment of the whole.

What is the importance of a learning organization?

There are many strong importance of a learning organization. This includes:

  • Efficiency gains
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased profit
  • Decreased employee turnover, as employee satisfaction levels rise and loyalty and commitment is increased
  • Raising the bar by creating a continuous improvement mindset, shared ownership for projects and shared accountability for results
  • Developing leaders at all levels, which helps with succession planning
  • Creating a culture of inquiry, adaptive capacity, and knowledge sharing (vs. knowledge hoarding)
  • Enhanced ability for individuals and teams to embrace and adapt to change.

What are the five disciplines of a learning organization?

Peter Senge is a leading writer in the area of learning organizations. His seminal works, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, describe five disciplines that must be mastered when introducing learning into an organization:

  1. Systems Thinking - the ability to see the big picture, and to distinguish patterns instead of conceptualizing change as isolated events. Systems thinking needs the other four disciplines to enable a learning organization to be realized. There must be a paradigm shift - from being unconnected to interconnected to the whole, and from blaming our problems on something external to a realization that how we operate, our actions, can create problems.

  2. Personal Mastery - begins "by becoming committed to lifelong learning," and is the spiritual cornerstone of a learning organization. Personal Mastery involves being more realistic, focusing on becoming the best person possible, and striving for a sense of commitment and excitement in our careers to facilitate the realization of potential.

  3. Mental Models - must be managed because they do prevent new powerful insights and organizational practices from becoming implemented. The process begins with self-reflection; unearthing deeply held belief structures and generalizations, and understanding how they dramatically influence the way we operate in our own lives. Until there is realization and a focus on openness, real change can never take place.

  4. Building Shared Visions - visions cannot be dictated because they always begin with the personal visions of individual employees, who may not agree with the leader's vision. What is needed is a genuine vision that elicits commitment in good times and bad, and has the power to bind an organization together. As Peter Senge contends, "building shared vision fosters a commitment to the long term".

  5. Team Learning - is important because modern organizations operate on the basis of teamwork, which means that organizations cannot learn if team members do not come together and learn. It is a process of developing the ability to create desired results; to have a goal in mind and work together to attain it.

To summarize, a learning organization does away with the mindset that it is only senior management who can and do all the thinking for an entire corporation. Learning organizations challenge all employees to tap into their inner resources and potential, in hopes that they can build their own community based on principles of liberty, humanity, and a collective will to learn.

What are some tips to create a learning organization?

A learning organization breaks-down traditional silos, and enables all areas to work together towards a common vision.

Actions you can take to create a learning culture include:

  • Start by evaluating where you are at your organization by conducting a self-audit or assessment of your organization – this will help you pinpoint what kind of learning culture you currently have, identify the gaps, and ascertain your organization’s readiness for change. As an organization, you should ask yourselves, where do we want to be and how will we get there?

  • Lead by example, and start at the top with senior leadership – make learning and development essential to your organization’s success by making it part of your strategy  and culture and make it highly visible and transparent

  • Develop a shared strategy for your learning culture where there is shared accountability across the organization

  • Make learning a habitual (not optional) behaviour with all employees at all levels

  • Ensure there is consistency and alignment of values and behavior around learning

  • Encourage the sharing of learning, skills and knowledge, and encourage coaching and mentoring across the organization

  • Give employees the time they need for both formal and informal learning

  • Develop and deploy key learning events that are directly linked to the strategic goals of the organization

  • Allow for recognition of individual and team learning and remember to celebrate successes

  • Learn from your mistakes. Instead of playing the blame game, look at what happened, why it happened, and how it could be done better and/or differently in the future, and share that learning

  • Debrief projects, identify key learnings and share them across the team 

Learning organization is an ongoing, dynamic process, and should become part of the organization’s DNA. A learning culture supports a community of learners, as a total organization, where everyone teaches, everyone learns, everyone shares knowledge. Individual and collective learning is encouraged and rewarded. And those companies that embrace these values will be able to gain and sustain competitive advantage over competitors who do not.

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