What it means to be a leader in a learning organisation.
Our traditional view of a leader is flawed. In this view, a leader is a person who sets directions, makes the key decisions, and energises people. Such an idea is deeply rooted in the ruggedly individualistic worldview. By contrast, leadership in learning organisations centres on more subtle work. Here, the leaders are designers, stewards and teachers. Their main skill is in building a learning organisation. They are not necessarily charismatic leaders, but they create an environment which is conducive to autonomous learning within the organisation.
The opportunities for learning within any organisation are plentiful. Many organisations are infused with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. This important attribute may define the role for a leader to enhance the learning opportunities for the members of an organisation. One method for enhancing the learning of the members may be for the leaders of an organisation to assist the learners in understanding or even designing the mission and vision for the organisation and then asking the learners how this could be achieved through a learning endeavour. Again, the leaders of a learning organisation ensure that learning endeavours are designed and practised throughout the entire organisation.
This approach can be described as bottomup learning, where front-line employees influence managers and leaders of the organisation. The factors associated with autonomous learning are in place within a leadership setting; they can best be described as self-directed leadership. The leaders of an organisation must enhance through sparking the desire of employees to learn; this may enable the employees to take the initiative to start a learning endeavour. Thus, learning and actually embracing learning throughout the organisation should certainly involve the people who comprise the organisation. Many leaders offer training endeavours which are, for the most part, designed by consulting trainers for specific skills. By contrast, some training programmes are designed by the employees themselves and training is imparted by their senior colleagues. Both these patterns of training are seen in the learning organisation. Learning organisations do not operate in a vacuum. They have to be operated on a day to day basis, which requires administrative leadership.
The tasks undertaken by an administrative leader ensure the continuity of an organisation on a day to day basis. The leader requires feedback to enhance and ensure the organisation can function effectively. The second form of leadership is by mentoring. In this role, the leader encourages the participation of employees in their daily activities. More important, however, is the leader’s ability to connect individuals who need knowledge from each other, transitioning new members – and members on the periphery – into the core activities of the organisation, and being a spokesperson or advocate of the organisation outside its boundaries.
The role of a leader in a learning organisation is implicit in the very definition of a learning organisation. Pedler (1989) defined it as an “organisation which facilitates the learning of all its members and continually transforms itself.” This implies that leadership of a learning organisation should facilitate the learning of an individual or a team at an organisational level through various techniques, such as individual or team-building programmes or through mentoring. Garvin (1993) defines a learning organisation as an “organisation skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insight.”
The emphasis on the role of a leader in facilitating collective learning can be easily attributed to this idea. It used to be that organisations were designed based on the old, bureaucratic, command-andcontrol model. Currently, however, that model is being replaced by a model based on learning and self-renewal. The old model is crumbling because it has proved inadequate in facing new challenges.
Therefore, a search is underway for a new kind of organisation that accommodates radical change. Ideally, such an organisation would build the capacity to thrive on change. Thus, Peter Senge of MIT (1990) describes this new organisation as an organisation that teaches stakeholders to learn how they create their own reality. In fact, such learning organisations are designed to capture the imagination of an organisation’s employees and galvanise their efforts to achieve a higher purpose, ideal or cause.
Such learning organisations bond people together in a search for excellence. Such learning organisations have a strong emotional appeal that engages stakeholders to commit their full energies and minds to achieve a higher ideal. If this ideal is achieved, it can position the firm for industry-wide leadership. Furthermore, in a learning organisation, motivation is recognised as being inherent in an employee. A learning organisation believes that employees are self-motivated and individuals and teams can set their own agenda for learning. A learning organisation perceives itself to be a living system in which every part is connected to every other part. Such a learning organisation encourages cross-functional and cross-organisational communications and believes in a cross-fertilisation of ideas.
In a learning organisation, training is not an event. Rather, process knowledge is encouraged during training. Everyone gets involved, not just in learning but also in teaching. People tend to learn from one another. For example, a learning organisation learns from its employees, suppliers, vendors and customers. Moreover, in a learning organisation, learning and teaching are not a responsibility of their training departments. In fact, everybody is responsible for learning and teaching. Many organisations do not know how to transform their groups into teams. However, in a learning organisation, team members understand one another’s priorities and help and support other team members when difficulties arise.
In traditional organisations, conflict in groups is considered as disturbance to be avoided. In contrast, learning organisations welcome conflict in a team and view this as an opportunity to find solutions to problems. Through dialogue, conflicts can be resolved before they become destructive. Therefore, a leader in a learning organisation must have excellent communication skills and must permit a free flow of communication among members. The leader must be perceived as being open, fair, honest and willing to listen. Thus, a leader in a learning organisation must be a good coach because coaching helps people to grow and adjust to the organisation as a whole. This is the new mandate for stakeholders in a learning organisation.
Dr Archan Mehta has a PhD in Management and is based in India. He has over 10 years of work experience in sectors like Media, Food Services, Hospitality, Education, and Security. He is currently a Consultant.