Turn your company into a learning organisation

If your organisation can’t learn, it won’t change.

What are the theoretical underpinnings of the concept of the learning organisation? After all, without a systemic network of facilities for knowledge creation and information collection, an organisation will have no means with which to learn. For knowledge and information within an organisation to be useful guides for organisational action, they must flow throughout the organisation and become a shared foundation for beliefs, perceptions, aspirations and mental models.

Researchers of the learning organisation borrow heavily from the concepts of systemic functioning of an organism when expounding the concept of the learning organisation.

The general systems theory, as it serves many other scholarly thoughts, seems to be also the theoretical foundation of which the concept of learning organisation is based. Von Bertalanfty (1951) is considered to be the founding father of the general systems theory. General systems theory presents the organisation as a complex set of interdependent parts that interact with each other to adapt to a constantly changing environment both for survival and for fulfilling its goals.

An organisation that resembles an organism should be a successful one. No human organisation has become as successful as the living organism in its systemic functioning. Thus, a learning organisation strives to be like an organism. Interdependence is an essential feature of the learning organisation, in that communication and decision-making in such an organisation is fluid and multi-directional. In a learning organisation, every organisational department feels needed and necessary to the realisation of an organisation’s goal.

This single, underlying mechanism of Nonaka and Takeuchi’s (1995) four modes of knowledge creation is an interaction between different organisational components. One might call this process the fluid infiltration. It is amazing how quickly water can be spread on absorbent texture like paper and cloth. Yet, nothing happens if the water stays in the container. In the context of the organisation, every individual member is a container holding “water” – some useful information and knowledge. They must have “absorbent textures” to purge their “water” onto and let their “water” spread along. The only way to establish the “absorbent textures” in an organisation is through interaction. For interaction to occur, a communicative network, like the nerve system in the living body, is essential.

The learning organisation does not simply collect information and knowledge on anything. It collects information and creates knowledge about the relevant environment, both the internal environment and the external environment. The internal environment is comprised of the organisational members, the equipment and daily functioning of the organisation. The external environment is comprised of customers, government, social movements, cultural fashions, social activists and technological advances. Information and knowledge about the environment is essential because it helps to sketch the map directing organisational adaptation to the environment.

Operationalising the learning organisation

More recent researchers of the learning organisation, instead of studying the major conceptual components of the essential features of the learning organisation, are paying more attention to the operationalisation of the learning organisation. That is, they are trying to find the methods, facilities and strategies to create the essential feature of the learning organisation. Schein (1985) discussed how to start and maintain dialogue, one facility of interaction that contributes to organisational learning. Schein believes that the facilitator of the dialogue/discussion group plays an important role in starting and maintaining dialogue. The facilitator can engage in the following activities:

1. Organise the physical space so that it is as nearly a circle as possible;
2. Introduce the general concept and ask members to recall relevant experiences;
3. Ask people to share their experiences with their neighbors;
4. Ask the members to share these experiences with the group;
5. Ask the group to reflect on the experience by having each person in turn talk about his/her reactions;
6. Allow the conversation to flow naturally;
7. Intervene for necessary clarification; and
8. Close the session by inviting any comments.

David Garvin (Harvard Business Review, March, 2008) has laid down the following criteria for building a learning organisation. Garvin calls them “building blocks”. Following are the three building blocks – and their components – for building a learning organisation as suggested by Professor Garvin.

Building Block 1: Creating a supportive learning environment through:

(a) Psychological safety for the employee;
(b) Openness to new ideas; and
(c) Time given to employees and managers for reflection on their performance.

Building Block 2: Designing concrete learning policies and practices through:

(a) Experimentation with new ways of working and thinking;
(b) Information collection from the environment;
(c) Analysis, which means allowing discussions and debates among employees;
(d) Education and training; and
(e) Information transfer between and among employees and outside stakeholders.

Building Block 3: Leadership that reinforces learning and implements building block 1 and building block 2:

Proposed activities of a learning organisation (by many professionals):

(1) Systematic problem solving:

• Thinking with systems theory;
• Insisting on data rather than assumptions; and
• Using statistical tools.

(2) Experimentation with new approaches:

• Ensure steady flow of ideas;
• Incentives for taking risks; and
• Demonstration projects.

(3) Learning from their own experiences and past history:

• Recognition of the value of productive failure instead of unproductive success.

(4) Learning from the experiences and best practices of others:

• Enthusiastic borrowing.

(5) Transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organisation:

• Reports;
• Tours;
• Personnel rotation programmes; and
• Training programmes.

Most practices of learning organisations have included a combination of components for building a learning organisation:

1. Awareness: Organisations must be aware that learning is necessary before they can develop into a learning organisation. This may seem to be a strange statement but this
learning must take place at all levels; not just at management level. Once the company has accepted the need for change, it is then responsible for creating the appropriate environment for this change to occur.

2. Environment: Centralised and mechanistic structures do not create a good environment. Individuals do not have a comprehensive picture of the whole organisation and its goals. This causes parochial systems to be set up, which stifles the process of learning. Therefore, a more flexible, organic structure must be formed. By organic, I mean a flatter structure, which encourages innovations. The flatter structure also promotes passing of information between employees. In turn, this creates a more informed work force. It is necessary for management to take on a new philosophy to encourage openness, reflection and accept error and uncertainty. Hence, members need to be able to question decisions without the fear of a reprimand. This questioning can often highlight problems at an early stage and reduce time-consuming errors. One way of overcoming this fear is to introduce anonymity so that questions can be asked or suggestions made but the source is not necessarily known.

3. Leaders should foster the systems thinking concept and encourage learning to help both the individual and organisation in learning. It is the leader’s responsibility to help restructure the individual views of team members. For example, leaders need to help the teams understand that competition is a form of learning; not a hostile act. Management must provide commitment for long-term learning in the form of resources. The amount of resources available (money, personnel and time) determines the quantity and quality of learning. This means that the organisation must be prepared to support learning by its members.

4. Empowerment: The locus of control shifts from managers to employees. This is where the term “empowerment” is introduced. The employees become responsible for their actions, but the managers do not lose their involvement. They still need to encourage, enthuse and coordinate the workers. Equal participation must be allowed at all levels so that members can learn from each other simultaneously. This is unlike traditional learning that involves a top-down structure, which is time-consuming.

5. Spread knowledge within the organisation: It is important for a company to learn from its mistakes and also to appreciate its successes. Discussion and contribution in a team framework is vital, followed by assessment and planning. Each member should be encouraged to self-assess his or her own performance. The learning should not just stop at the team, however. Lateral spread of knowledge throughout the organisation can be implemented by a number of mechanisms. Oral, written and visual presentations, site visits and tours, personnel rotation programmes; education and training programmes will all encourage the spread of knowledge and experiences along with reduction of hierarchy and red tape present in many stagnant organisations. To learn from one’s mistakes, one must be able to accept failure, analyse the reasons for the failure and take action. Disappointment and mistakes are part of the change process and essential to learning. A true learning organisation will treat mistakes as case studies for discussion, thus learning and ensuring that the same mistakes do not happen again. For this to be done without blame, and with implied forgiveness, the learning has to be guided by a neutral mentor or coach. This figure may be from inside or outside the organisation, and need not possess much authority. It is often beneficial to an organisation to form a list of mentors, whose services they can rely on.

6. Facilitate learning from the environment: In order to keep a leading edge over its counterparts, the learning organisation has to keep abreast with the happenings in its internal and external environment. Technical and political issues that may exert pressure on the organisation’s current and future operations are identified and monitored:

• Internal sources of information can be work teams, departments or affiliated companies or institutes within the organisation;
• Outside consultants, other players in the same field and even customers are potential external sources; and
• Disseminating the value-added information in an efficient manner, so that everyone within the organisation easily accesses it.

One suggestion that stands out in the age of “information superhighway” is putting the computer databases on the internet system with limited employee-only access.

Joint ventures provide precious opportunities of actively observing how others’ systems are run. In such cases, learning objectives should be clearly stated in the contractual agreements between the allies to avoid any future misunderstanding. Accusations of corporate spying are serious matters. Hence, everything should be brought out in the open right from the start and nothing should be done secretly. Customers represent the best research and development source, as they know exactly what they and the market in general want. Moreover, this invaluable resource is free! Hence, it is worthwhile to try to involve the customers in product/service design.

7. Reward learning: The performance appraisal is meant to reflect the organisation’s commitment to create a learning culture, that is, to promote acquisition of new skills, teamwork as well as individual effort, openness and objectivity and continuous personal development. The fragile human ego yearns for acknowledgment from superiors and fellow colleagues for one’s work, in some form of reward, or, simply, feedback. Everyone wants to feel that he/she is doing a “real” job and actively contributing to the proper functioning of the organisation. Therefore, learning should be rewarded because everyone wants his/her learning to be rewarded.

8. Encourage experimentation: If learning comes through experience, it follows that the more one participates in guided experiences, the more one learns. Therefore, venturing into uncharted waters – and experiencing the failures that may occur – is an important part of organisational learning. Every change requires a certain degree of experimentation. To allow this experimentation is the central concept behind the learning organisation. Giving employees opportunities and responsibilities is a risk and can be costly in terms of resources. However, for a company to learn it is a necessary risk, and approached in a positive manner, will bring more benefits. Innovation, after all, is what sets a company apart. A learning organisation needs to experiment by having both formal and informal ways of asking questions, seeking out theories, testing them, and reflecting upon them. It should try to predict events and plan to avoid mistakes – be active rather than passive. One way to do this is to review their competitor’s work and progress and try to learn from their experiences.

9. Learning through games: companies can learn to achieve their aims in learning games. These are small-scale models of real-life settings where management teams learn how to learn together through simulation games. They need to find out what failure is like so that they can learn from their mistakes in the future. These managers are then responsible for setting up an open and flexible atmosphere in their organisations to encourage their employees to follow their learning example. Anonymity has already been mentioned and can be achieved through electronic conferencing. This type of conferencing can also encourage different sites to communicate and share knowledge, thus making a company truly a learning organisation.

10. Thrive on change: The crux of this idea is that, for a learning organisation to be achieved, many changes must be implemented. There can be no doubt that an organisation that enters such changes without a full commitment to them will not succeed. Hence, it needs constant re-framing: looking at problems from different angles or developing and exercising skills. In short, it is never static. To comply with this, the people in the organisation must continually adapt to changing circumstances. It is vital that the change process be driven from the very top levels of the organisation: managers must lead the changes with a positive attitude and have a clear vision of what is to be achieved. However, it is crucial that management agrees on the direction and content of change.

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.

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