Through my work as a consultant, management experience, and recent study of organizational analysis, I have come to better appreciate the now-mature idea of the learning organization.
Becoming a Learning Organization
Despite decades of organizational theory promoting the idea of the learning organization and its contribution to continuous improvement, organizations still struggle to develop learning cultures.
Peter M. Senge, who published “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” in 1990, visualized the key disciplines or practices of the learning organization as follows:
According to Senge, organizations need to tap into their members’ capacity to learn, and put into place the right structures to foster continuous learning. This, in turn, increases the organization’s chances of gaining new information, and applying it to better anticipate and adapt to changes in the environment.
The idea remains challenging to define and even more difficult to operationalize. This classic 1993 piece from HBR defines learning organization as follows:
A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.
The author, David A. Garvin, notes that traditional definitions of learning organization tend to be abstract, and not necessarily useful guides to implementation in the real world. Further, the creation or acquisition of knowledge within an organization is not sufficient to create a culture of learning. Translating that knowledge into new behavior is also necessary, if continuous improvement is to take place.
In a subsequent 2008 article, Garvin and his co-authors discuss a survey tool to help organizations gain an understanding of how well their organization (and units within their organization: teams, divisions, projects, etc.) learns relative to other organizations.
The authors discuss three measurable building blocks within the learning organization: a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes and practices, and leadership behavior that provides reinforcement.
As noted by Norman Jacknis, the idea of the learning organization is currently undergoing a rebirth. He points to the idea of the learning organization as a “holy grail”, but also the failure of knowledge management initiatives in many organizations. Jacknis points to the emergence of analytics and big data as making the process of organizational learning easier and better. Instead of acting as memoirists, experts can now “…help kick off the building of the model and even assist in interpreting the results of the analytics.”
While the focus of these discussions is often on the competitive advantage conferred on learning organizations within the private sector, the model is also relevant to non-profit, governmental and regulatory organizations.
Creating a Learning Culture
If you are a manager concerned with continuous improvement, you need to think about how to create a learning culture within your organization or team. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Josh Bersin outline four recommendations to accomplish this:
- Reward continuous learning: Create a formal, effective reward system and create a climate that nurtures critical thinking and encourages speaking up.
- Give meaningful and constructive feedback: Managers are understandably reluctant to have difficult conversations with staff. It is of course easier to provide positive feedback over negative feedback. But managers need to be able to highlight knowledge gaps and skills deficits, as staff may be unaware of their own limitations.
- Lead by example: Leaders’ routine behaviors have a strong influence of the performance and behavior of their teams. Leaders need to display curiosity and learning of their own. If you want your team to read, you should read. If you want to encourage your team to be critical thinkers, you need to model this behavior.
- Hire curious people. See below.
Selecting the Right People
When recruiting new staff, we tend to focus on the candidate’s C.V., i.e., his or her existing education, experience, knowledge and hard skills. These are unquestionably important factors to consider, and indeed one means of gaining new knowledge within an organization is to recruit new staff with that knowledge.
However, we are not as good at screening candidates for the softer skills that matter so much in the workplace. For example, how has the candidate demonstrated a willingness to take accountability for his or her work? To accept constructive feedback from managers and peers? To admit to error, demonstrate humility, and show a willingness to learn and change?
The authors suggest that proper selection of staff allows managers to facilitate potential, rather than work against a person’s nature. There are measurable traits that correspond with an individual’s propensity to intellectual development and learning, and personality assessments measuring openness to new experience, tolerance for ambiguity, critical thinking, and inquisitiveness.
In short, to create a learning culture, managers need to foster the right environment (provide rewards for continuous learning; give meaningful feedback; lead by example) and hire people who are hungry to learn.