The Learning Organisation
Imagine a company where every member of staff on a regular, almost daily basis, walked through the Blue Door and spent some time in the space beyond it. They would all be undertaking Stephen Covey’s 7th habit; to sharpen the saw. An organisation such as this would be a learning organisation.
The term ‘learning organisation’ describes an organisation with an ideal learning environment. The seminal work associated with this concept, the 5th Discipline, was written by Peter Senge; it includes many of the concepts researched and proposed by Chris Agyris and Donald Schön.
Learning organizations and the people in them learn constantly from everything they do. Staff use their own experience and that of others to improve their performance, and recognise that they from their successes and also from their failures. Continuous learning is an organic part of the organisation’s DNA and infrastructure.
According to Senge, the learning organisation depends upon the mastery of five dimensions:
Systems thinking: This idea treats the organisation as a complex system composed of smaller (often complex) systems. This requires an understanding of the whole, as well as the components, and is not unlike the way a doctor should treat a patient – they will examine the whole body. A key aspect of this is the understanding that an event in one part of the organisation will have an effect on the whole organisation as a whole: similar to nudging a small part of a jelly, the whole lot shakes.
Personal mastery: This describes a process where each individual strives to become the best they can be; they stay focused on their individual personal development and are in a constant state of learning.
Mental models: A mental model could be defined as a way of describing how someone thinks about something in the real world. Very often, the complexity of reality exceeds our capacity to understand or make sense of it, so we use mental models to simplify reality. Consequently, a mental model is something that allows us to simplify reality.
Within the learning organisation, Senge explores these ideas in more depth and describes mental models as: “Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.” He advocates that for progress to occur, there are times when individual mental models must be recognised and challenged so as to allow for new ideas and changes. In effect, recognising the potential and need for a paradigm shift.
Building shared vision: The concept of a vision is a readily understood concept. However, a shared vision is a significantly more powerful motivator. A leader’s vision does not necessarily become shared by those below him. The key here is to engage more widely and create a picture of the future which encompasses a wider perspective. From a leadership point of view, this happens best through influence, using dialogue, commitment, and enthusiasm.
Team learning: The state where team members think together to achieve common goals. It builds on shared vision, adding the element of collaboration
Like many models and theories, the learning organisation looks appealing; the reality is that it takes time, courage, commitment and a great deal of endeavour.
Many organizations are now trying to walk under the banner of The Learning Organization, realizing that knowledge is our most important product … But the only place that I’ve seen it is in the Army. As one colonel said, “We realized a while ago that it’s better to learn than be dead.” Walter Wriston
In order to justify the time and effort associated with becoming a learning organisation, it is worth considering the resulting benefits:
Companies that were built on the premises of continuous learning and product adaptation have flourished because they never stopped learning and moving forward into new areas related to their core purpose.
A learning organisation provides a competitive advantage: they become superior competitors in any market, they have brand equity their competitors finds hard to match, and they attract and retain the best talent.
Practising continuous learning keeps organisations thinking and acting ahead of their competition.
Learning organisations constantly create markets, approaches to markets, products and greater customer value, and they never squander the market advantage they have worked so hard to acquire by letting their competition think or act ahead of them or faster than they can. Learning organisations maximise their advantage by encouraging people at all levels to regularly collect and share information across all boundaries; they encourage casual information sharing as a way of organisational life, including the appropriate use of social and electronic media.
All employees or members are constantly involved in feedback loops: they seek feedback from their colleagues on ideas they have or actions they’ve taken. They routinely support the feedback loops to others and also give “feedforward” ideas. Learning them becomes a dynamic activity, which assures everyone is learning from everyone else all the time.
The value of the learning organisation has been discussed extensively ever since the notion was first put forward. As we continue to experience the aftermath of Covid-19 the demand to learn how to do different things is very much under the spotlight as all sectors of society look for solutions to constantly changing and ever more challenging questions.