Ever since the introduction of the term Learning Organization back in the 1990s the concept has been the ‘holy grail’ for many organizations. In some business plans I reviewed recently, the organizations producing them had an explicit aim of becoming a learning organization. As it has turned out that the concept of the learning organization is rather abstract and difficult to implement, I was struck by this ambition and directly responded with some questions to articulate this ambition:

  1. Why do these organizations want to become a learning organization?
  2. How can these organizations become learning organizations?
  3. What kind of learning do these organizations aim at?

Why?

Many management concepts are hyped by consultants and/or scientists, which in return, earn good money by implementing them. But, the learning organization is beyond that point. The importance of knowledge and learning is a given for almost all organizations. Therefore all organizations need to find opportunities to produce, distribute and commercialize knowledge. Learning is a critical process in contemporary organizations. As research has shown this process is multilevel when considered from the learning organization perspective (e.g. 4I model by Crossan et al.). Most critical learning takes place at individual and team level. Some of this learning is institutionalized at organizational level and is embedded into systems, procedures and practices. On individual and team level learning is also important for competency development, as it helps individuals and teams to grow and improve their performance. When looking at organizations, the answer to the why question depends largely on their strategy or the business drivers that are appealing to them. Strategy and business drivers are for instance aimed at security (compliance), improvement (exploitation), innovation (exploration) or HR policies (talent management).

How?

How does a learning organization learn? Of course 80% or more occurs in the informal or non-formal space. But, interventions are needed to secure that the learning is effectively captured and embedded in the organization. As many scholars suggest the right mix of formal and non-formal learning should be found in order to reach effectiveness of learning in organizations. Also the connections between individual, group and organizational level learning should be optimized. This ensures the proper institutionalization of learning in the organization. Developing the right mix of learning interventions, either formal or non-formal, is the aim for true learning organizations. This is quite a job and requires a learning climate that balances organizational characteristics in leadership, culture, structure and systems. Also it requires maturity in learning & development offerings that are aligned with the broader HR and talent management practices in an organization.

What?

What the learning organization wants to learn is a question that is overlooked in literature on the learning organization. In the why question some directions where given, but when you look at organization strategies some assumptions about the required learning for successful execution can be made. Typical strategic options are presented in the work on Value Disciplines of Treacy and Wiersema. They distinguish operational excellence, product leadership and customer intimacy as strategic options.

  • When you want to play in the ‘operational excellence’ league, you probably want to have smaller learning cycles based upon process improvement. Learning will be focused on operations with a combination of plan-do-check-act learning cycles and a sharp eye for radical operational innovations. Learning will take place at production and supply chain level to a large extent.
  • When you want to play the ‘product leadership’ card, learning should be aimed at technological and design innovations that can be embedded in products. This learning is focused on finding new combinations of technologies and design. Probably learning will take place with knowledge and business partners in this case.
  • When your aim is ‘customer intimacy’ your learning should be aimed at the market and your clients. Market intelligence, questionnaires and direct learning from customer complaints and needs is a key differentiator.

With these questions in mind, the implementation of the learning organization concept is quite challenging. In my opinion it is a worthwhile ambition for organizations to become learning organizations. Not only for them to stay competitive, but also to provide their members with an inspiring work environment that allows growth and talent development.

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