Do You Work in a Learning Organization?

Only learning organizations are equipped to succeed in today’s brutally competitive business environment.
Organizations that create cultures of continuous learning for their employees are referred to as “learning organizations.” These organizations facilitate the learning of their people and are able to continuously transform themselves.
But learning organizations don’t just happen. They evolve as a result of the MANY pressures facing today’s organizations. Challenges such as social media, the 24x7x365 new cycle, constantly advancing technology, global competition, internet-based business models constantly pose threats to an organization’s survival.
For example, the average age of a company that appeared on the Fortune 500 list of the world’s most successful businesses used to be 50 years. Now, the average age of a member of that illustrious list is a mere FIVE years. Further, companies once deemed “too big to fail” are doing so with scary regularity. Examples such as Bear Stearns, Circuit City, Lehman Brothers, Borders, Blockbuster, Meryl Lynch abound.
In order to adapt to these constant challenges, companies that transform themselves into learning organizations (learning society) are able to remain competitive. The concept of the learning organization was first developed through the research and work done by Peter Senge and his associates in 1994. Further contributions came from Donald Schon in his writing about the “learning society.”
Organizations need to become more like “COMMUNITIES” that their employees feel a sense of commitment towards. Many companies have destroyed employee trust and loyalty by tearing up the employer-employee contract beginning in the 1980s, when they began sending jobs overseas to lower cost labor markets. Words like off-shoring, outsourcing, re-engineering, right-sizing, downsizing have become all too familiar vernacular for Management’s destruction of the American worker’s long-term work prospects.
Usually, an organization becomes a learning organization as an outcome of that company becoming far too structured. As companies grow they expand, adding on layer after layer of bureaucracy which always leads to organizational inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
When that happens, some leaders are wise enough to identify an overwhelming need to restructure/downsize in order to become more lean and efficient. What they end up facing is a need to have their remaining workforce become more productive on a per-employee basis due to the smaller number of remaining workers they have.
That then demands you create a new environment, in which people can openly share learning without their sharing becoming devalued or ignored completely. This is an absolute necessity for the remaining workers to all benefit from the sharing of knowledge and experiences, which in turn empowers the employee who shares their knowledge. This is at the heart of the learning organization.
I have unfortunately spent over 20 years working in many industries for many organizations that did not understand this central tenet. Workers who feel that their experience, knowledge, training, and education are valued want to share their expertise for the greater good of the organization. But many managers and business owners still manage their people like they were purely assets (a cost to be maintained/controlled) like we were still in a manufacturing-based economy. WE’RE NOT! We work in the 21st Century technology/service-based economy. Knowledge is the single greatest assert to be leveraged, for true lasting competitive advantage. And many organizations simply refuse to embrace this fact.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a VERY simple test you can conduct, in order to (dis)prove how poorly prepared your own organization is to take advantage of its people’s talents.
Ask your Human Resources folks to take a random sample of any five (5) employees in your organization. Have them write down each person’s job requirements, those functions they are tasked with performing on a daily basis. Then, write down the top 5-8 core competencies that each of those people possess. Now, compare the list of job requirements with their greatest talents for each of those people. I GUARANTEE you that for each person, there is a significant disconnect/disparity between their talents and the work they are tasked with performing. This holds true in ANY organization and people at any level of your organization. This is why most organizations are NOT a learning organization.
How then can you spot a learning organization? Following are a few key characteristics of true learning organizations. See if any can be found in YOUR company:
* They provide CONTINUOUS learning opportunities for all employees;
* They apply learning to achieve all their personal, team, and organizational goals;
* They link each individual’s performance to the organization’s performance;
* They truly ENCOURAGE personal inquiry and open dialog;
* They make it safe for people to both share openly and take risks WITHOUT fear of punishment for failure (In fact, failing GREATLY as a continuous learning tool is actively encouraged); and
* They are continuously aware of, and interact constantly with, their external environment (Kerka 1995). You define an organization’s external environment as the markets they compete in, their employees, clients, partners,vendors, suppliers, and competitors.
So, let’s say you are now a convert to the learning organization and want to know HOW to create a learning organization in your own organization. Great! First, you should know that people don’t learn by formal training. They learn by rolling up their sleeves and learning “ON THE JOB.” Therefore, you MUST create an informal learning environment by creating a mentor/coaching programs. Develop a program of employee job rotations, so people can learn the entire organization by working in various Departments. you will also need to begin having constant discussions with your peers in an open, sharing environment. It is also critical that your organization begin to disseminate/distribute information all across the organization including top-down, bottom-up, between functional areas, and inside/out the organization by sharing information with all your stakeholders.
As noted in a recent Korn/Ferry Institute white paper titled Using Learning Agility to Identify High Potentials Around The Worldd, studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience is what differentiates successful executives (and organizations) from unsuccessful ones. Learning agility is used to describe those with openness, willingness to learn, curiosity about the world, a willingness to experience new things, good people skills and a high tolerance for ambiguity. (Jan/Feb 2013 HR Executive, p. 17)
People who are learning agile usually exhibit the following six characteristics, according to a recent white paper titled: “Learning About Learning Agility” from the Center for Creative Leadership and Columbia University’s Teachers College:
1) They’re unafraid to challenge the status quo;
2) They remain calm in the face of difficulty;
3) They take time to reflect on their experiences;
4) They purposefully put themselves in challenging situations;
5) They are open to learning; and
6) They resist the temptation to become defensive in the face of adversity.
Your organization also needs to begin offering “on-demand training” where you customize the training to fit the specific needs of a skill set, particular project, or specific task. Then you need to deliver your people performance support tools (software and systems) that help them achieve their work-related tasks. In order to remain competitive, your organization MUST create a culture that embraces learning. Call me if you’d like to discuss how his can be done.
Some Great Resources to Explore.
* Building the Learning Organization, by Michael Marquardt.
* 5 Keys to building a learning organization.
Here’s to your success in starting a new business in 2013. May it be the start of an entirely new path for you!
Ethan Chazin, The Compassionate Coach