How to accelerate organisational learning

Andy Agouridis Future of HR Recruitment marketing Employer branding

It’s been 30 years since Peter Senge published his landmark book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation” in 1990. According to his definition, a learning business is “an organisation where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire”. This powerful statement highlights the importance of learning, as it is directly linked to a business’s bottom line.

The current pace of technological advancement amplifies the role of learning, as technical skills become obsolete and need to be replaced by new ones faster than ever before. However, organisations still struggle with implementing an effective organisational learning model in practice. The complexity of the matter in combination with the lack of practical advice may be the main reasons that impede companies from achieving their learning potential. In this article, we will provide you with all the information required to accelerate your organisational learning.

Let’s get started!


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Characteristics of a learning organisation

Before analysing the practical steps required to enhance organisational learning, we will begin by summarising the five basic characteristics of a learning organisation, as identified by Peter Senge. These concepts are fundamental requirements for any learning organisation, as their absence jeopardises the development and dissemination of knowledge. Stakeholders are recommended to use these characteristics as a guide for organisational learning.


1. Systems thinking

Instead of focusing on each individual, team, and department separately, look at the whole organisation as a single entity. All parts of an organisation are interconnected, as they influence each other. To maximise learning, leadership can use inductive reasoning to draw organisation-wide conclusions from specific events.


2. Shared vision

Learning organisations need to have a clear vision, which should be communicated to all employees. Once every part of the organisation has a deep understanding of the vision, it can serve as a glue that keeps the parts together moving toward the right direction. This is key when it comes to developing, sharing, and applying knowledge to ensure it is relevant to business goals. Apple, Toyota, and Google are some of the companies that have a powerful shared vision.


3. Team learning

Teams are the building blocks of an organisation. However, teams that work with each other in a synergistic manner are able to perform better than teams that work in silos. Team Learning is all about adopting a collaborative approach where teams from different departments and locations have the opportunity to work and learn together. CIsco is one of the businesses who have achieved strong Team Learning, by fostering collaboration between seemingly disparate departments, such as Human Resources, Engineering, and Sales.


4. Mental models

Each employee operates on some assumptions related to how an organisation works. However, if these mental models have not been developed in a conscious way, they may not be related to business needs. Leadership is responsible for educating the workforce on the desired mental models to enable learning to take place. A living example of how mental models can be shaped based on business needs is Zappos, where the organisation has been built on a system called Holocracy. While this is vastly different from how most organisations operate, employees have learned to live and breathe this system, which in turn has made it a success.


5. Personal mastery

Personal Mastery is all about supporting each and every employee to find meaning and passion in their work. Employees who are engaged with their job are by definition likely to explore ways to develop and get better at what they do. David Ulrich, an HR guru, has provided more information on how businesses can help their workforce identify their strengths and likes in his book The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organisations that Win.


Building blocks of a learning organisation

The first step to improve organisational learning is setting the right foundations in line with the five characteristics above. Experts have identified three building blocks that can serve as a bridge to translate the organisational learning theory to practice. Here is a summary of each building block.


1. A supportive learning environment

Firstly, it is imperative to build a supportive environment to enable learning. Learning environments have the following characteristics:

  1. Psychological Safety
  2. Appreciation of differences
  3. Openness to new ideas
  4. Time for reflection

Building a supportive environment can have a tremendous impact on how employees, teams, and departments collaborate. Julie Morath, COO at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, introduced a learning environment by a policy of blameless reporting, where threatening terms like “errors” and “investigations” were replaced by less judgemental ones, such as “accidents” and “analysis”. The learning that occurred after this change yielded a reduction in deaths and illnesses.


2. Concrete learning processes and practices

Learning requires a clearly defined set of processes, activities, and steps, like any other part of the business. These processes involve the analysis of existing data, the development of new knowledge, and the communication of new learnings. The US army has applied this building block successfully with the After Action Review process, which includes a systematic analysis of every critical activity. Then, all results from these analyses are tracked by the Centre for Army Lessons Learnt. Many organisations in the industry have adopted similar models with success.


3. Leadership that reinforces learning

Learning does not happen in a vacuum. Leaders that set an example by actively questioning and listening to employees drive a learning culture. It’s all about encouraging behaviours that enable dialog and debate, two crucial components for growth.

Harvey Golub, a former American Express executive, encouraged managers to think outside the box, which gave him a reputation for teaching employees and managers. Instead of expecting the workforce to abide by existing norms, he asked critical questions that fostered an open-minded discussion. I am far less interested in people having the right answer than in their thinking about issues the right way,” he said.



Practical tips to accelerate organisational learning

After analysing the building blocks that can drive organisational learning in practice, we will now provide some expert, actionable, and specific tips that can be applied to any business.


1. Provide learning based on how people learn

While most may assume that the Learning & Development department is responsible for knowledge expansion through formal training, this is not true. According to business leaders, most learning happens on the job. Thus, the key is operating in a way that allows employees to learn on the job through repetition.

According to research, organisations that adopt a “formalised informal learning” approach outperform others in learning. Providing small, sizable, and relevant knowledge chunks that enable on-the-job learning is a major part of making this happen. Thus, the roles of the trainer is not only delivering traditional training, but also providing employees with the required content to use in practice.


2. Reward and recognise expertise

While management is responsible for running a business, technical experts are the ones responsible for delivering work. Learning-savvy organisations know this and take action to appreciate expertise. From providing technical career progression, to giving people time to improve their skills through education, there are a variety of ways for businesses to support their subject matter experts.

This is an area where HR can get involved to reward and recognise expertise. Performance management and reward systems should be in line with the learning objectives of an organisation. Actions speak louder than words and supporting learning champions is one of the best ways to achieve growth.


3. Make knowledge and experts accessible

Some organisations with strong expertise struggle with learning. Apart from celebrating experts, management should also provide them with a platform to communicate their knowledge as required. This can be anything from a directory, to internal forums, to relevant events.

Make it easy and fast for employees to reach out to experts with questions in relation to their job to facilitate knowledge sharing. Introduce a way for problems to be shared with experts who can solve them. In short, create a two-way communication between people to collaborate and learn.


4. Apply the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle

Learning is proven to happen in loops. Employees and teams need a practical tool to form ideas, run experiments, evaluate results, and act as required. Using the PDCA cycle can enable managing these loops effectively and efficiently.

Train your workforce in PDCA and encourage them to pilot ideas as often as possible in a fast and easy way. The key here is not committing a significant amount of resources, such as time, effort, and money, before making sure that an idea is successful. Moving in this agile way can enable organisations to practice a massive volume of potential solutions, accelerating learning.


5. Evolve your learning model

No matter where you stand in the organisational learning journey, it is pivotal to be open to improvements. After all, it would be an oxymoron not to be open to learn about learning. Make sure you evaluate your learning model against SMART goals and refine it as required based on the evolving needs of your business.


Organisational learning can enable organisations to grow and achieve their goals. However, this is easier said than done. To set up a learning culture, you will need a well-thought plan combined with a well-executed deployment. Start by understanding the basic characteristics of a learning organisation at a conceptual level. Then, move on to your building blocks that can enable organisational learnings. Last but not least, make sure you apply practical recommendations for successful execution. Happy learning!

Last updated:

Andy Agouridis

Andy helps candidates and employers connect faster and better. Apart from being a Jobylon contributing writer and a Careers content creator. He has a background in HR with Fortune 100 businesses, holds an MSc in HRM, and is a Chartered member of the CIPD.

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