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Learning Organization

Learning Organization : A Strategic necessity in a Vuca World

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer

Organizations in Challenging Times

The world is changing. Globalization and worldwide connectivity through the internet and social media, turned our world into a village.  But it is a very complex village, where the pace of change is stunning, nothing seems to work like it did before and it becomes all the more difficult to ‘predict’ how it will evolve.

Technological, ecological, economical, societal and demographic evolutions pose new challenges, opportunities and threats for organizations.  The VUCA world challenges the way we traditionally tend to work in organizations.  Most businesses are extremely Knowledge Intensive, the need for innovation and learning is eminent and the traditional command & control organizations where ‘doing and thinking’ are split up, don’t seem to do the trick any longer.

Organizations out of the comfort zone !

In that VUCA world sustainable performance and development will depend on the capacity of organizations to learn, change and INNOVATE : design product differently avoiding waste (cradle to cradle), re-engineer industrial processes, rethink customer and stakeholder involvement, create a different organizational architecture to trigger initiative and autonomy, etc…

An organization will only be capable of doing that and keeping up with the pace of change if it develops it capability for systemic learning and change by ‘designing its way of working’ as a LEARNING ORGANISATION.  In that respect the fundamental question is : can our organization mobilise our ‘members’ (managers & employees alike) and stakeholders to bring together their knowledge, expertise, experience, energy and creativity in order to formulate NEW ANSWERS for new and old challenges we are confronted with in a VUCA world.  Reinventing work in organizations is much more then flex-work, cafeteria plans, etc…  It is about genuine distributed leadership, about autonomous professionals taking initiative, collaborating across the board, feeling member of ‘their club’ and contribute to its sustainable performance and development.

Our business model is dramatically shifting.  Holding on to what worked in the past is a ‘proven recipe’ for failure in the future.  It is no longer about being GOOD but about ‘getting GOOD’ over and over again.  Organizations need to build the capacity to continuously learn, change and reinvent not only their product and services, but also THEMSELVES as organizations and the way they work together in organizations.  LEARNING IS BUSINESS STRATEGY.

How to shift your organization towards a Learning Organization ?

Often you get answers such as : involve your employees, manager as coach, cross-functional projects, develop effective teams, invest in Training, participative decision making, etc…

Underneath these answers is the paradigm shift, away from Command & Control towards a network of autonomous professionals who work together out of mutual Trust, Collaboration and Expertise.  The switch from a mechanistic, vertical, hierarchical organization where work, tasks and people are ‘shopped up’ in different organizational layers and departments towards a flexible, organic, network organization where people connect and in transformational dialogue are really contributing to further organizational learning and performance.  Making sure that every bodies expertise, experience and energy is used.

Sounds easy so far… but…  

How do we do that in real organizations ?

If the context in which the organization operates is changing rapidly, it becomes unclear what will work in those circumstances and how ?  Apply fixed procedures or best practices from the past will probably not work anymore.  Knowledge can no longer be ‘re-produced’ or ‘copy-pasted’ but needs to be ‘PRODUCED’, made anew.  The way to cope with all those new challenges around us, needs to be developed, cannot be copied from anywhere.  So orders, or the way we do things here, best practices will no longer work.  You need something else.  And learning is then no longer ‘taking over from people who know’ (bank concept) but learning becomes creating new meaning and understanding and making new ways to deal with that.  That is something you can only do by trying and experimenting and only together with others.

Organizational Learning is inevitable EXPERIENTIAL and RELATIONAL : you learn by doing things together, experimenting, challenging each other, etc…  Meaning is made in the relational practice and in dialogue.

That ongoing, experiential learning process needs to be triggered through organizational structure, processes, culture, leadership and HR practices, problem solving and decision processes as well as through specific learning processes and methodologies.  In this Experiential Learning Cycle we show a few examples of practices that could trigger that ‘relational practice’, sharing experiences, process experiences and collaborative change and experimentation. 

A Learning Culture in organizations ?

You can create the organizational triggers for experience, sharing, and renewal taking action on four important organizational ingredients :

  • Shared Purpose & Direction : Create in a co-creative way a vision on where the organization is going.  Your business strategy will be better because you include all available expertise, it will allow people to autonomously take action in line with that vision and it will allow the organization to translate the vision in action across the organization.
  • Involvement & Collaboration, not only within specific functions or roles, but especially challenge, problem solve and co-create in multi-discipline contexts.  It does not only create learning opportunities it also creates new ways of thinking and therefore ‘makes new knowledge’ for the organization.
  • Room for initiative, experimentation and mistakes making mistakes, trying things that do not work at the end, is the only way to learn and to innovate.  Rules, procedures are mere copiers… it is trusting expertise and professionalism together with connection and collaboration that brings about innovation.  And yes it will go wrong from time to time… and that is what makes us succeed in the end. That is learning.
  • Access Knowledge, Experience and Information Facilitate new and diverse experiences through internal mobility, job-rotation, project work, transversal information sharing, communities of practice, etc… that’s what a learning organization is set out to do.  Not only inform on a needs to know basis, but involve people in all kinds of contexts.  That sparks innovation. 

Click on one of these four thumbnails to get a list very practical examples of things you can do to introduce these four ‘ingredients’ in your organizational culture : Direction, Involvement, Room and Access. You cannot make grass grow faster by pulling it out of the ground, but you can do that providing fertile soil, water and space to grow. And in this website we share with you several ways to do just that : transform your organization into a generative learning environment for people to thrive and innovate.

Move! developed a checklist based on David Garvin’s Learning Organization Survey.  You could check with this list whether your organization has the building blocks for a learning organization yet in place.  

Organization Development