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Learning Organisations

‘Learning is valuable, continuous, and most effective when shared… every experience is an opportunity to learn’ (Kerka., 1995).

Building blocks of the learning organisation and their characteristics (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino., 2008)

A supportive learning environment

  • Psychological safety: To learn, employees cannot fear being belittled or marginalised when they disagree with peers or authority figures; ask naive questions, own up to mistakes, or present a minority viewpoint. Instead, they must feel comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand.
  • Appreciation of differences: Learning occurs when people become aware of opposing ideas. Recognising the value of competing functional outlooks and alternative worldviews increases energy and motivation, sparks fresh thinking, and prevents fatigue and drift.
  • Openness to new ideas: Learning is not simply about correcting mistakes and solving problems. It is also about creating novel approaches. Employees should be encouraged to take risks and explore the untested and unknown.
  • Time for reflection: Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause in the action and encourage thoughtful review of the organisation’s processes.

Concrete learning processes and practices

  • Learning processes involve the generation, collection, interpretation, and dissemination of information. They include experimentation to develop and test new products and services; intelligence gathering to keep track of competitive, customer, and technological trends; disciplined analysis and interpretation to identify and solve problems; and education and training to develop both new and established employees.
  • To conduct systematic problem solving scientific methods, rather than guess work, should be used for diagnosing problems, for example this can be achieved by utilising the ‘Plan, Do, Study, Act’ cycle. Data, rather than assumptions, should be the background for decision making and simple statistical tools should be used to organise data and draw inferences.
  • For maximum impact, knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways. Sharing can take place among individuals, groups, or whole organisations. Knowledge can move laterally or vertically within an organisation.
  • Knowledge sharing can be internally or externally focused, for example:
    • Right after a project is completed, the process might call for post-audits or reviews that are then shared with others engaged in similar tasks.
    • Regularly scheduled forums with subject-matter experts can help to gain different perspectives on the organisation’s activities or challenges.

Leadership behaviour that provides reinforcement

  • When leaders actively question and listen to employees—and thereby prompt dialogue and debate—people in the institution feel encouraged to learn. If leaders signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflective post-audits, these activities are likely to flourish. When people in power demonstrate through their own behaviour a willingness to entertain alternative points of view, employees feel encouraged to offer new ideas and options.

Key characteristics of learning organisations (Kerka., 1995)

  • Provide continuous learning opportunities.
  • Use learning to reach their goals.
  • Link individual performance with organisational performance.
  • Foster inquiry and dialogue, making it safe for people to share openly and take risks.
  • Embrace creative tensions as a source of energy and renewal.
  • Are continuously aware of and interact with their environment.

 

Key factors to consider when creating a learning organisation (Senge., 2006)

  • The basic rationale for such organisations is that in situations of rapid change only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to happen, it is argued, organisations need to ‘discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels’.
  • It is not possible to transform a bureaucratic organisation by learning alone. However, by referring to the notion of the learning organisation it is possible to make change less threatening and more acceptable to participants.
  • To transform an organisation it is necessary to attend to structures and the organisation of work as well as the culture and processes (Finger & Brand., 1999).
  • Building a shared vision is crucial early on as it ‘fosters a long-term orientation and an imperative for learning’.
  • It is important to define indicators of learning, both individual and collective, and connect them to other indicators.
  • The whole organisation must be considered rather than its parts and it must be recognised that organisation is a dynamic process.

 

Tips for managers seeking to cultivate learning organisations (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino., 2008)

  • Leadership alone is insufficient: In addition to learning-oriented leadership behaviours it is important to install formal learning processes and to cultivate a supportive learning environment.
  • Organisations are not uniform: Managers must be sensitive to differences among departmental processes and behaviours as they strive to build learning organisations. Groups may vary in their focus or learning maturity. Managers need to be especially sensitive to local cultures of learning, which can vary widely across units.
  • Learning is multidimensional: Efforts to improve learning should focus on more than one area. The building blocks of a learning organisation (environment, processes and leadership behaviours) are in themselves multidimensional. Managers need to be thoughtful when selecting the levers for change and should think broadly about the available options.

 

Example:

To change a culture of blame and silence about errors at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, COO Julie Morath instituted a new policy of “blameless reporting” that encouraged replacing threatening terms such as “errors” and “investigations” with less emotionally laden terms such as “accidents” and “analysis.” For Morath, the culture of hospitals must be “one of everyone working together to understand safety, identify risks, and report them without fear of blame.” The result was that people started to collaborate throughout the organisation to talk about and change behaviours, policies, and systems that put patients at risk. Over time, these learning activities yielded measurable reductions in preventable deaths and illnesses at the institution.

 

Outcomes of a learning organisation

  • Employees who are skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge.
  • An environment that cultivates tolerance fosters open discussion and thinking holistically and systemically.
  • Has the ability to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than competitors.

 

Capturing learning

  • Knowledge sharing across communities of an organisation can contribute to organisational learning and innovation (Wang & Noe., 2010).
  • It is important to efficiently record, store, and track learning in order to organise, filter, reflect, and analyse experiences.
  • If the outcome of an activity (meeting, project, etc.) has been surprisingly positive or negative, it is worthy to capture in some capacity to minimise repeating negative outcomes and increase repetitive success (NHS Improving Quality., 2015).
  • It’s best to capture learning while it’s still fresh in your mind. It would be useful to log the positive or negative experience, how it may have arisen, the impact or consequence and what immediate action you took.
  • Learning can be shared with the wider team and explored during meetings.

 

Sharing and growing

  • It is beneficial to meet together as a team and hold workshops in order to apply learning (Collison & Parcell., 2004).
  • Experiences and workshop outcomes may be turned into written documents which can be shared among team members.

 

References:

Collison, C., & Parcell, G. (2007). LEARNING TO FLY: PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT FROM LEADING AND LEARNING ORGANIZATIONS (With CD). John Wiley & Sons.

Finger, M. and Brand, S. B. (1999). ‘The concept of the “learning organization” applied to the transformation of the public sector’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C., & Gino, F. (2008). Is yours a learning organization?. Harvard business review, 86(3), 109.

Kerka, S. (1995). ‘The learning organization: myths and realities’ Eric Clearinghouse, http://www.cete.org/acve/docgen.asp?tbl=archive&ID=A028.

NHS Improving Quality (2015). Learning Handbook: NHS Improving Quality.

Wang, S., & Noe, R. A. (2010). Knowledge sharing: A review and directions for future research. Human Resource Management Review, 20(2), 115-131.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Broadway Business.