Ian Luxford questions whether organisations are really creating a learning culture. Is yours?
This article will consider the concept of the learning organisation as described by Peter Senge and others, and will ask the question: how much are organisations learning from their current situations that will be useful to them in better times?
For those facing major challenges, the well-established idea of being a learning organisation may be something which currently has to sit on the back burner. But some that have always kept this idea at the forefront may now be finding that it serves them well. It need not be about introducing initiatives and complexity; doing the learning in the right places and applying it in the right way can be relatively simple and highly effective.
Can organisations afford to learn (or not to?)
It seems that organisational learning doesn't happen in an identical way to individual learning, although we still have a lot to learn about the real mechanics of both. Can organisations answer the questions that people often get asked at job interviews: "What are the most valuable lessons you have learned, where did you learn them and how have they helped you?"
One thing I can never forget having been taught is about the use of the term 'SWOT analysis'. Some years ago I was working with David Shipley, then emeritus professor at University College Dublin and a pioneer academic in the field of marketing.
"The well-established idea of being a learning organisation may be something which currently has to sit on the back burner. It need not be about introducing initiatives and complexity; doing the learning in the right places can be and highly effective."
He taught me, as he had taught many others, not to use the term SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), but to get into the habit of thinking TOWS (Threats and Opportunities first, then Weaknesses and Strengths). This is sound thinking and widely applied in planning. It moves the external factors - over which you have no influence, to the start of your process, after which you consider the internal factors -over which you have some control - and how they can help you overcome the threats and capitalise on the opportunities.
In times when the factors we cannot influence can seem to be overwhelming, we may need to make our own luck, using whatever ingenuity we can find.
During the late 1990s, many business leaders were fearing the onset of a major recession, arguably one that did not materialise in the way that they were envisaging for another 10 years. The then CEO of a large financial services organisation told me that he was watching closely how people were preparing for it and whether they were applying the lessons of the recession in the early years of that decade.
We discussed the importance of making changes that were not only suitable as a coping strategy for the immediate term but also ones that would leave an organisation fitter to benefit when the upturn happened. This may seem like an obvious course of action but when change is being forced on you it can be a much trickier approach than just making tough decisions.
Being under pressure to change need not mean forgetting the principles that enabled you to make the right changes happen in more positive times.
As an example, it may be the reason that not all organisations going through the current recession are completely slashing their resources on learning and development. A while back, I was working with a large healthcare business that was undergoing a major reshaping in response to significant structural changes in its marketplace. In the critical last quarter of its financial year, it set about the challenge of knocking itself down and completely rebuilding itself – practically every role and absolutely every person was affected.
It sought to do this within a very tight timeframe, to minimise disruption and ensure that the achievement of financial targets was not impeded. This was asking a lot of its people, particularly line managers, who had to lead people through change (despite their own personal uncertainties) and to continue doing their day jobs while their current roles existed.
It worked, not least because the people in this organisation were true professionals but also because it applied a key piece of organisational learning by allowing its people to be part of the change solution and take ownership of those parts of it that they were able to influence.
What do learning organisations look like?
There is a lot of good work around on the concept of the learning organisation, perhaps the best known is Peter Senge's excellent book, 'The Fifth Discipline – the art and practice of the learning organization' (Random House, 2006).
The discipline of the title is systems thinking - the ability to look at the organisation, its activities and problems holistically and dynamically – understanding the total (not just local) impact of actions taken and being aware of how things are changing all the time.
"Perhaps it is about the way things are seen and done, more than it is about the actual things that are done."
It is one of five 'component technologies' (Senge 2006, page 6) that Senge saw coming together to help learning organisations innovate, the other four being:
- Building Shared Vision – everyone seeing the same picture of the future they seek to create
- Mental Models – deeply ingrained assumptions and views on how the world is and how people need to act within it
- Team Learning – the ability for groups of individuals to overcome normal barriers to learning together such as hierarchy and personal differences
- Personal Mastery – deliberate interventions that support individuals in discovering what their full potential is and in reaching it.
Systems thinking underpins all of the other four by showing the people in the organisation how they fit into a changing world.
This very powerful piece of analysis gives us some practical insights into what it looks like to be a learning organisation. Clearly there are some big cultural considerations and there are also many activities that can promote organisational learning. Perhaps most importantly, it is about the way things are seen and done, more than it is about the actual things that are done.
Incidentally, another really good work is 'The Learning Company, a strategy for sustainable development', (McGraw Hill 1997) by Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell, who provide some very practical tools for looking at organisational practice through the learning lens.
Ian Luxford is learning services director at Grass Roots. His qualifications include the BTEC Advanced Professional Diploma in Managing Organisational Learning and Development. You can contact him here