How to Survive in a Changing World: The Learning Organization

In today’s ever-changing (digital) world, organizations have no choice but to keep up the pace. Easier said than done. Because making the machine that is your organization move in the right direction is no small feat. It requires flexibility, adaptability and the skills needed to be continuously learning .

Say hello to the learning organization. If you’re not there now, you need to get there quick. Let’s delve into the concept a little deeper.


What Is the Learning Organization?

For an answer to this question, we look to the man who literally wrote the book on organizational learning, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge. He is also the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning and describes the learning organization as follows:

“A Learning Organization is the business term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.”

In other words: a learning organization is one that creates a fertile environment in which individuals can learn, develop and renew themselves to the benefit of the organization.


How Do You Become a Learning Organization?

The answer to this question is complex and limited by the restraints of this blog. But we can look at what Peter Senge and his colleagues have identified as the 5 disciplines that are related to a learning culture:

Systems thinking
Recognize the organization as a system comprised of smaller parts. In doing so, you are able to more easily identify your place within the system, enabling a deeper understanding of the interdependence and relationships within the systems. This also helps to identify the exact parts that need to be moved in order to maximize adaptability.

Shared vision
Articulate a shared vision and collective commitment. In doing so, you create a climate of shared sense of purpose that individuals can strive to achieve.

Team learning
Foster the capacity to learn and develop intelligence as a team. Through this, you develop collective intelligence within a team as well as the ability to complement each other’s roles, leading to a team that is greater than just the sum of its parts.

Mental models
Challenge accepted constructs. By cultivating an environment where individuals are emboldened to think outside the box and be critical thinkers, you are pursuing innovation.

Personal mastery
Allowing individuals to master their skills. You can only benefit, as an organization, by individuals who seek to personally continue learning and better themselves. Create an environment where this is encouraged and rewarded.



So, that sounds easy as pie, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, I know it doesn’t. Trying to transform your organization comes with challenges at every turn. Here are just some you may have to deal with:

An aversion to change
Assumptions on what the best ways of doing things are, stands in the way of learning new methods. Especially those who have been at their jobs a long time find it difficult to accept change.

Lack of leadership
From the top to the bottom, all those who are chosen to lead must know how to inspire change. It’s not enough to just have the top brass know where you’re heading. Real change starts at the bottom.

Short term focus
To become a learning organization takes time, effort and – yes – money. A short-term focus will mostly lead to there not being enough of any of these factors to elicit structural change. Whereas a long-term focus helps you keep your eyes on the prize: an organization that can withstand the sands of time.

So how do we meet these challenges? There is a plethora of aspects related to the answer to this question. Let’s at least take a look at one of the important ones.


Motivation Is Key

From an organizational perspective, the art of motivation is critical: how do you motivate people on all levels to master their trade?

RSA has an interesting animation on the subject of motivation. In short: it turns out that the old school idea of motivating people by rewarding good behavior and punishing them to deter unwanted behavior, doesn’t hold up.

As soon as you get above rudimentary cognitive skill level, the old system of motivation fails. Other aspects become more important, such as:

We want to direct our own lives. As organizations, we want engagement from our people and self-direction is how we get it.

As people, we have the urge to get better at doing things: playing the guitar for instance. We like it, it feels rewarding. As organizations, we need to make space for this.

In today’s workplace, workers want to feel like they’re doing something good. They are emboldened when they feel like they are part of making the world a better place in one way or another.

So, What Do You Stand to Gain?

Becoming a learning organization is not just for fun (though it does make for an inspiring workplace), it has some serious business upsides including:

·       Efficiency gain
·       Increased productivity and profit
·       Easier to acquire the most talented people
·       Increased ability to adapt to change

When an organization makes learning and sharing knowledge a critical goal, the organization is more flexible, adaptable, faster and generally better on all levels.


How about you?

So, what is the status in your organization? Are you on your way to becoming a learning organization? What are the challenges you have run into on your way there?

We would love to hear from you.