Prerequisites, Characteristics and Strategies of the Learning Organisation. Part III

Committed leadership and stewardship

How does an organisation go about constructing and shaping itself into a learning organisation? It is clear that a fundamental prerequisite involves the head of the organisation, that is to say the steering component, both looking inwards (culture and mission etc) and looking outwards (observation and knowledge gathering). Most experts agree that commitment, direction and reinforcement must come from the leadership of the organisation.

Marquardt, in Building the Learning Organisation was unequivocal about the critical, initiating role of leadership: “The first step is for leadership to commit themselves to transforming the company into a learning organization”

According to Garvin, Edmondson and Gino, writing for the Harvard Business Review in 2008, there are three key “building blocks” to put in place, each of which comprises sub-components:1

  1. “a supportive learning environment;
  2. concrete learning processes and practices;
  3. leadership behavior that provides reinforcement.”

These three building blocks can be easily mapped to the three defining organs of the organisational bildung model presented above, as follows:

  • “a supportive learning environment” implies lived values, i.e. the heart;
  • “concrete learning processes and practices” implies the touchpoints and the practices, i.e. the hand;
  • “leadership behaviour that provides reinforcement”, i.e. the head

We can see some similarity (e.g. point 3 above and points 2 & 5 below regarding leadership) with the conclusions from a study of learning organisations by Human Dynamics, which identified five core prerequisites2 for the learning organisation:

  1. An increase in vision and communication of the vision to align individual and organisation.
  2. Active support and commitment from the top with bottom-up strategy implementation.
  3. Working on change quickly at all organisational levels.
  4. Ensuring that organisational systems support the desired changes, e.g. reward strategies.
  5. Leadership reinforcement of new behaviours through modelling.

Embedding Trust

Of course, frequently the success of organisations is defined by how swiftly and efficiently they can adapt and respond to changing contexts or new opportunities. At such times, the process of practice-reflection-adaptation will need to be accelerated with minimal opportunity for reflection. In the learning organisation, this is a test of how effectively the values are embedded and lived, how effectively is the organisational heart pumping the lifeblood of learning culture throughout the organisational body. It is a test of the extent to which the workforce has experienced a supportive and empowering learning environment to date, and to what extent learning is integrated into structures and processes and is genuinely transformative.

If these values have been lived and experienced, and borne fruit as a reality, trust is embedded and therefore workers are willing and able to respond swiftly to new opportunities or requirements without necessarily having all the information. Building and maintaining trust is a constant and multi-faceted endeavour within a healthy organisation. This article is not focussed on how to build trust within organisations but suffice to say that effective processes to this end include a range and variety of opportunities to contribute to organisational development and decision-making and external impact, consultation checkpoints and projects, and activities to cross-pollinate skills and competencies, including those that subvert traditional hierarchical structures, such as reverse mentoring. The role of leadership and management is obviously critical in facilitating this open and inclusive culture and the processes that reinforce it. Without a robust level of trust embedded within the fabric of the organisation, and demonstrated as a lived value by the leadership, operating as a genuine learning organisation is practically impossible.


In his reappraisal of what makes a learning organisation, Dr Craig Johnson3, a Senior Lecturer at Bradford University School of Management, also emphasises leadership and strategy implementation as key principles that drive the process of creating the learning organisation. Putting the learning organisation into practice, Johnson reminds us, is not realistic without creating the virtuous circle of leadership that drives the learning, which in turn drives the strategy, which in turn drives the change. Transforming an existing organisation into a true learning organisation is therefore inevitably a process of change, so a degree of change-readiness is a key prerequisite for becoming a learning organisation.

Systemic thinking

This kind of strategic approach, embedding change-readiness and learning as operating principles, calls for certain skills and competencies in staff, especially leadership and management, which are not usually widely available. Foremost among these is systemic thinking, which Senge and other theorists have also alluded to, albeit as systems thinking, i.e. the discipline and capability of perceiving and understanding patterns and how the different elements of a system make a whole; how the different components within a system are inter-related, and indeed inter-dependent. Systemic thinking, depending on one’s interpretation, involves applying systems thinking, analysis and synthesis to fully understand the context, solve problems and develop strategies.

Systemic thinking is a core competence in the learning organisation, it is essential in the ability to envisage the big picture when defining and refining vision and mission, the ability to have a holistic view while understanding the details of cause and effect, and the ability to encourage, develop and reward individual behaviours, fully understanding the link between them and organisational practices, where appropriate.  Where systems thinking (as opposed to systemic thinking) is put into practice, it is vital that it leaves room for diversity both of people and of approach, otherwise it can have a homogenising and suffocating effect, and minimise the opportunities for learning that it can, when judiciously applied, cross-pollinate.

Learning Culture and Practice

Another important prerequisite for a learning organisation, implied but not explicit in these models and more evident in Senge’s and Pedlar’s theories, is that of the practice and space for reflection.

A key element of learning is reflection, and therefore a key component of the learning organisation, as Carbone implies in his definition above, is the provision of temporal and physical space for reflection.  In Harold Jarche’s estimation, practice and reflection are 70% of what it takes to “build a knowledge-sharing network and develop a sense-making discipline” as we adapt to what Jarche terms “the perpetual beta4, i.e. “dealing with constant change while getting things done”.

The learning organisation must therefore provide a “hands-on” environment which enables and embeds in a tangible way the process of practice-reflection-adaptation both at the individual level and the organisational level. In this environment, the two levels should be meaningfully integrated in a continuous and energising process of mutual enrichment, resulting in more adaptable and stimulated staff and a more agile and change-ready organisation.

The conscious implementation of the practice-reflection-adaptation method (involving real and often measurable change) is a basic indicator of effective learning practice both for individuals and organisations. The learning organisation will have embedded the practice-reflection-adaptation method in its systems and processes, as a   strategic approach, and as a key feature of its learning culture. A key enabler of this method is the establishment and empowerment of communities of practice both within the organisation, and across the organisational boundaries; such communities of practices are typically a feature of the mature learning organisation.

Clearly, there are a wide range of learning types, methods, tools and techniques which the organisation can deploy to put this learning culture into practice. The next section, “Characteristics if the learning organisation”, touches on some of these.


How well does your organisation know itself? Have you identified learning behaviours at an organisational level, or behaviours which limit knowledge, learning and development? Self-knowledge is a fundamental pre-requisite for the learning organisation. Its origins lie in the mission and values and the extent to which these are encouraged (the head) and lived (the heart). But a continuous process of self-examination and adaptation is necessary, in response to external changes as well as internal developments; for example, an increasingly diverse workforce should be reflected in leadership, in strategy and in product/service delivery.

As Mary Midgley (Science and Poetry, 2006) points out, a lack of self-knowledge can be both a moral and a practical fault because it blocks our understanding of other people. An organisation’s understanding of other people, whether its customers, partners or competitors, is critical for its survival and success. The self-knowledge prerequisite calls for internal understanding of all the different roles and individuals, which in turn enables internal capabilities to be matched with and adapted to external needs, whilst constantly adapting to the changing context.

The Bird of Self-Knowledge, 18th century Tyrolean folk art
The Bird of Self-Knowledge, 18th century Tyrolean folk art

Power dynamics and learner agency

One aspect of self-knowledge is particularly vital if leadership is to embed a genuine culture of learning, and “lived values”: recognition of power and its effect on learning and development. Power dynamics exist in virtually all organisations, and it could be argued that they are simply a facet of human nature. However, what prevents power dynamics from undermining learning and development is due recognition of where the former lie and how they are manifest, as well as the committed application of checks and balances to mitigate the effects.

Left unchecked and not balanced, power dynamics can institutionalise negative learned behaviour. For example, if a Board of Directors repeatedly rewards its members at levels of remuneration which increasingly multiply the difference between them and other workers, and with minimum transparency, this is a behaviour which others in the organisation are likely to emulate, albeit in less impactful ways. It is a behaviour therefore which will inevitably result in reduction of both learning opportunities and effective collaboration, since energies are focussed on self-aggrandisement and culture is too closed to allow a shared process of practice-reflection-adaptation. It is not the difference itself in remuneration that is necessarily the problem so much the increasing nature of the difference, the additional weighting of advantages and benefits which exacerbate this, and the absence of checks and counter-balances.

Image courtesy of @bryanMMathers
Image courtesy of @bryanMMathers

Raymond Caldwell, in his article: Leadership and Learning: A Critical Re-examination of Senge’s Learning (2011, online version)5 makes a strong case for the argument that power has been neglected in the learning organisation debate, starting with Senge. Essentially, Caldwell suggests, many organisations fail to be effective learning organisations because they do not practice distributed leadership, or sufficiently take account of power and agency. In an organisation where many people do not have the power to act, learning is inevitably suppressed, and the growth mindset is stunted.

Sometimes, knowledge and information passed down through the hierarchy of an organisation is confused with learning. “Know-how” is often referred to in knowledge transfer discussions between organisations, but know-how does not become learning until it is transformed into “know how and why and in what context to apply the know-how”. In other words, the transfer or acquisition of information or knowledge does not constitute learning until the information is actively contextualised by the learner, within their own milieu. As Caldwell emphasises, learner agency is key: knowledge is by necessity mediated through personal experience and action, to become learning. This mediation process is a critical prerequisite of the learning organisation both at individual and organisational level.

The theory is corroborated by Muller who notes that If the power of re-description is magnified by structure and domination, re-description not only humiliates but can also silence” 6.Therefore, the transference of knowledge involves the risk of alienation, rather than empowering learning. For Foucault too, knowledge and power are entwined: “mechanisms of power produce different types of knowledge which collate information on people’s activities and existence. The knowledge gathered in this way further reinforces exercises of power.7

Bildung, and therefore our organisational bildung model, requires learner agency and responsibility, consciously involving the hand, the heart and the mind – in self-knowledge and self-cultivation within, and in recognition of, the wider context. A mature learning organisation fully recognises and empowers learner agency.

Characteristics of the Learning Organisation

In the maturation of a learning organisation, many of the prerequisites become its defining characteristics. Committed leadership and stewardship, trust, change-readiness, systemic thinking, learning culture and practice, self-knowledge and learner agency are all features of a successful learning organisation. What other defining characteristics does the learning organisation demonstrate, as it matures?

Workforce empowerment

According to the Institute of Management Services8, chief among the prominent characteristics by which we can recognise a learning organisation, is staff empowerment and development in a relatively non-hierarchical structure:

  • “…will not feature a highly formalised command and control structure which is used as the dominant managerial device.
  • ….is less likely to view the workforce as a collection of passive, hired hands and less likely to believe that technology will solve future organisational problems.
  • …..places value on the concept of “key professionals” and rewards professional development alongside hierarchical development”.

Here, it is the heart of the organisational bildung model which is the most indicative of a mature learning organisation, which according to the CIPD, strives to provide a “holistic people experience” and “continuous engagement” of all key stakeholders, including staff.

Marquardt also places a great deal of emphasis on staff empowerment as a key enabler of the learning organisation; he recommends changing the lexicon used for roles and activities within the organisation to this end. For example, managers and leaders should move from “controlling to empowering”, from being “commanders to stewards”, and should practice dialogue rather than hand down instructions.

Based on the Towards Maturity Benchmark review with over 5500 organisations over 13 years, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK has identified six key characteristics of the “new learning organisation” in 20179.

The Institute of Management Services has also identified empowerment of the workforce to enable employees to contribute constructively and willingly to their own development as a key characteristic of the learning organisation:

“employees are likely to have some significant degree of self-determination of their own development rather than simply having the training imposed on them from above in this way”.

“The learning they undertake develops not only their direct technical and work-related skills but their social, organisational and communication skills. They learn, both directly and indirectly through the nature of the culture of the organisation, to take responsibility for their work and for themselves”.10

Here we are reminded of the importance of space for workers to invest in their self-development; cultural space in the sense of encouragement from leadership and management, and practical space in terms of eking out at least a small amount of time, resources and “headspace” which permits the learner to reflect and to be the architect of their own professional development, supported by the organisation.

Self-cultivation and learning agency

In such a scenario, the principles of bildung loom large: learner agency, self-cultivation and self-knowledge. Organisational bildung begins to be possible where the organisation puts in place policies and enablers for this kind of self-cultivation and embeds the enablers not only in the performance management process but also in operational practice, such as in running projects and other work activities. Essentially, this amounts to enabling the dexterity of the hand by engaging the values and needs of the heart. This does not imply passivity on the part of the organisational leadership, but rather an active and constant process of change management – managing “the perpetual beta” to quote Jarche – within the framework of the agreed, and constantly refined, strategic objectives.

Thus, a degree of employee autonomy, based on the prerequisite of trust and appreciation, is another key characteristic for the learning organisation. The learning organisation simply cannot come to fruition without the active investment in self-development in the context of co-learning, typically in self-managed work teams, such as communities of practice. In this way, the principle of bildung is fundamental to the whole issue of the learning organisation; self-cultivation is at its core, both individually and organisationally.

Learning strategies and structures

Top skills for 2030: Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, NESTA and Pearson study 2017
Top skills for 2030: Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, NESTA and Pearson study 2017

But what of the actual practice of learning itself? The learning organisation must become not only an expert and a change agent in its own domain, with the methods and means to continually refresh, store, refine and apply knowledge and to develop, adapt and refine skills and behaviours. It must also be an expert in the science and art of learning itself.  There are innumerable ways to learn; which of the better-known methods should become standard practice in the learning organisation?

Marquardt identifies four means by which the organisation learns:

  • adaptive learning (learning through the practice-reflection-adaptation model),
  • anticipatory learning (learning from the future and forecasting),
  • deutero learning (critically examining own assumptions) and
  • active learning (learning by actively addressing and solving a problem together in a group).

We have already argued that adaptive learning needs to be embedded as a method with enabling and formalising procedures; a modus operandi in the organisation’s systems and processes. We have also dealt with deutero learning to some extent in the section above on self-knowledge and learner agency. Critical examination of an organisation’s own processes, activities and actions is another key component of the mature learning organisation’s framework. Such critique should be much more than a stated ideal with a few examples; it needs to be formalised practice with clear and regular opportunities for staff at all levels and stakeholders to critically and interactively assess a given approach or action or proposal, both before and after the event. There are many techniques that can help this critique to be managed as a creative and constructive activity, as well as an opportunity for development; Edward de Bono’s Six Hats process is just one example of these.

Anticipatory learning is more vital than ever in the context of accelerated change and transformation through advanced technology and globalisation. Forecasting and modelling based on predictive analysis and business intelligence is increasingly standard practice in the era of big data, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Technology provides enormous opportunities for advancement in anticipatory learning through simulation models, machine learning and complex data analysis. There are risks, however, in that all such models and analysis are dependent on the quality and balance of the information inputted into the computing system or experience to which the system is exposed in its learning model. Creative tools such as scenario planning workshops, harnessing experience-based considerations, real roles, persona examples and logically-developed context-building are very useful in supplementing the algorithm-driven data. Such workshops have the added advantage of engaging different staff and stakeholders in the process of analysis and scenario-building, a rich learning opportunity in itself; effectively pumping learning culture around the organisation and applying it in decision-points or pressure points.

Communities of Practice

As far as active learning is concerned, let’s first consider communities of practice (CoPs). CoPs are groups comprising professionals united by a shared competence, and by the desire to improve their skills and exchange good practice. As such, these groups are a powerful structure for cascading and enriching learning within the organisation.

Lave and Wenger established the notion of communities of practice, highlighting the learning benefits of active participation at the peer level in an enriched and shared learning context. In this context, the power issue referred to above is no longer a potential barrier to learning, and the process enables a more reciprocal dynamic, and one in which there is the opportunity to develop and consider alternative models to the orthodoxy, within the relatively protected sphere of the group.

Clearly, communities of practice must be fully integrated into the organisation and must be permeable structures, imbued with the organisational values, but with the opportunity to develop leading practices and innovation in specific areas. If not integrated effectively, and if the relationship of interdependence between the groups and the organisation is not respected, then conflict soon results, and empire-building behaviours can take root, which is obviously counter-productive to the learning organisation. There are therefore some increasingly widely recognised “recipes for success” for the establishment, management and interaction of communities of practice, especially for online communities. These include the integration of members from outside the organisation into the community to enable access to external knowledge, extend the organisation’s expertise profile and build networks.

Collaborative problem-based learning

Another form of active learning, also known as action learning, is problem-based learning. Typically, this involves facilitating a group of people with complementary skills and knowledge to work together to solve a given problem. As with communities of practice, it is particularly effective to include one or two people external to the organisation in the group activity, for valuable external or alternative perspectives and to bring in external knowledge.

The focus is on deriving solutions to the problem, rather than on any one of the different perspectives involved; this practice is by nature collaborative. Besides being an effective way to progress the aims and objectives of the organisation, this can be a tremendously powerful learning strategy, since different types and styles of learning are applied and inevitably cross-pollinated in the process of exploring and defining solutions to the problem. New learning both for individuals and for the organisation is the fruit of a well-managed problem-based learning activity. This learning capital can then be reinvested in the organisation more widely or adapted to other challenges, resulting in a virtuous cycle of value creation for the learning organisation.

Imagine if such problem-based learning activities were applied in reverse to a failed initiative, i.e. the lessons learnt from the process of collaborative application of complementary skillsets and perspectives were applied.
In this way, considerable value can be derived from failure, ultimately validating the original investment, provided that the lessons learnt are applied and practices are accordingly adapted. The same process can be creatively applied to risk management and in dealing with difficult challenges.

Cross-cultural exchange

Collaborative problem-based learning can harness the diversity within an organisation and by so doing, creative and innovative solutions may emerge which would never have done so in an executive board meeting, for example. Ensuring cross-cultural links and exchanges is another characteristic of the learning organisation; a mature learning organisation realises that there are powerful opportunities for improvement and development in such exchanges.

Such links might include an exchange scheme with an organisation in another region or country to shadowing of roles by visiting learners or experts. In the past, such activities would have been excluded on such grounds as competition and trade secrecy. In the spirit of open innovation, mature and adaptive learning organisations realise that their business does not crumble when knowledge is shared or ways of working are exposed –  as long as those ways of working are sustainable in the first place – but instead is enriched.

Online learning

Where does online learning fit into these learning strategies and structures? Online learning is simply a mode of learning delivery, to which all of the above learning approaches can be applied in various ways. A curious paradox of online engagement is that it can be at once alienating and intimate, i.e. both a process in which one is acutely aware of distance and non-presence, and a process of closeness and intimacy with the object of online engagement. Our computers are becoming extensions of ourselves, and bio-technology is pushing the boundaries. Effective mediation of the online engagement is therefore essential. Such mediation allows the learner to engage in the object by a variety of means, in a style that suits them, or includes effective methods of stimulation, recognition and reward, such as contests and/or open badges for demonstrable levels of competence and achievement.

Image courtesy of @bryanMMathers and Carla Casilli

Online learning tools and content therefore need to be thoughtfully conceived, with rigorous service design and user experience testing, since the online medium, as a relatively new form information dissemination, is vulnerable to manipulation, misinterpretation and individualistic appropriation. When these pitfalls are successfully negotiated, as effective and digitally mature learning organisations are demonstrating, online learning provides rich new opportunities for developing a range of benefits.

These include empowering learner agency, experiential learning through simulations, parallel or co-designed learning opportunities with people or organisations located elsewhere and cost-effective interaction with content. Such organisations realise that the online medium requires at least supplementing, in a blended approach with face-to-face engagement, where a deeper consensus can sometimes be reached, and behavioural adaptation, for example where soft skills are concerned, can be coached. However, I would suggest that we are merely at the beginning of the journey in exploring and developing the rich possibilities of online learning; online we will be able to develop, combine and apply competencies which in the past would not have been even accessible due to cost or lack of opportunity. The benefits could be substantial, and we could collaboratively address some intractable problems, as long as we apply some of the key characteristics of the learning organisation: a commitment to empowering learner agency, self-cultivation and adaptation, having applied the learning. In doing so, we would do well to remember to engage the head, the heart and the hand in the learning process, both as individuals and as organisations.

6Muller, J. (2012). Reclaiming knowledge: Social theory, curriculum and education policy
7O’Farrell, 2007,

written by: Skilla Team , 17 December 2018

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