The Learning Organisation: Constraints
Constraints (perceived or otherwise) on the desire or effort to shape an organisation into a learning organisation are not limited to the more regulated public or charity sectors. Some organisations have not developed the culture and practices to be learning organisations simply because they have found market success without having to do so. For example, they provide a product or service for which there is such a demand that they feel they don’t need to examine or change their processes internally (some social media and data mining companies have come to the fore in this regard recently).
Alternatively, an organisation may remain very rigid and hierarchical, viewing staff learning and development as a drain on budget and productivity. Of course, such approaches are destined not to be sustainable, no matter how much short-term market success is achieved, since people will not enjoy working for such organisations and they will gradually build up, internally with employees then externally via partners and customers, a culture of opposition.
The customer experience has been transformed by digital technology, and ICT in general, across all sectors and this has been a key driver in the reinvention of the increasingly dominant service sector. In sectors such as financial, manufacturing and education, digital competencies and tools have revolutionised the customer journey and the supply chain. The service aspect of any organisation’s offer or product has become paramount, and the customer experience, which often requires transforming a complex chain into a simple interface, can make or break an organisation. Therefore, the touchpoints within the customer journey need to be regularly examined and adjusted to ensure optimum functionality. The learning organisation puts serious resources into managing and adapting these touchpoints where necessary.
So, there is one principle of the learning organisation that we can establish straight away: the ability to adapt the organisation and its practices to changing markets and society. While the many high-profile companies to have gone bust or totally reinvented themselves in recent years – obvious examples include Woolworths, Enron, Borders, Worldcom and Kodak – did so for a wide range of reasons, what they all had in common was the inability to adapt sufficiently to change, albeit momentous changes like globalisation and online business. There are also ethical dimensions to the learning organisation in that if the learning is only reaching and being applied by those within the organisation who have no power, and those who make the decisions are not learning or changing their practices, then there is an abrogation of responsibility and the organisation becomes smoke and mirrors.
The Learning Organisation: Incentives
If these are some of the constraints, what are the incentives to be a learning organisation? Those of an exogenous nature include a vast range of recognition and reward schemes which highlight companies that are “The Best Companies to Work For” (Sunday Times) or those with the highest “Empathy Index” (Harvard Business Review) or indeed the “Best Companies in Learning and Development” (Learning Elite) or those that demonstrate all-round excellence in a given sector (Excellence Awards, Le Fonti). Perhaps closest to recognising our holy grail of the learning organisation is the Australian Learning Impact Awards2 , which reward both organisations and individuals. These awards bring out how well the internal touchpoints of the organisation work; how these high performing learning teams act as the hand of the learning organisation.
More significantly, market forces threatening the viability or sustainability of an organisation, the resulting pressure to make cuts or exploit cheap labour unethically, and the combined impact of globalisation and digital transformation are forcing organisations to adapt and learn continually. If they fail to respond effectively to these forces, the heart of the organisation suffers, in terms of its reputation, with the knock-on effects on the share price of a publicly listed organisation, or on the organisation’s client base.
There are also a series of more endogenous incentives to be a learning organisation which are widely accepted and diffused as good practice, but less easily directly translated into economic benefit. These include contented, more satisfied and loyal staff, a constructive and progressive organisational culture and climate, an enhanced reputation which in turn can drive sales, and reduced vulnerability to external and internal change. It takes strong, visionary and collaborative leadership to develop these benefits; to quote Harold Jarche3 it takes “connected leadership” in which “leadership is not taking it all”. Connected and committed leadership is, therefore, another core principle for the learning organisation, and is at the head of an organisational bildung framework.
While the organisational culture, climate and hence the internal employee experience are critical for the attractiveness and sustainability of an organisation, often these benefits do not directly translate into short-term economic gain. Indeed, it is true that for the most part, as both the Harvard Business Review4 and Peter Cook of Human Dynamics observe, the benefits are mainly long-term:
“The need for a long-term commitment may prevent all but the most far-sighted organisations from commencing the journey.”
However, in a globalised, digitally-enabled and fast-changing context, awareness of opportunity and risk is wider, choice is greater, and news or reputation travels faster than ever, so the employee experience has a much greater importance than it did in the past, which is one of the reasons why aspiring to be a learning organisation makes sense. A learning organisation, therefore, puts the value of a high-quality employee experience at the heart of its culture and is committed to living those values.
The Institute of Management Services provides a helpful and succinct description of how employee experience and employee development are at the heart of the learning organisation: “The learning organisation understands the capability and potential of all its employees and attempts to release that potential. It also understands that it must adapt and respond to change, and not resist it”