What is exactly is a “learning organisation”? How do organisations go about creating and embedding the strategic and operational enablers to become a learning organisation? It is a much-debated term, but one that is notoriously hard to pin down. This article considers what the term might mean in principle and in practice, considering both the externally and internally focussed aspects.
The article briefly explores the incentives and disincentives to strive to be a learning organisation and, drawing on key research in the field, highlights some prerequisites for becoming a learning organisation, and the key characteristics by which we can recognise a learning organisation. The article also proposes a set of open learning principles for the learning organisation of the 21st century to aspire to.
Let me introduce the concept of organisational bildung, that is: learning that systemically involves the head, the heart and the hand of the organisation. Technically the German term bildung can be translated as “education”, however the term encapsulates a specific, culturally resonant tradition in Germany, and is often used as an organising principle.
Bildung is the process of deliberate self-cultivation in which the individual takes responsibility for the self-development of personal, cultural and ethical qualities and capabilities, in turn benefiting the wider social good. Bildung is actively cultivating what is currently termed as a “growth mindset”. Bildung requires learner agency and responsibility, self-knowledge and reflection and a commitment to personal development, consciously involving the hand, the heart and the mind – i.e. the whole person – in self-cultivation within the wider context.
I suggest that the concept of organisational bildung can help us understand how to put the learning organisation into practice. We can deploy bildung as an organisational principle. The model below develops this concept into a tripartite framework, comprising three domains, or organs: head, heart, hand, with six component dimensions (two in each of the three domains) which are the internal and external enablers through which the learning organisation can be mediated.
In this model, the organisation is committed to cultivating its learning capability collectively, in all organisational domains, dimensions and touchpoints, then reflecting and applying the lessons learnt. The organisation has embedded this active cultivation of learning and adaptation amongst its defining corporate values, with associated strategic levers and operational activities, and in so doing ensures its own responsible integration into broader society. This article will expand on the concept and dimensions of organisational bildung in later sections. Future articles will explore ideas and maturity models for the learning organisation.
The term “learning organisation” reached the mainstream with Peter Senge’s book: “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” (1990). Much has changed since then, yet Senge’s model of four interrelated disciplines: personal mastery, mental models, team learning and shared vision, unified in a fifth: systems thinking remains a powerful and persuasive conceptual model. Huber (1991) created an alternative perspective by putting the emphasis on information sharing and organisational memory, while Marquart (1996) highlighted knowledge management, technology utilisation and the empowerment of people as fundamental enablers.
Much of the debate however has centred on how difficult it is to put “the learning organisation” into practice. There are many forces counter to this aspiration within organisations, which do not necessarily only depend on the organisation itself. If, for example, the organisation is part of, and governed by, a wider system in terms of funding and regulations, finding both the resources and the levers, not to mention the agility to be a learning organisation, can be a considerable challenge. Examples are universities in some countries, or public organisations, though fortunately there are different ways of developing the learning organisation, depending on the context; one organisation’s constraint may be an enabling factor for another A subsequent part of the article explores the constraints and incentives for being a learning organisation, but first let’s consider some definitions of “the learning organisation”.
Defining the learning organisation is notoriously difficult and is probably less useful than actually exploring what makes an organisation a learning organisation, i.e. identifying the defining characteristics, as we shall see below. For Olivier Carbone, being a learning organisation means actively encouraging employees to observe together how they operate, and to reflect together on potential improvements: “c’est inviter les employés à observer ensemble leur propre fonctionnement et à réfléchir aux améliorations possible”.1
Carbone states that a learning organisation is in a state of “permanent apprenticeship” 2. This seems a healthy way for organisations to view themselves, in order to ensure they remain sustainable. However, arguably, the key step that makes the difference is that of actually putting into action real changes in response to the learning, at an organisational level rather than just in single departments, individuals and teams.
Thus, writers in the Harvard Business Review emphasised the importance of the learning organisation “modifying its behaviour”:
“A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights”3
This brings into perspective the vital role the learning organisation has of observing its own internal practices, observing external developments, especially those that are knowledge-related, and then benchmarking itself against external good practices. As part of this process, the agile organisation needs to be ready to innovate and find access to new knowledge. So, an externally focussed eye, a kind of observatory function, is a key practice for the learning organisation.
A knowledge-centric definition of the learning organisation is also offered by the Business Dictionary:
an “organization that acquires knowledge and innovates fast enough to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing environment”.
However, these definitions, especially the latter, make no reference to people and employee development, reflecting a perspective that favours the external dimension of the learning organisation, such as competitive performance, knowledge acquisition and growth in the marketplace.
Beyond the core business of continually learning and adapting to be a knowledge-to-revenue factory, the learning organisation has an equally important internal dimension, which is perhaps more challenging but ultimately the foundation for sustaining success in the external facing role. This internal dimension of the learning organisation essentially involves living the defined learning values through people, leadership and practice.
In this regard, Sharon Varney4, citing the groundbreaking work of Pedlar, Burgoyne and Boydell’s “The Learning Company”, as well as that of Senge, offers one of the most persuasive and concise definitions of the learning organisation for People Alchemy5:
“A learning organisation is one that is able to continuously transform itself through the connected learning of its people.”1