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Learning Organisations

The concept of The Learning Organisation is quite new and there is no commonly agreed definition of what one is. It is certainly an organisation that promotes learning amongst its employees - and also an organisation that itself learns from that learning. This, I know, sounds very vague - and unhelpful. It is more fruitful to try to understand the concept by looking at organisations that could be said to be learning organisations (whatever that means) and then seeing if there are common attributes or parameters which can guide us to a better understanding of the term.

If we look at certain organisations that are held up as exemplars for the training and development of their workforces, we can identify the key characteristics that seem to identify such an organisation.

These characteristics are that the organisation :

  • values individual and organisational learning as a prime means of delivering the organisational mission;
  • involves all its members through continuous reflection in a process of continual review and improvement;
  • structures work in such a way that work tasks are used as opportunities for continuous learning.

Looking at these characteristics, one can see that the concept of a learning organisation shares many of the attributes that could be said to characterise a 'quality' organisation. In fact a cynic might suggest that the learning organisation is a concept invented by human resource professionals to wrest some of the initiative for organisational improvement away from the disciples of TQM. However, since we are not cynics, it is perhaps worth investigating the concept a little further.

Changing an organisation into a learning organisation, as with implementing TQM, requires a culture change. It is unlikely to take place in a 'traditional', heavily-hierarchical organisation in which the line structure is seen as the only vehicle for communication and control.

In a learning organisation there is less likely to be a highly formalised and clearly evident command and control structure which is used as the dominant managerial device. Similarly, the organisation will not have the traditional view of the people it employs and the way in which it works. The organisation 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.

The learning organisation understands the capability and potential of all its

It also understands that it must be adaptive and responsive to (and not resistant to) change. The learning organisation places value on the concept of "key professionals" and rewards professional development alongside hierarchical development. (It is an oft quoted complaint that professionals have to leave their professional work to achieve promotion and reward - whether they like it or not, in most organisations to achieve advancement, they must become managers.) Designers, chemists, librarians or whatever are important for the function they carry out - they should be encouraged to perform that function well - and rewarded when they do, and that function contributes to organisational well-being.

Of course, many of us would suggest that our organisations are already learning organisations. We run a variety of training programmes for our staff. We have a staff development process - perhaps linked to an appraisal process and we offer our staff every opportunity to develop their skills. There is, however, a significant difference between a learning organisation and an organisation that simply pays attention to training - although the latter is important and is almost certainly part of every learning organisation.

In most organisation that have good training programmes, training is something given to employees by the organisation. It is the organisation (in the shape of the management and supervisory hierarchy) that determines and then fulfils training needs.

Within a learning organisation, on the other hand, 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. Employees within a learning organisation would be and would feel empowered - empowered to take responsibility for their own work area and/or work tasks and for their own career and personal development.

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.

Of course, we cannot turn an organisation into a learning organisation overnight. A learning organisation may well have different divisions/departments at different "maturity" stages. Neither can we turn an organisation into a learning organisation unless it wants to be transformed. This means that the very top levels of management must understand the nature of the change that must be made, and how to make it. It can be seen to be 'a good idea' in isolation. However, many organisations (or parts of organisations) become learning organisations not because they identify it as a strategy for organisational development; they do so as a result of a set of circumstances. Often this includes the existence of an external threat, although this is not regarded as a pre-requisite.

One common characteristic of Learning Organisations is the existence of a key individual who champions the move towards becoming (and remaining) a learning organisation. This key individual is likely to be near the top of the management structure but not necessarily at the very top. His/her pivotal role is in establishing ownership of the concept throughout the management team and in keeping enthusiasm going when the benefits have not yet accrued and some people are losing faith.

All learning organisation deal with individuals. Individuals are valued for what they are and for what they can contribute. However, the learning organisation goes further. It attempts to set individual learning in a framework that values all learning and attempts to learn additional lessons and add additional value to the individual learning that takes place.

The value of individual learning is maximised and multiplied by systems that allow the
organisation to learn from the process of learning and to collect that learning for the benefit of others.

One simple example might be to set up a database of skills - as individuals add to their own skill levels, the database is updated. This both raises their status within the system (and their own self-esteem) and also provides an organisational resource. Departments or divisions that need people with particular skills, either as permanent employees, or as part of a temporary project team, can identify from the database, current employees who might have the right blend of skills.

Summary

The learning organisation is another device used to represent a methodology for the management of change. It does, however, pay particular attention to valuing employees and to the implementation of structures and mechanisms which allow employees to recognise the value placed upon them and to contribute to the development of their own work area and of the organisation. If an organisation can establish a workforce that genuinely uses team working and a process of reflective, aggressive, self-transformation to become an adaptive flexible force for delivering its mission, it could claim to be a learning organisation. Even the process of trying (seriously) is almost certain to be beneficial!

 

 

 

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