Is Your Company a Learning Organization?

You provide professional development for your staff, supply your employees with up-to-date information and materials, and hold weekly business development meetings, right? Check, check, check. Therefore, this makes your company a Learning Organization, right? Unfortunately, no.

Does your staff get to choose the professional development classes they participate in? Are there follow-up and cooperative learning activities after the class? The information and materials you hand out to your employees–what is the purpose? Is it to help each employee grow and meet their personal and professional goals? What do your weekly BD meetings look like? If it’s you at the front of the room lecturing, while folks listen, sorry, strike 3.

At this point you’re probably wondering, then what is a learning organization?

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, is considered an ‘authority’ on organizational learning and defines it as, “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together,” (1990, p.3).

Senge goes on to say, “It’s just not possible any longer to ‘figure it out’ from the top, and have everyone else follow the orders of the ‘grand strategist.’ The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization,” (1990, p. 4).

Before joining Agility, I taught elementary school for ten years. As a new teacher, I firmly believed my students needed me to learn. After all, I had all the information and it was my responsibility to bestow it upon them. A few years into my teaching career, I realized I could not have been more wrong. I was holding my students back and hampering their natural curiosity and eagerness to learn.

Throughout my career, I participated in ongoing continuous education and professional development and my beliefs of teaching transformed. Some key contributors include my work in my Masters program, the works of Dr. Phil Schlechty, and Kagen Cooperative Learning and Engagement Workshops, just to name a few.

It was unrealistic of me to believe I had to know everything about everything. My students were more than capable of seeking out knowledge and we were fortunate to have the means to do so, i.e. classroom technology, internet, etc. My role in the classroom changed and our learning environment transformed from teacher-led instruction to student-led learning.

Instead of telling students what they were responsible for learning, I posed questions to spark their interest and set them free. What causes day and night? Why does the moon appear to change throughout the month? How does price, supply, demand and scarcity affect economy? How did the settlement of people from various cultures affect the development of our state? You get the idea.

No, my classroom was not a free-for-all. We still had rules and procedures in place. The difference was by turning the responsibility for learning over to my students they were working exponentially harder and were actively engaged, which built a culture of community and nearly eliminated all behavior problems in our classroom. They were actually learning! And they were doing it themselves!

My role as facilitator of learning was much more rewarding too. No longer did I stand at the front of the room like Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“Anyone, anyone?“) and stare out into the abyss of blank faces staring back at me. At the end of the school day, my students were exhausted! Their brains were tired from working so hard all day. A big difference from previous times when I taught my heart out all day only to have about 25% of the class comprehend the material.

You may be wondering, how does this apply to me?

Think about this… Within the walls of your company you have people with skills. People that come to work each and every day ready to perform. Are you the teacher at the front of the room holding all the information and distributing it as you see fit? Or are you the teacher that gives your students the freedom to learn and utilize their unique skill set to the fullest?

In a true learning organization, transparency is key. You don’t have to know everything about everything. Lean on your employees to help you. Isn’t that why you hired them in the first place? Invest in your people, give them the freedom to learn, let them share in the success of the company.

In this article, Josh Bersin discusses, 5 Keys to Building a Learning Organization. They include:

  • Corporate learning is “informal” and HR doesn’t own it. Our research shows that companies which adopt ‘formalized informal learning’ programs (like coaching, on-demand training, and performance support tools) outperform those that focus on formal training by 3 to 1.
  • Promote and reward expertise. Your most talented people in sales, manufacturing, engineering, and design are not in management– they are doing their jobs. High-impact learning organizations unleash these experts and put in place programs to promote and reward even greater levels of expertise.
  • Unleash the power of experts. Since you know these experts are there, let them share information and make them available to others; let people share what they’ve learned easily.
  • Demonstrate the value of formal training. If you have lots of formal training available, managers should be incentivized to promote such opportunities and help people make time to learn. Yes, it might take them away from their jobs for a few days, but ultimately the return is much greater productivity and satisfaction.
  • Allow people to make mistakes. The best organizational learning (and individual learning) occurs right after you make a huge mistake. These are the most important learning opportunities your company has. Take a lesson from the military, the largest learning organization on the planet. Whenever a maneuver is completed, there is always an “after-action review.” This is a formal process which forces the team to socialize what worked, what didn’t, and what processes will be changed to improve the outcome next time.

Each year, ASTD, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to the training and development field, honors companies “that use training and development to drive impact and achieve business goals and objectives. These organizations have a culture of learning that is supported throughout the organization,” (ASTD Staff, 2013). This award is known as the ASTD BEST Award. These companies believe that by investing in their own, they can achieve success. The 2013 ASTD BEST Learning Organizations include, BB&T, UPS, SunTrust Banks, Inc., and Zaxby’s Franchising, Inc. For the complete list, visit: 2013’s Very BEST Learning Organizations.

Finally, I encourage you to take this learning organization survey by Harvard Business Review (2008). It only takes about 8-10 minutes to complete and the feedback is meaningful. I am proud to say Agility scored in the highest quartile in nearly every category!

Let us know how we can help you succeed in this or any other business effort!

-Macaire Eidson

Works Cited

  • The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge
  • “5 Keys to Building a Learning Organization” by Josh Bersin
  • “2013’s Very BEST Learning Organizations” by ASTD Staff
  • Learning Organization Survey by Amy Edmondson, David Garvin, and Francesca Gino