Building a Learning Organisation

BUSINESS & MANAGEMENT, TALENT MANAGEMENT   |   4 minutes  |   May 20, 2019

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Developing a learning organisation makes business sense. If you consider that 92% of learning organisations are more likely to innovate in their industry, and that 58% of learning organisations are more prepared to meet future demands of their industry.1 Yet, shockingly, employees have an average of only 1% of their work week dedicated to training and development,2 highlighting the need for organisations to develop a learning culture in their workforce.

Peter Senge, a renowned management thought leader at MIT Sloan School of Management and the author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, popularised the term ‘learning organisation’. He defined it as a place, “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 to see the whole reality together.”3

Senge reiterates throughout his book that this model requires a consistent effort, and that it is not based off of a single development or training plan.4 It’s a process that has no end goal, but rather is about lifelong learning.

To achieve the title of ‘learning organisation’, businesses need to implement five key priorities as outlined by Senge: systems thinking (where the smaller parts contribute to the whole); personal mastery (individual skill development); mental models (facing up to assumptions); a shared vision, and team learning.5

These keys are best implemented through continual and open communication between human resource management and executive management, in order to foster a culture and corporate environment where these five key areas can grow.6 In addition, long-term training and development plans need to be introduced.7

Three necessary methods of building a learning organisation

Arie de Geus, a historic leader of the Shell Oil Company, pointed out that the “ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage”.8 In this, he’s highlighting that a learning organisation – because it encourages employee retention and consistent skill growth – allows you a competitive advantage that you can maintain.9

The facts speak for themselves. Fifty-six per cent of employees would jump at the chance to learn, if their managers suggested appropriate courses or material;10 42% of employees claim development is the most important factor when deciding which company to join,11 and 94% of employees say they would stay in a company longer if it invested in their development and learning.12

The practical steps to building an organisation that embraces lifelong learning will differ according to the business that is trying to implement this, but there are three methods of training and development that every business could consider:

  1. Formal training: Classroom-based learning and online courses, focusing on the upskilling or reskilling of hard skills. These form the foundation of any training and development programme, which can then be supported by informal training and reward systems. This kind of formal training can be cost- and time-intensive to organise in-house, which is why many companies prefer to outsource this part of their training and development.13
  2. Informal training: This kind of training encourages soft-skill development through intentional recognition, meaningful feedback, and direct mentorship.
  3. Rewarding learning cultures: Begin a culture of promoting from within, encouraging knowledge sharing, not only within teams but between teams and departments, and constructive peer to peer mentorship.14

A learning organisation is one of shared responsibilities, but the role of human resource managers is vital in creating a good company culture to foster this vision. While every employee of an organisation should be making Peter Senge’s five keys a practical part of their everyday working life, it is largely up to the HR managers to develop, implement and maintain the methods of building a learning organisation, alongside the leaders of the company.

Developing this learning culture allows an organisation to perform better in productivity, quality, customer service, employee retention and profit15 – making it a worthwhile pursuit for employees, managers, leaders, and shareholders alike. Empowered with good values, systems, and development methods, learning organisations are set to take the future stage of good business practice.

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  • 11 Senge, P. (Apr, 2010). ‘The fifth discipline’. Retrieved from Slideshare.
  • 12 Morgan, S. (Jan, 2018). ‘Why learning culture is so important’. Retrieved from Training Journal.
  • 13 (Apr, 2018). ‘Employers fear 4.5m workers could be on the move this year’. Retrieved from Robert Half.
  • 14 Morgan, S. (Jan, 2018). ‘Why learning culture is so important’. Retrieved from Training Journal.
  • 15 Alexander, R. (Aug, 2017). ‘The benefits of a learning organisation culture’. Retrieved from Bloomfire.