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Learning Organisation – How To Capture This Elusive Beast

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Learning Organisation – How To Capture This Elusive Beast

A learning organisation is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself through people development. It is characterized by a recognition that ‘individual and collective learning are key’ to business success. But what does such an organisation look like? Can it be defined in terms of key parameters, i.e. does an ideal template exist?

By turning to psychological perspectives we can begin to decipher the processes that collectively underpin a learning organisation.

An organisation is not a tangible holistic entity in it’s own right. An organisation is a collection of individuals with different motivations, goals and abilities. Understanding this diversity is a useful foundation for capturing this illusive beast.

Theorists of learning organisations have often drawn on ideas from organisational learning, i.e. by analysing the processes involved in individual and collective learning inside organisations. Organisational learning can therefore be described as the lifeblood of the learning organisation, and psychological perspectives go a considerable way in terms of operationalizing such learning.

It can be argued we must learn to understand, guide, influence and manage organisational transformations brought about by both operational and strategic adjustments. And the smarter and most profitable organisations are the ones that can continually adapt to changing circumstances – such organisations are synonymous with continuous improvement, which is driven by adaptive learning.

We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation. (Schon 1973: 28).

It is not just about simply training individuals via a ‘menu’ of static programmes; neither should the learning be imposed by senior management visions. It should be driven by an internal democracy, which is allowed and manifest via logistics and processes. Within this is continued adaptive thinking enshrined in a culture of autonomy and innovation. Such a culture is characterised by total employee involvement and commitment towards shared goals, driven by clearly defined and shared business values.

Social psychology considers this collaborative democracy through a focus on interaction and interactive processes. Such paradigms can be utilised in terms of:

  • Linking learning to business goals.
  • Linking individual performance to organisational performance.
  • Making it safe for people to share openly and take risks.
  • Embracing creative tension as a source of energy and renewal.
  • Defining communication parameters and logistics.
  • Making performance dialogue meaningful.

A supportive learning environment is also business critical in terms of learning. A key characteristic is psychological safety. To learn, employees cannot fear being belittled or marginalised when they disagree with peers or authority figures, ask naive questions, own up to mistakes, or present a minority viewpoint. Instead, they must be comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand.

Other key psychological factors include appreciation of differences and openness to new ideas. Recognising the value of competing functional outlooks and alternative worldviews increases energy and motivation, sparks fresh thinking, and prevents lethargy and drift. Further, learning is not simply about correcting mistakes and solving problems. It is also about crafting novel approaches. Employees should be encouraged to take risks and explore the untested and unknown. It is also important to allow time for reflection. All too many managers are judged by the sheer number of hours they work and the tasks they accomplish. When people are too busy or overstressed by deadlines and scheduling pressures, their ability to think analytically and creatively is compromised. They become less able to diagnose problems and learn from their experiences. Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause in the action and encourage thoughtful review of operations and strategies.

Organisational learning is strongly influenced by the behaviour of leaders. When leaders actively question and listen to employees—and thereby prompt dialogue and debate—people in the institution feel encouraged to learn. If leaders signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflective post-audits, these activities are likely to flourish. When people in power demonstrate through their own behaviour a willingness to entertain alternative points of view, employees feel emboldened to offer new ideas and options.

Another psychological consideration is understanding learning styles. This enables learning to be orientated according to the preferred method. That said, everyone responds to and needs the stimulus of all types of learning styles to one extent or another – it’s a matter of using emphasis that fits best with the given situation and a person’s learning style preferences.

Finally, there are environmental psychological considerations. Learning appears to be affected adversely by inadequate light, extreme temperatures, and loud noises. Environmental variables can impact learners indirectly and that the effects of different physical settings often depend on the nature of the task and the learner.

There are a number of tools that can be called upon to operationally define the extent to which teams, departments or indeed whole organisations are learning organisaitons, answering questions like: “To what extent is your unit functioning as a learning organisation?” and “What are the relationships among the factors that affect learning in your unit?” It is very clear however that such analytics are redundant without an inherent psychological focus.

An organisation is a collective, where each person learns and adapts against the backdrop of his or her own heuristics. Psychological paradigms enable an understanding of this neuro-diversity that makes up a learning organisation: learning motivations, styles and reactions to environments. Psychological models also help to unlock an understanding of leadership personalities that will foster innovation. And, management characteristics that will ensure openness and acceptance of difference.



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