What Is a Learning Organisation?

The concept of a Learning Organisation is back in fashion as the economy races forward at digital speed. But what is a learning organisation?

A Learning Organisation

The Learning Organisation has a long history as commentators try to understand why some companies are more successful than others. A key focus of such an organisation concentrates on how individuals and groups of individuals learn. The suggestion that an organisation can be designed to accelerate learning is thought to be a relatively recent phenomenon, as it dates back to the early 1950s and 1960s when ideas about learning emerged. Others suggest its origins go back to the 1920s and even further as the struggle to find a balance between personal and collective learning stretches to the time of the bible. Some observers talk about the concept of learning to learn, double-loop learning, self-renewal and organisational renewal. Similar terms are used when introducing the concept into mainstream thinking. More recently interest in learning has increased as a way to improve business results in a time of upheaval. More sceptical critics however believe the idea of creating an organisation that learns is more aspirational than practical.

One description of a Learning Organisation highlights the importance of knowledge acquisition, knowledge sharing and knowledge utilisation combined with the measurement of results. Another underlines the importance of softer human elements to encourage people to share information and learn from each other. Regardless of any single definition there is agreement on the need to capture and share knowledge as a way to excel in dynamic situations.

A learning environment

Renewed interest in the Learning Organisation is triggered by the need for companies in the digital economy to learn, learn quickly and keep learning. As a result, people are expected to share information and find new ways of doing things, particularly when resources are limited. Leadership is also necessary to create a setting where knowledge is used to improve results. In this context, the Learning Organisation overturns the rigid management structures of previous eras.

Continuous learning forms a key part too, as individual and group results improve over time. Learning triggers creativity as individuals think independently and act to achieve a common agenda. People are encouraged to engage in the work and be creative in their roles, which leads to greater levels of satisfaction and success. Even though there are different opinions on how to develop Learning Organisations there is agreement on a number of shared elements. They include the ability to be flexible enough to understand and learn from the surrounding environment, the need for individual and group learning to take place on an on-going basis, a commitment to develop a leadership and culture that prioritises learning, and a shift in organisational structure towards a fluid rather than a traditional command and control model of management.

So, the speed of change in the digital age highlights the need for organisations to learn and keep learning, as businesses operate in an economy that won’t slow down.