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Enabling talent to learn: 15 characteristics of learning organisations

One of the major contributions to management thinking is the concept of the learning organisation developed by leading guru Peter Senge. A learning organisation is totally different from the traditional organisation. Learning organisations create conditions for people to learn faster and more effectively so that the organisation and its people can thrive on change.  Learning organisations are essential for effective talent management, and in particular in enabling talent to learn in leveraging the talent and performance of your talent pools. The organisational culture is dynamic and requires that certain elements be entrenched in the culture. These characteristics are as follows:

  1. Flat organisational structure
    Traditional organisations consist of a strong hierarchical structure which reflects the power and positions of managers. Learning organisations are attempting to reorganise more around horizontal processes that cut across traditional func­tions. A greater level of interdependence is needed in which people are required to learn together irrespective of the hierarchy. In learning organisations, bureaucratic structures and systems are eroded to the benefit of customers and employees.
  1. Open communication
    In traditional organisations, a top-down communication style is used most of the time. These organisations often pay lip service to their so-called “open door policies”, yet the real organisational culture discourages open communication. In a learning organisation there is open and honest communication. Individuals who speak out about things that are not going right are recognised for their contributions.
  1. Teamwork
    In most organisations people work as individuals to fulfil specialised functions. Teams, and the individuals participating individually and collectively as members, are the most important units of the learning organisation. Real learning takes place in teams when team members learn from each other, learn from their achievements and mistakes, and continuously learn how they can optimise their contribution in achieving the goals of the business at large. Teams need to work together to gain insights about complex issues, act in ways that complement each other’s actions, and foster team learning throughout the organisation.

    There is a learning cycle involved in the process of team development. First, team members develop new skills and capabilities which alter what they can do and understand. Secondly, new awareness and sensibilities evolve. Thirdly, as people start to see and experience the world differently, new beliefs and assumptions begin to form, which enables further development of skills and capabilities.

  1. Empowerment
    For the greatest part of the development of management science it was believed that it was the role of management to make decisions and of employees to execute these decisions. The result is that a very small proportion of personnel would do the “thinking” while the majority of the workforce would only be “doers”. In such an environment very little learning takes place because there is no incentive for learning and performance. In the learning organisation, all employees are empowered to make decisions and to learn from the successes and failures of these decisions.
  1. Inspired leadership
    In traditional organisations there is a lack of leadership. A learning organisation cannot exist without its senior managers’ commitment and leadership. Managers must set the example by becoming learners themselves and inspiring others to learn. This requires a major paradigm shift on the part of senior managers. Many of them think that they ceased to be learners when they completed their BCom and MBA degrees. They must realise that there is a strong relationship between their job’s strategic planning and the responsibility of promoting organisational learning. Learning organisations keep developing their leaders to become leaders who inspire employees, suppliers, customers and other key stakeholders.
  1. Innovation and change
    Whilst many organisations find it difficult to change and improve, learning organisations thrive on change. Learning organisations create an environment for learning from innovation and change. They innovate because they learn, and they learn because they innovate. It is a continuous cycle of change, innovation, learning and improvement. Therefore, learning organisations are also more resilient and creative than traditional organisations.
  1. Shared vision of quality
    In business today, it is often asserted that management has “a vision for the future”. This is indeed the case, management has a vision but this vision is often not shared by all the members of the organisation. The end-result is very predictable: their vision, how well-developed and defined it may be, never becomes a reality if it is not shared by all the em­ployees of the company.

    The learning organisation, however, has a collective sense of identity, a fundamental purpose or vision which is shared by each and every employee of the company. If the CEO has a vision for quality services, each member internalises this vision, irrespective of his or her level or position. In this way, training becomes a powerful business partner if proper strategic learning alignment is created. In other words, learning organisations are purpose and quality driven in everything they do.

  1. Systems approach
    The whole South African society is based on a functional approach of doing things. At school we are taught that we must take certain subjects in order to follow a particular career. Some people study further and become “specialists” in their respective fields. They subsequently join an organisation which consists of departments, functions and sections, each one with its own area of specialisation and self-interest. The end-result is a situation where a lot of people are performing excellent jobs in their own fields, very often at the expense of others, and not even knowing what others are doing. This system of fragmentation means that the collective intelligence that could have been used is largely eroded by the organisation. Companies are therefore not performing at their optimum level. In the learning organisation, articulating the total organisation from a systems approach rep­resents an opportunity to break this vicious cycle.
  1. Job satisfaction and commitment
    In most South African companies there is a lack of job satisfaction which in turn results in a low level of employee commitment to performance and the achievement of organisational goals. The symptoms of these problems are low productivity, high absenteeism, labour unrest, industrial action and high labour turnover. The learning organisation has an organisational culture where employee pride is nurtured by instituting formal and informal ways of improving employee engagement, job satisfaction and employee commitment.
  1. People-orientated and talent focus
    Traditional organisations focus on achieving production targets, often at the expense of the employee’s well-being and needs. The learning organisation seeks to integrate task and people factors in order to optimise the talent of employees. These organisations are so people-orientated that the needs of people are continuously identified and strategies developed to integrate these needs with organisational goals and strategies. The managers of learning organisations realise that employees as internal customers must first be satisfied before the needs of external customers can be addressed. These managers are even assessed on their people management skills.

    People-orientated companies will develop action plans to ensure that all managers and employees develop their emotional intelligence in order to work together and serve the needs of their customers. Moreover, learning organisations have progressive talent management systems in place to optimise the talents of its employees.

  1. External focus
    Most South African companies are very internally focused. They only look at their own problems and situations without considering the realities of the wider business and global world. Learning organisations, however, are very externally focused. They continuously study their competitors and other organisations, both locally and abroad in order to learn from industry trends and developments. A more external focus is required, which in turn requires benchmarking exercises, networking, collaboration and large scale knowledge-sharing.
  1. Technology-driven
    Many companies find it difficult to adapt to technological innovations. In the learning organisation, a concerted effort is made to use the most advanced technology to improve business processes, products and services. Not only is investment in technology very high, but employees are continuously trained to use the latest technology. Learning organisations all have a formal strategy for running a digital business. They also have an explicit social media strategy to engage with all stakeholders both inside and outside the organisation.
  1. Learning opportunities
    In traditional organisations learning is restricted to training courses offered to some em­ployees. The learning organisation encourages learning at all levels of the company. Appro­priate learning opportunities are created to enhance corporate learning and employee development. In the learning organisation, the training department is not the primary source of learning opportunities. Instead, the whole system of work, every project or process, every person in the organisation, all become potential sources for learning. Even competitors, suppliers and customers can be resources for learn­ing. The challenge is to identify, access and transfer these learning opportunities for optimum learning and improved practice. Learning and trying new things, even if it means making mistakes, becomes part of the culture of learning organisations.
  1. Action and results focus
    In some companies learning constitutes a particular event like a training course with a clear beginning and end. There is very little transfer of training and skills to the workplace. In fact, Peter Senge estimates that only 10% to 15% of all participants who attend training programmes can consistently apply the insights and skills they have learnt in the workplace. Learning organisations provide opportunities to employees to apply skills immediately in order to achieve improvement in performance.
  1. Customer-orientated
    Whilst traditional organisations lack a customer focus, the learning organisation is pro­active in ensuring that all employees are extremely customer-orientated. In fact, most of the learning that takes place revolves around learning more about customer needs and im­plementing systems and methods to improve customer satisfaction.

Embedding the above 15 characteristics of learning organisations into the culture and fabric of your organisation presents managers with an opportunity of enbaling talent to develop and thrive, in addition to creating fast growing and effective learning organisations meeting and exceeding customer expectations.

This article is an extract from the book edited by Marius Meyer entitled “Managing Human Resource Development: A Strategic Learning Approach”   5th edition (2017) published by LexisNexis.

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