Is the ‘learning organisation’ a pipe dream?

Business chart on tablet computer
As the Managing Director for an international leadership consultancy firm, I have had the privilege of going into many companies...to support them with their learning agendas, and I can genuinely say that I have never seen a learning culture in action.
Gill White
Why, more than two decades after the idea was first mooted, are we still talking about creating a ‘learning organisation’ rather than celebrating our success? CIPD’s Gill White explains…

More than two decades have passed since MIT’s Professor Peter Senge first outlined the concept of the ‘learning organisation’. Essentially, this is a company that encourages and enables the continuous learning and development of its staff members; a company that is perpetually evolving because of its learning-centric ethos.

Few would deny the merits of such an organisation. A culture of continuous learning and development would allow a company to stay one step ahead of its competitors and quickly adapt to changes in the marketplace. Moreover, a genuine learning organisation would be a trendsetter in the truest sense of the word.

Unfortunately, whilst it is easy to conceive of a learning organisation, creating one has proven an altogether more difficult task. In many instances, companies’ existing policies and procedures are stifling change, and a workforce’s preference for the status quo is more likely to result in stagnation than in evolution.

But is it wise to conclude that the creation of a learning organisation is a mere pipe dream? Speaking yesterday at Innovative Learning 2013, Gill White, Capability and Career Development Director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), explained why she believes that given the right approach, it is possible to create a culture of continuous learning and development.

'As pertinent now as it was 23 years ago'


"Senge’s first iteration of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization was published in 1990," she began. "The world has changed exponentially over that time, yet the initial finding that there is a need to move away from teaching at people, towards enabling their learning, is as pertinent now as it was 23 years ago. So, why are we still talking about it? If we fundamentally believe that creating the environment where people can continuously learn is the right thing to do, why am I not stood up here celebrating our success with a job well done?"

Over the course of her impressive career, White has worked across the breadth of the private sector in learning-and-development-based managerial positions. However, during her keynote speech she revealed that in all her experience, she has never encountered a fully functioning learning organisation.

"I have acted as Head of Learning for a variety of businesses," explained White. "As the Managing Director for an international leadership consultancy firm, I have had the privilege of going into many companies – from BskyB to Credit Suisse, from O2 to American Express – to support them with their learning agendas, and I can genuinely say that I have never seen a learning culture in action.

'Just a pipe dream?'


"That’s not to say that I haven’t seen pockets of great practice – even whole functions on the road to continuous learning," she continued. "But I have yet to see the tipping point in any business that I’ve worked with in which the whole culture has climbed the diffusion-of-innovation curve with more than 50 per cent adoption of a continuous learning culture. Could it simply be that creating a learning organisation is just a pipe dream?"

Well, not in White’s opinion. Although a culture of continuous learning and development has not yet been fully realised, she maintained that it is, nevertheless, possible. So, what is getting in the way? Why, despite all our talk, has a genuine learning organisation not yet been created? White outlined four major obstacles that are hampering implementation: organisational policies and processes, leadership, learning and development, and attitudes and assumptions.

"When I joined the CIPD – exactly a year ago today – as Head of Training, I was told about the dos and don’ts of the organisation," she recounted. "At that time, we were not allowed to use LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or any form of social media during core hours. But helpfully, in a bid to appear ‘innovative’, the CIPD had built a special room for us – on the fourth floor – full of computers, where staff members were welcome to go at lunchtime to indulge. A year later, I cannot use SkyDrive or any similar cloud storage system. So I play this ridiculous game: it’s called, ‘find a way’."

White pointed out that corporate policies and processes are hampering the implementation of continuous learning and development. Employees are being forced to devise their own methods in order to circumvent company rules that are counterproductive to learning.

"Organisations are disabling learning," she commented. "They simply make it too hard."

White went on to discuss the problem of ineffective leadership. Bosses, she argued, are the second barrier to continuous learning and development.

Ineffective leadership


"People don’t leave companies; they leave leaders," explained White. "So, what new version of leadership might support our goal of creating a learning organisation? I suggest a two-pronged approach. Firstly, senior leaders need to understand that [members of Generation Y] are not aliens. Indeed, research conducted by Strauss and Howe has shown this generation to have a healthy respect for authority, as long as they respect the person in authority.

"But, accountability for leadership should also shift," she continued. "In his book, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, Benjamin Zander asks: ‘How much greatness are we willing to grant?’ He talks about leadership as a behaviour – as a way of being – rather than something derived from power and title. It is incumbent upon every single one of us to be an expert in what we do and to lead from our chairs. Similarly, we should expect and trust in the same mastery from our colleagues."

White also called for changes to be made within corporate learning and development departments, pointing out that if the staff members responsible for engendering a culture of continuous learning and development within a company fail to practise what they preach, there is little chance of creating a learning organisation.

Finally, White discussed the challenges posed by existing attitudes and assumptions. If we are to succeed in creating a culture of continuous learning and development, she argued, it is essential that we adopt an open-minded approach and leave our prejudices at the door.

The dangers of assuming


"I certainly used to assume that people younger than me loved social media, and that people older than me probably preferred face-to-face learning, but that’s simply not true," she explained. "Whilst APIs, augmented reality, MOOCs, social learning and digital badges are in the zeitgeist, just enabling them and assuming that they will be used couldn’t be more wrong."

If we address the problems inherent within policy and process, leadership, learning and development, and prevailing attitudes and assumptions, we should be well on the way to creating a learning organisation. Obviously, this is easier said than done. White concluded by talking about an educational ‘x’ factor; something that if encouraged, should help everything else fall into place.

'A happy mindset'


"Is there anything else that we should be thinking about when creating this culture?" she asked. "Oh my goodness, yes, and it is simple: happiness. Over the last 20 years we have come to think that if we do this, get that, buy that car, we will be successful and then we’ll be happy. Actually, positive psychology has clearly proved to us that it’s the other way around: a happy mindset means that we will be successful."

So, whilst the learning organisation might not be a pipe dream, neither will it be easily won. It appears that there is much work to be done before a genuine culture of continuous learning and development can be created.


For further coverage of Innovative Learning 2013 (#iLearn13), check out 'Innovation for education: what will next-gen learning look like?'...

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Thanks for this excellent article which provides a realistic view of the state of most org's learning cultures. Also pinpoints some of the key barriers to innovation that I've experienced in orgs: that the organisations themselves are disabling learning (through prescriptive and restrictive policies - particularly around the use of social technologies, but also through pervasive command & control cultures - often a feature of large complex gov orgs), and lack of leadership support, understanding & demonstration of innovative practice. Both of these combine to create an organisational culture that hampers and fears innovation.

Tanya Lau - Australia
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