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The learning organizationLearning organization


A learning organization is...


An organization where all its employees are continually improving their contribution to its aims (particularly customer satisfaction).


Key questions in learning for people and organizations are:

  • How and why do you do that?
  • What can I do to learn that?
  • When do I need to know that?
  • Where do I need to do that?



How to become a learning organization


1. Experience with humility (learning by doing)

Learning organization


David Kolb’s (pictured right) learning cycle looks like:

 Learning organization


This shows:

a) learn from experience

Reflect on your mistakes, failures and successes and learn from them.


b) arrogance stops learning

So humility and accepting your own ignorance are vital.


c) practice makes perfect 

The more you do something, the better you become.

The same is true in business – as sales and market experience increase, a business’s costs per product (unit costs) will fall.

The Boston Consulting Group’s Law of Experience says that unit costs will fall by a constant percentage (normally 20-30%) every time production and sales double.



2. Employees who learn

Their learning can be improved by:

Learning organization

a) understanding the learning curve which identifies four learning stages:

1st - significant improvement.

2nd - little or no progress (the learning plateau during which people need encouragement).

3rd - increasing performance.

4th - decreasing improvement


b) self-motivation 

Wanting to learn because it’s creative, relevant and achieves something worthwhile.


c) experience 

(of different tasks and jobs).

Learning organization


d) reflection 

People should observe, critically evaluate their assumptions and beliefs and then draw conclusions.


e) analysis 

Examining the pro’s and con’s of particular arguments and situations.


f) physical and mental health 

(from exercise, relaxation and creativity).


g) continual training and education.


h) experimentation and acceptance of failure 

(to try and fail is to learn, to fail to try is to miss an opportunity).


i) simplicity 

New material should be broken down into logical, easy to follow steps, proceeding from the easy to the difficult.


j) variety 

Using different learning methods and senses (e.g. sight and hearing).


k) feedback 

(on performance and how to improve).


Learning organization

3. An open, no blame organization

Learning needs everyone honestly exchanging information and opinions, however controversial, without fear of criticism, punishment, or blame.

This is called a boundaryless organization in which communication and departmental barriers are removed.

Nobody should avoid responsibility for a problem by blaming somebody else for it.




4. Inspirational leaders and managersLearning organization

They must:

  • Motivate people with an inspirational vision (or future ideal).
  • Reward learners with more money and more interesting jobs.
  • Coach people to help them improve.
  • Encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • Understand that continuous learning is vital for customer and employee satisfaction.



5. Knowledge creation

It’s best to be a knowledge creating organization in which employees continuously learn and create new knowledge by:

  • Always questioning existing knowledge, attitudes and assumptions.
  • Seeing interrelationships between different issues that can be illustrated by causal loops –

An example of a causal loop is

low employee motivation leading to...

customer dissatisfaction leading to...

redundancies leading to...

even lower motivation. 


6. Make the most of an organization’s intellectual capitalLearning organization

This is also sometimes called the organization’s collective brainpower and has three parts according to Thomas Stewart (pictured right) in his book, Intellectual Capital (1998):

  • Employees’ skills and knowledge (human capital).
  • Relationships and reputation with customers (customer capital).
  • The organization’s knowledge that “doesn’t go home at night” e.g. concerning its processes and systems for doing things (structural capital).



7. Teamwork and empowermentLearning organization

Important to learning are:

  • Learning by doing in small groups (what Reg Revans (pictured right) called action learning).
  • Empowerment - people must want to learn because it is exciting, creative and useful.



8. Learn from people outside


a) benchmarking 

(learning from the best practices of other organizations).

But their advice may become obsolete and their practices may be difficult to copy (particularly those relating to employees and corporate culture).

 Learning organization

b) strategic alliances (or joint ventures) 

(partnerships between different companies)

For example, the Airbus (pictured right) was made by several European aircraft manufacturers).


c) external stakeholders 

(particularly customers and suppliers)

Listen and respond to what they say.



Key quotes explained


Learning organization

“Dare to know”

- Immanuel Kant  ,German philosopher (pictured right)

This was the motto of the Enlightenment, an incredibly creative period of Western history.

Always question everything and seek new knowledge by accepting your own ignorance.

“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”, the Greek philosopher, Socrates, said.

Doubt increases with knowledge, because you become more aware of your ignorance.

Learning is also progressive, continually turning heresies into truths, so that “every knowledge eventually becomes the wrong knowledge”, said the American management writer, Peter Drucker.



Learning organization

Once you stop learning, you start dying”

- Albert Einstein, German born American scientist (pictured right)

Never stop learning and improving, or, as Stephen Covey puts it in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

Sharpen the saw” 



Learning organization

“Experience teaches”

- Tacitus ,Roman historian and politician (pictured right)

Learn from what you do (failures as well as successes) and new knowledge that you discover for yourself.

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it for himself”, said the Italian scientist, Galileo.



Learning organization

“Test every concept by the question: what sensible difference to anybody will its truth make?”

- William James American psychologist and philosopher (pictured right)

Knowledge and learning must be practical and used to create solutions to people’s problems.

But knowledge must be based on the right values (e.g. love), or it will be used in the wrong way (e.g. using atomic power to make bombs).

“Knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful”, said the English writer, Samuel Johnson.



Learning organization

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”

- Benjamin Franklin, American inventor and politician (pictured right)

Knowledge and lifelong learning are vital to success and dependent on purposeful thought.

“Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous”, Confucius said.


Best books and articles


Learning organization

Peter Senge (pictured right) , The Fifth Discipline (1990)

Five things (disciplines) make people (and so organizations) learn better:

  • Personal mastery – people are self-motivated to learn and be creative and open with one another.
  • Shared vision - a future learning ideal shared by the whole organization and its teams.
  • Mental models – new ways of thinking.
  • Team learning – learning by doing in small groups.
  • Systems thinking (the fifth and most important discipline) – seeing interrelationships between relevant issues and areas of knowledge (e.g. both mind and body affect your health).



Learning organization

Chris Argyris (pictured right)  and Donald Schön (pictured right below) , Organizational Learning (1978)

There are two types of learning:

  • Single-loop learning – making a mistake and correcting it, so reacting to problems (e.g. you get a cold and take medicine). Learning organization 
  • Double-loop learning – finding solutions to problems through new and better ways of thinking and finding out why they happen.

People don’t learn because they find ways of avoiding new ideas (“defensive routines”) so they don’t have to change.

(For more detail see Organizational Learning in the Business Books section)



Learning organization

Roger Bacon (pictured right)  , Opus Magus (1267)

The English philosopher identifies four causes of ignorance:

  • poor information.
  • custom
  • misguided opinion
  • ignorance disguised as wisdom.



Learning organization

Bluma Zeigarnik (pictured right) , The Retention of Completed and Uncompleted Tasks (1927 article)

Your memory of a task is improved, if it's interrupted (e.g. by breaks) - called the “Zeigarnik effect”



Learning organization

George Armitage Miller (pictured right) , The Magical Number Plus or Minus Two (1956 article)

Your instant memory is limited to seven bits of information (plus or minus two).

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