Currently, we’re at the end of the first quarter of 2020 and already the world has witnessed a series of upheavals. Covid-19 and the subsequent markets volatility—need we say more? The societal system as we know it is changing and this effectively creates pressure for organisations to innovate, which may require institutions to break away from their traditional methods of working to adopt new ones.
Therefore, the question to address is—how can we build a learning organisation?
1. First and foremost, what does a ‘learning organisation’ truly mean?
A learning organisation refers to a company that facilitates the upskilling of its employees and continuously displays an ability to transform itself according to business needs. This concept was introduced by Peter Senge, a systems scientist and senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. The concept of a learning organisation was popularised by his book, ‘The Fifth Discipline’.
According to Senge, building a learning organisation is absolutely possible. However, in order for this to be successfully achieved, there are 5 disciplines that need to co-exist simultaneously.
2. What are the 5 building blocks of a learning organisation?
As stated in ‘The Fifth Discipline’ the 5 characteristics of a learning organisation are:
1. Systems thinking
Systems thinking is a conceptual framework that helps organisations deal effectively with change and adapt to it. System thinking is a method of critical thinking whereby people analyse the relationships between the system’s parts in order to understand the situation for better decision making.
Senge describes ‘systems thinking’ as the fifth discipline. According to him, when an organisation starts thinking systematically, this will represent a pivotal point in the company’s learning and change process.
2. Personal mastery
Personal mastery refers to how the commitment an individual employee demonstrates to mastering their craft. It goes without saying that organisations that employ staff that are committed to their personal mastery possess a certain competitive advantage. After-all, the practice of learning cannot be forced upon unreceptive individuals.
3. Mental models
A mental model is a framework that individuals carry around, which they then use to interpret how the world and understand the relationship between things. Some mental models can be subconscious, we might not even know we have them. Similarly to people, organisations may also unknowingly hold onto certain values, norms and ways of working that need to be challenged in order to continuously grow.
4. Shared vision
In building anything within an organisation—be it a learning culture or not—a shared vision that provides a common identity for employees is of utmost importance.
5. Team learning
There are two aspects to the ‘team learning’ discipline. Firstly, effective teamwork allows individuals to achieve greater heights. Secondly, the team members also have to be willing to shift their mental models and be open to learning from their colleagues.
3. What are the benefits?
It is quite obvious that the benefits of a learning organisation are vast. They entail, for example:
- Increased innovation
- Greater efficiency
- Resulting in a higher competitive advantage, as said organisation would be able to learn faster than their competitors and develop a better customer-responsive culture.
Especially in the climate that we are currently in, agility and responsiveness for an organisation are greatly prized. In light of the Covid-19 virus outbreak, organisations are increasingly being restricted in their business operations. Most companies have had to transition into working remotely and move towards an online platform. Some are even having to pivot their commercial strategies entirely in response.
While certain companies—Slack, for example—have responded quickly to the change in circumstances by rapidly delivering solutions to ease the challenges of their consumers in this period of difficulty, other organisations will have to take some time before they’re able to adapt effectively. Perhaps companies should use this time to regroup and reflect on their organisational structure with the focus on learning how to hit the ground running quicker.
Inevitably, however, one of the biggest obstacles in building a learning organisation is the employees being resistant to change. When organisations grow, their capacity to learn is gradually lost and individual thinking becomes rigid. Fortunately, this can be mitigated with a dedicated senior management team that encourages and cultivates a learning culture.
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