Creating a learning organisation

There are many reasons why the learning organization remains so tantalizingly elusive.

Like any big idea that’s about intangible stuff like culture and attitude, the concept suffers from being a bit wishy-washy and vulnerable to the told-you-so cynics who love to point out how all the stuff isn’t perfect.

It also asks people, employees and managers, to behave in ways that are not necessarily in their own short-term best interests. It requires people to be mature, professional, think long-term, share and collaborate, and create safe environments where people can make mistakes and learn.

Not only that, it’s a staggeringly ambitious vision for an organization. The standard definitions offer a glittery utopian future that few would see as undesirable, but most would fail to even know where to start, let alone be able to put together a coherent programme that would impress the finance department.

So, I thought I’d solve all of these problem by developing a three-stage definition that would also serve as a road-map.

Learning Org

This isn’t to suggest that this is simple. It isn’t. The road is strewn with obstacles, but let us not be deterred by the difficulty of the terrain, let us break it down and get stuck in …

Defining the learning organization

Level One

An organization that has a best-practice learning and development function, but learning is seen as “owned” within the HR or Learning and Development department.

Level Two

An organization that has an environment where individual learning and excellence are inevitable – there is a learning culture – and learning is owned by the individuals and business, L&D are partner facilitators not owners.

Level Three

An organization that learns and is able to continually change and transform itself, not just adapting to changing circumstances, but by generating new capabilities.

(The most commonly used definitions are a combination of levels 2 and 3)

The Level One Learning Organization

This isn’t really a learning organization, but I include it here for several reasons:

  1. It’s a prerequisite to a proper learning organization: the L&D team must first get their own house in order before hoping to sew learning into the organization’s DNA
  2. The ability to stage great learning events and experiences is hugely important to creating the learning organization
  3. Many organizations settle for this level assuming it to be sufficient. It isn’t. It’s necessary, but not sufficient

It includes:

  • Best-practice learning and development functions delivered by the L&D team. This will include:
    • Formal learning events (identified by David A Garvin as a key factor in creating a learning organization, and as “Showing the Value of Formal Learning Events” by Josh Bersin)
    • Concrete learning processes and practices” (David A. Garvin, Amy C. Edmondson, and Francesca Gino)
  • Learning options go beyond formal training, to include informal learning such as mentors and coaches
  • Personal development plans are part of the standard performance review process

To move from level 1 to 2, learning and development ceases to be something done solely by the L&D team and becomes something owned by the business itself where individuals are themselves committed to “personal mastery” (Peter Senge).

The Level Two Learning Organization

Now we’re really getting into the meat of a learning organization. Not simply are individual employees committed to their own learning and excellence, but they operate in great learning environments where learning is inevitable.

This includes:

  • Personal excellence and development owned by individuals not L&D (“Personal mastery” from Senge, “Learning is informal and not owned by HR” from Bersin).
  • Commitment to “lifelong learning” and “learning to learn” (various sources)
    • Criticism of learning organizations includes the idea that there is a focus on process not outcomes. One suggestion is to ensure we learn how to learn, and learn skills such as debate, challenge, reflection etc.
  • Use of “single loop” feedback methods such as 360 degree feedback
    • Managers know how to give supportive feedback, but also individuals know how to receive it positively (John Coopey raised the problem with the assumption that feedback is received positively and delivered well)
  • Learning environment (“Team learning” from Senge, “Unleash the power of experts” from Bersin, “Learning environment” from Garvin, and more)
    • Allow people to make mistakes” (Bersin), “Psychological safety”, “Appreciation of differences”, “Openness to new ideas”, and “Time for reflection” (Garvin)
  • Processes support learning and excellence (“Promote and reward expertise” from Bersin, “Leadership that reinforces learning” from Garvin, Edmondson and Gino)
  • Processes include performance management, recruitment, and general management behaviours such as delegation, planning, control and people management

To move from level 2 to level 3, learning moves from the individual to the team and organization. Learning becomes not just “adaptive” (i.e. doing the same things better) but also “generative”.

This distinction of learning types comes from Peter Senge:

Adaptive learning is about having a feedback loop that allows us to adapt our behaviour to get better results. In many organizations, with so many intangible deliverables, this is no easy task!

Generative learning is about creating new capacity and the potential to transform. To do this we need “double-loop feedback” (Bob Garratt) where not only do we adapt behaviour to feedback, but we also challenge our very assumptions and objectives, and, as Garratt wrote, “we learn how to learn“.

The Level Three Learning Organization

This includes:

  • Shared vision” (from Senge)
  • Sharing of learning and knowledge (“Team Learning” from Senge, various other sources):
  • Informal opportunities to share tacit knowledge
  • Importance of “networks” (Morgan, cited in Mayle & Henry), “Open up boundaries” (Garvey)
  • Ability to challenge basic assumptions (“Mental models” from Senge), “double-loop learning” (Garratt).
    • This is problematic in hierarchical organizations where there is tension between challenging and obeying orders
    • Agyris raised the issue of “defensive routines” that block challenge, especially to basic assumptions. This is particularly true in senior management where risk of failure (or being seen as being wrong) is higher and with more dire consequences
  • Systems thinking” (from Senge):
    • Understanding long-term and big picture
    • Seeing things as inter-connected circles not isolated linear processes, understanding how these impact each other

Criticisms and problems

Some of the criticisms of the learning organization model are about how it creates a contradiction, especially in hierarchical organizations. There is tension between the idea of challenging decisions and assumptions and following orders, and between creativity and innovation which require high tolerance to error and a risk-averse organization such as a bank or the public sector.

Also, one of the key tenets of “systems thinking”, the most important discipline in Peter Senge’s learning organization, is about thinking long-term and seeing the big picture, yet most performance management processes, and most systems of recognition and reward, focus on a much smaller canvas over a much shorter time period.

This means that not only is this about learning, but (like all learning projects in my view) it’s also a pretty big change management project!

Making it happen

First up, we must be disciplined in ensuring we don’t put the cart before the horse; the “learning organization” is there to serve the overall vision and values of the organization and not the other way around, it’s important to find the right “learning organization” for each case.

Transitioning any organization straight to a “level 3” from a standing start would involve widespread culture change, and probably very tangible changes to the way the entire organization works, it’s not realistic.

Most change management models suggest a top-down approach to change, whereby charismatic change leaders create a sense of urgency and a compelling vision to “unfreeze” the complacent status quo before embarking on a big change programme.

It is estimated that over 70% of these initiatives fail.

One problem is that they assume a homogeneous culture that can be persuaded to move to an articulated end point (the vision). In reality, organizational culture is far more heterogeneous, the end vision is not always particularly attractive (or believable) and skeptical busy people will only engage when it’s inevitable, meaning that the change is never really adopted and rarely sticks.

This suggests that a bottom-up approach may be more appropriate.

Josh Bersin says:

There are lots of ways to build a learning organization, and they all get back to management. If you build a culture which gives people time to reflect, develop and share expertise, stay close to customers, and learn from mistakes you will outdistance your competition and thrive in the face of huge market change.

and, when quoting a “high-performing healthcare executive”:

We are paying our managers to develop people for the entire organization.

Garvin, Edmondson and Gino say that a learning organization is:

an organization made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge.

and that attempts to create learning organizations often flounder because …

the concept was aimed at CEOs and senior executives rather than at managers of smaller departments and units where critical organizational work is done

This is also consistent with workplace motivation theories such as Frederick Herzberg’s “motivators”: challenging work, recognition, responsibility (all relate to management), or “expectancy theory” which argues that we are motivated when we expect our effort to make a difference which will be recognized and rewarded, again requiring active and interested management.

So a bottom-up approach aimed at both individual employees and their managers seems like the most pragmatic and practical way forward, but this doesn’t mean it can be done without support from the top: we still need leadership!


A learning organization is a complex thing that remains elusive to most organizations. It requires individuals within the organization to be dedicated not just to their own ongoing learning, but to seeing the bigger picture over the long-term, taking risks by challenging assumptions, tolerating their own and others’ mistakes, and consistently sharing what they learn with others.

Furthermore, the project to implement such a vision is fraught with the kind of dangers that afflict most change management projects.

A leadership-supported bottom-up approach targeting individuals and managers with a broad-based programme based on the knowledge and skills required to bring about a learning organization is, in my view, the best way forward.



Chris Agyris book On Organizational Learning (1999)

Josh Bersin (2012) article “5 Keys to Building a Learning Organization” published by Forbes

John Coopey (1995) article The Learning Organization, Power, Politics and Ideology Introduction published by Management Learning

Gordon Dryden and Dr Jeannette Vox book “The Learning Revolution” (2001)

Bob Garratt book The Learning Organization: developing democracy at work (2000)

David A. Garvin (1993) article Building a Learning Organization published by Harvard Business Review

David A. Garvin, Amy C. Edmondson, and Francesca Gino (2008) article “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” published by Harvard Business Review

David Mayle and Jane Henry (2007) course notes for B822 (Creativity, Innovation and Change) “Changing Organizations” (Open University)

Peter Senge book “The Fifth Discipline” (2006)

(All articles accessed via the website link during December 2013).

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