The Learning Organization: Pie in the Sky or Possibility?

“Learning organization” values will have far reaching implications for organizations in the 21st century. Being against the “Learning Organization” is like being against motherhood. It’s difficult to imagine an organization consciously saying, “we don’t want our people to personally or professionally develop”. So many companies are exploring how to turn their employees into “I love learning ” junkies. Is it really as easy as declaring it in an organization wide memo or company mission statement? What has to happen to go beyond the lip service of developing staff and continuously improving organizational effectiveness?

The Learning Organization is a value. It can only occur if staff hold that value. Organizations cannot make staff change values. Employees must understand “what’s in it for them” to buy into and actively participate in the learning organization. The larger the organization, the more diverse its staff and values and the greater the potential difficulty in implementing the learning organization.

Does this mean that the learning organization can only work in small offices? No. However, large organizations wishing to shift corporate culture to one of continuous improvement must realize that it is a long, and sometimes tedious journey. There will be champions for this shift and there will be resisters! Senior management will only be able to successfully lead a transition to a learning organization if staff are willing to follow.

Suggestions to help inspire a shift to the “learning organization”:

  • senior management must be passionate about their own personal development. Jim Clemmer reminds us in Pathways to Performance, “You can’t build a team or an organization that’s different from you”. This passion often starts with getting clear about life purpose. Exploring life purpose must include close examination of personal values, attitudes and behaviours. These leaders can then passionately and purposefully implement their life purpose into everything they do—especially their work!
  • offer staff several days of professional development per year—not necessarily directly related to their job. No matter what a manager is manager “of”, all managers are managers of human relations and have a responsibility to consciously lead, persuade, inspire and influence the personal and professional development of their staff. This coaching process could become part of the leader’s regular performance management process, or one-on-one meetings, with each employee)
  • ensure management gets the mentoring, coaching and professional development they need to support their staff (perhaps through the performance management process they experience with the person to whom they report)
  • revisit organizational vision, mission and values statements to include representation from all levels within the company. It’s helpful to reserve dedicated, retreat-style time to such a process, facilitated by an outside consultant
  • facilitate ways for staff to discover the value of continuous learning:
  • offer staff regular and diverse, voluntary workshops
  • buy team copies of books on the value of personal, team and organizational development, or any other subject which is of importance to the team
  • Introduce and discuss them in team meetings
  • make lateral or enhanced job opportunities dependent on specific professional development

We’re a “knowledge” based workforce. Learning Organization values are essential for the 21st century worker in an information world. In the long run, it will be paramount to the continuing success and competitive edge of businesses.

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