“With tougher competition, technology advances and shifting customer preferences, it’s more crucial than ever that companies become learning organisations. In a learning organisation, employees continually create, acquire and transfer knowledge – helping their company adapt to the unpredictable faster than rivals can.”— David Garvin
The concept of a learning organisation that strives continually to develop its people and processes is now accepted by many as a competitive necessity in today’s business environment. Organisations are increasingly being challenged to leverage learning, as it has been widely articulated that knowledge creation and continuous learning at the individual, team and organisational levels may be the only source of sustainable competitive advantage.
Organisations of the future will not be able to expand into new markets and win market share unless they have a coherent framework (technologies, people, processes and methodologies) to systematically and effectively use their past knowledge to gain a competitive advantage. Many companies claim that they have initiated measures to convert their organisations from a traditional to learning model. However, we believe critical knowledge gaps exist in the understanding of how to exploit technologies to create a suitable framework for a learning organisation.
Change comes in various forms. Our business models and strategies, which may have worked just fine for years, may no longer keep us relevant in the face of a global economy and changing customer preferences. We can no longer count on a stable, malleable workforce because today’s workers are quick to change jobs in search of new opportunities. Technology is changing so rapidly that we almost have to run in place to keep up, and we must keep up to stay ahead.
The new economy with its three pillars – e-business, knowledge management, and partnership – is transforming organisations into e-organisations. E-business is changing trading processes, realigning internal business processes, and introducing many businesses to new channels for reaching end-users or customers. For example, moving to e-procurement both cuts sourcing costs and makes available valuable purchasing specialists for more strategic sourcing tasks; such as vendor negotiation, relationship management and more thoughtful analysis of current purchasing activities – thereby fundamentally altering many aspects of the procurement process. As firms become more and more specialised in a global environment, partnerships and alliances are prevailing while knowledge management is the third key development in this new economy.
Given trends of the new economy, organisations of the 21st century must attract the most valuable knowledge workers and involve their suppliers and customers in a strategic alliance for business growth. Evolving organisations of the future must consider some significant factors – including responsiveness, global markets, Internet-based business, efficient supply chains, customer relationship management, e-procurement, virtual organisational structure, technological innovation, intellectual capitalism and customers as partners – and focus on specialisation while developing their core competencies around these important factors, so they can enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage.
Learning organisations are better able to compete because they are more able to innovate and respond quickly to change, in a world where change is one of the few things we can count on. The leaders of those organisations know that they can’t move forward by standing still, and they can’t pull ahead of the pack by doing things the same old way year after year. Not satisfied with the status quo, they are constantly seeking ways to improve their products and services, and differentiate themselves from the competition.
A learning organisation differentiates itself by valuing and supporting organisation-wide learning from the top down. Learning is more than a menu of classes and online programmes that employees can participate in when they need to close a performance gap. Instead, it is embedded in every aspect of the organisation – how decisions are made, problems are addressed, information is shared, the organisation is structured, and the physical space is organised.
The leaders of a learning organisation continuously strive to communicate their vision and promote the value of ongoing learning. But they do far more than just talk. They actively demonstrate that they care about employees’ learning and development by providing the necessary resources. They share information openly and involve employees in the decisions which affect their work and lives. They flatten hierarchies and eliminate unnecessary policies and rules. They encourage questions and reflection, and create an environment in which people can easily collaborate and take risks. They help people to learn from their mistakes and see problems as opportunities.
An illustrative reason why learning organisations are advantageous in the world of business is that they can attract, retain, engage and motivate the best employees. Learning organisations recognise that few people come equipped with all the necessary skills; instead, they seek employees who are willing and able to learn, have open minds and are unafraid of change. Learning organisations also understand that today’s best and brightest want more from their jobs than the security of a pay check. Instead, they constantly seek opportunities to grow and develop their abilities.
It takes time and effort to transform your company into a learning organisation, even if you and your superiors believe in its value. It requires dedication over time, plenty of patience, careful preparation and a constant flow of resources.
Learning organisations require technology to support the capture and sharing of people’s knowledge, promote collaboration, and provide unhindered access to an extensive range of information. Therefore, it is critical that technology must support all activities involved in the knowledge life-cycle (e.g., capture, organisation, retrieval, distribution and maintenance. We believe the KM infrastructure forms the appropriate technological infrastructure to support our learning organisation framework.
Specifically, the KM infrastructure (tools and technologies) provides the platform upon which learning can be built. The diagram below depicts our proposed integrated framework for the Learning Organisation, which includes the following key components: Knowledge Transfer Network – a Communications infrastructure for Facilitating Effective Communication; Organisational Memory, and Establishment of KM Infrastructure, Human Asset Infrastructure – Business intelligence Infrastructure for Collaboration in place.
According to ‘systems thinking’, success requires clearly-defined objectives and traits as well as a system for evaluating personnel performance. While some contend that these qualities must exist before assembling a team, others contend it’s more of an organic, progressive process that is honed through time. In any event, you must create quantifiable performance standards to foster a learning organisation that supports your learning goals and enhances productivity at work. For instance, what metrics you’ll monitor, and how you’ll assess staff performance.
A learning company is built on continuing professional growth above everything else. Each team member needs to be given the resources they need to fill knowledge gaps and improve their skills. Each employee must, in turn, be dedicated to ongoing improvement and the process. Here, the proverb “you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink” is a good comparison. The idea is to give your staff self-accessible knowledge refreshers and reinforcement materials. Rather than making them go through the required training that deprives them of their motivation, let them conduct self-assessments to assist in identifying their areas of weakness and motivate them to design a personalised training programme that includes micro-learning materials to enhance memory.
Learning organisations are defined as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together” by Peter Senge, author of the book The Fifth Discipline that popularised the concept.
Senge recommended using five “component technologies” to accomplish these goals: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning. Ikujiro Nonaka, on the other hand, described knowledge-creating businesses as settings where “developing new knowledge is not a specialised activity, it is a way of behaving; indeed, a way of being in which everyone is a knowledge worker”. Nonaka suggested that companies use metaphors and organisational redundancy to focus thinking, encourage dialogue, and make tacit, instinctively understood ideas explicit.
Systems thinking is a way of thinking that acknowledges an organisation as a system of smaller complicated systems by taking time to comprehend both the entire and each part. Systems thinking tackles the total and fosters knowledge of how parts are connected; it is the notion that we are components of an integrated system, not a disjointed collection of personal silos. Systems thinking, according to Senge, is a sensibility for the intricate connections that give live systems their distinctive characteristics. The divisions, teams and people who make up your workplace, for instance, are all connected parts if you think of them as a system. That system includes processes, technology and the physical environments in which people operate, and any changes to one of these components will affect the other interconnected parts of the system.
Let’s look at the move to remote work as an example – when businesses that formerly functioned out of offices changed their work environments – to better understand how different components affect one another. The employee experience is altered by this shift, which could be for better or worse depending on the employee. Additionally, processes and policies that were previously based on teams collaborating in an office are altered, as are the ways and frequency in which workers utilise various technologies.
To detect change barriers, strengthen and construct connections, and ultimately create an atmosphere that is conducive to learning, businesses need to be able to see how many components of a complex system interact with one another.
Personal mastery was referred to by Senge as the “cornerstone” of a learning company. The development of one’s ability to achieve personal goals is known as personal mastery. Learning organisations enable this by providing an environment in which staff members can, through reflection, cultivate their unique sense of vision – how they see the world, what matters to them, and what they are passionate about contributing to. “Personal vision is the soil in which shared vision can flourish,” said Senge.
Through chances for skill development and ongoing education, companies that value personal mastery provide their employees with the tools they need to become experts in their fields. Employees must increase their “capacity to produce results”, as Senge puts it, to achieve personal mastery. This goes beyond simply inundating their brains with fresh information like they’re studying for a test. To put it another way, students need to be able to use what they’ve learned in their jobs.
So, why should businesses be concerned with personal mastery? It potentially not only improves job satisfaction but also productivity and collective intelligence inside the company. Senge asserts that “organisations only learn via individuals who learn. Organisational learning is not always the result of individual learning. However, without it organisational learning is impossible.
We can comprehend how our deeply established presumptions and generalisations influence our interactions and choices when we have a mental model. According to Senge, reflection is necessary to comprehend the distinction between hearing what someone says and truly understanding them, as well as the discrepancy between what occurred and what we perceive to have occurred. Senge stated, “In a non-reflective world, we take what we perceive as fact”.
People can use mental models as cognitive structures to comprehend ideas and reach conclusions. For instance, to help students/employees acquire new ideas, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman created a mental model known as the Feynman Technique. With this methodology, one must begin with a subject or idea they have been studying and then describe it as they would to a person who is just beginning to learn about it. They realise they have found a knowledge gap and need to do more research on this subject when they reach a point when they are unable to describe something in detail. After addressing this knowledge gap, students once more discuss or write out their justification. They keep going through this procedure until they have filled in all knowledge gaps and can communicate the idea in basic, uncomplicated terms.
Although there are many different types of mental models, this one is an excellent illustration of how to intentionally learn on the job. To expand their knowledge and make wise decisions, people can use mental models to identify what they don’t know and what they could be assuming.
Only in a setting of trust and cooperation, rather than following orders from above, is it possible to create a shared vision. Corporate leadership collaborates with staff members to realise a shared goal, fostering a climate wherein staff members feel heard and are encouraged to take calculated risks.
This pillar advocates for encouraging conversation, excitement and commitment rather than directing without reason. Storytelling is one method for doing this. A shared vision is not something that is created by the leadership team in a vacuum and then communicated to the rest of the organisation. People from all parts of the organisation must create it based on shared objectives and interests. Everyone will feel more invested in the accomplishment of a shared vision if they have participated in its development.
A unified vision will inevitably change over time, and this is vital to remember. Senge advises firms to disclose their vision so that everyone can see it, talk about it with their teams, and modify it as they learn new insights and viewpoints.
According to Senge, team members must be “humble”, willing to reflect and consider the opinions of others while putting aside personal biases to operate as a unit in a collaborative atmosphere. Only then can team learning occur.
Team learning is more than just having teams of workers attend training sessions together. Instead, it necessitates that teams achieve goals through cooperation and shared innovation as opposed to groupthink. Two essential elements of team learning are conversation and discourse. To put it another way, each team member should be given the chance to offer their perspective on a challenge or issue that the group is attempting to solve; and they should all have the opportunity to ask questions about and add to the opinions which have already been shared. This enables team members to pool their knowledge and advance their understanding as a whole.
Teams can become perceptive powerhouses with the aid of a collaborative mentality and learning-focused initiatives. Businesses may handle problems more quickly for a lot less money, and internally rather than relying on outside companies. They’ll be more streamlined and agile, with an acute sense of when things are going astray (and the ability to correct them before they cause problems).
Additionally, they will be able to overcome inefficiencies and influence better results for your clients when they have easy access to expertise outside their area. Creating a learning organisation culture can achieve the same outcomes regardless of your business. You can create a happier, more productive workplace by giving people the resources they need to grow. And it could be the key to turning your business into the success-story you’ve always wanted to write.
The concept of a learning organisation that strives continually to develop its people and processes will be an accepted philosophy for all competitive organisations in the future. Learning is defined as acquiring new knowledge and enhancing existing knowledge. Organisations have to focus outwardly and involve their suppliers and customers in a strategic alliance for business growth. Learning organisations have to continually expand their capacity to be creative and innovative. Organisations are realising that their human capital (people power) and structural capital (databases, patents, intellectual property and related items) are the distinguishing elements of their organisations.
Only two key contributors can create learning organisations: people and technology. It is the combination of these two factors with new business processes and business models that will underpin success in the next decade. The power of learning from customers, employees and suppliers will provide an enormous advantage to learning organisations for competitive advantage. The variety of technologies, particularly the KM, will help to create learning organisations. Learning organisations integrate a myriad of technologies with the power of human intelligence. Creating learning organisations will not be an easy task, as it has to leverage the most valuable resource – employees. The importance of learning organisations and the role they will play in organisational success cannot help but increase. A proper framework is essential in order to support the transformation of data into knowledge in learning organisations. The proposed framework identifies the components needed to convert them into learning organisations.
- Nonaka, Ikujiro, and Takeuchi, Hirotaka, The Knowledge-Creating Company, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
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- Drucker, P. (1999) ‘Beyond the information revolution, The Atlantic Monthly, Oct, pp.47–57. Duffy, J. (2000) ‘The KM technology infrastructure’, Information Management Journal, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp.62–66.
- Duffy, J. (2001) ‘The tools and technologies needed for knowledge management, Information Management Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp.64–67.
- Larry Liberty, Ph.D., The Maturity Factor, Liberty Consulting Team, 2002
- Levine, L. (2001) ‘Integrating knowledge and processes in a learning organization’, Information Systems Management, Boston, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp.21–33
- Moore, K. (2000) ‘The evolving organization’, Ivey Business Journal, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp.25–28.
- Peter M. Senge, Fifth Discipline, Doubleday Books, 1994
- Srikantaiah, T.K. (2000) Knowledge Management for Information Professional, ASIS Monograph Series, Information Today, Inc.
The writer is a Ph.D. candidate, CEPA, CFIP, ATA MIPA, ChMC, AMCFE, & Researcher Contact: 0246390969 – Email: [email protected]