How to Create a Learning Organization

Aligning your leaders and teams with your organizational goals – from values and mission to the desired future state – is a strong foundation for success. But how to you ensure that every employee has the skills and behaviours needed to get you from here to there? The answer: create a learning culture throughout your business.

When an organization is skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge as well as being able to act and pivot on these new insights, it’s often referred to as a “learning organization.”

In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT who is a pioneer in learning organizations, described them 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.”

Of course, every organization wants this type of environment, but it’s not as easy as offering some leadership or skills development programs. To become a true learning organization, companies must go far beyond simply rolling out training programs.

Spring-boarding on Senge’s work, here are five required disciplines needed to create a learning organization.

1. A Shared Vision

According to Senge, a shared vision is about building a sense of commitment in a group. To create a shared vision, leaders forge must forge a common vocabulary and focus, to create a crystal-clear picture of the future. Using that as a starting place, L&D practitioners can then look for any gaps and mutually agree upon learning targets and improvement strategies needed to get there. At its very core, a shared vision is about helping employees at all levels recognize and align themselves with the vision leaders have for the organization.

2. Personal Mastery

Senge describes this as the “discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.” Our values drive our behaviour. In the work we do with our client cohorts here at The Roundtable, we see this as aligning our personal values with the work we do. By pinpointing this higher purpose, people are more engaged and more committed to learning the skills and behaviours needed to achieve their (shared) goals.

3. Mental Models

This is a biggie because requires a shift in thinking. We all have thought processes based on our beliefs, ingrained assumptions and experiences, and these become our default ways of being. To cultivate a learning organization, leaders, managers and teams need to stay curious, and rely less on “how things have always been done” and more on what are the opportunities. Approaching everything from conversations to a new project as a “learner” forces you to shift perspectives and changes the mental model or assumptions that you may have built up about a colleague or situation. This requires boosting self-awareness amongst your talent.

4. Shared Learning

Shared learning amongst cross-functional leaders is growing in popularity to accelerate leadership development as well as cascade learning throughout all levels of any organization. When groups of people learn together it helps to build deeper relationships and networks across the organization, and learners hold each other accountable and take ownership of their own development. Not only that but it acts as a “brain trust” to help leaders make better, faster decisions as they learn from one another. Finally, leaders bring back what they’ve learned to their own teams allowing learning to flow in all directions.

5. Systems Thinking

For Senge, he saw this as “a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” This fifth discipline is the key that brings all five components together. It means stepping back and looking at the bigger picture to find opportunities that will deliver long-term improvements or are that “difference maker” that organizations need to thrive in a highly competitive market. This is one of the many reasons why we promote cross-functional peer-to-peer learning in our programs. It allows leaders to get out of their own silos and opens their eyes to the work as well as the challenges and successes of others in their organization. By its very nature, cross-functional learning taps into big picture thinking.

Peer group coaching may be just what your organization has been looking to take its employee development efforts to the next level. If you’d like to know more about our group coaching programs, contact us to start a conversation.

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