It’s never been a more important time to become a learning organization. The business world is in constant flux, technology is evolving at lighting speed, and new skills are needed for success. To stay competitive, you need to equip employees with the knowledge and resources they need to keep up.
In other words, organizations with the best chance of future success are those with a culture of continuous learning. Rather than sticking to more familiar (and reactive) approaches to training and development, they have shifted to a learning organization model—creating an environment that nurtures continuous growth, sparks innovation, supports collaboration, and honors the value of taking risks.
What is a learning organization?
The concept of a “learning organization” can be quite abstract, and many influential thought leaders have their own take on it. One of the most straightforward definitions comes from David Garvin:
“A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. This definition begins with a simple truth: new ideas are essential if learning is to take place.”
In simpler terms, a learning organization is focused on continuous improvement through a commitment to education and the implementation of new ideas. They are flexible and adaptable, and make sure employees are willing to learn together across the entire organization.
Key traits of a learning organization
Learning organizations possess many key traits that put them at a competitive advantage. These include:
Shared purpose + vision: Employees across the organization understand their shared purpose, and how their specific role contributes to the company’s success. Additionally, learning organizations understand that the vision can change as the company grows.
Knowledge sharing: Similarly, learning organizations ensure employees have access to all the information they need to fully understand business challenges, long-term goals, and new growth opportunities. They do not keep this information siloed within departments—but rather, practice transparency across the organization. Read also: 4 Ways Leaders Can Promote Transparency In The Workplace.
Holistic employee experience: Learning is built into (and expected at) every stage of the employee experience, from start to finish.
C-level engagement: Senior leaders are engaged as learning advocates. They understand how continual learning contributes to the organization’s mission, values, and goals, and motivate employees to follow suit.
Collaborative learning: Learning organizations also focus on imparting knowledge in a collaborative environment. Individuals benefit from team learning experiences in terms of meeting career and personal development goals, which helps the organization collectively develop the skills needed for future success.
Creative problem-solving: All employees, regardless of tenure are encouraged to think out-of-the box when it comes to problem solving. This encourages employees from different backgrounds, perspectives, and departments to come forward with new ideas for solving complex problems.
Open to taking risks: Learning organizations understand that risk is always part of the equation when testing out new ideas and approaches. This gives employees (and the company as a whole) the opportunity to not only learn and grow from mistakes, but also the motivation to commit to continuous improvement.
Benefits of becoming a learning organization
There are many benefits to creating a strong learning culture, including:
Improved productivity: A collaborative mindset, paired with programs that prioritize learning, can lead to productivity gains across the board. Teams will be more agile and confident. They’ll also be quicker to identify and improve inefficiencies.
Decreased turnover + improved employee engagement: Providing learning and development opportunities not only improves employee retention, but also helps staff feel more connected to each other as well as the broader culture. This leads to happier employees, and less turnover!
Leadership development: Learning organizations are naturally adept at developing employees to meet future business needs, which helps support leadership development and succession planning.
Increased innovation: Giving employees the time and the space to learn and offer new ideas can foster a culture of innovation.
Resilience: A company that fosters a strong culture of learning has a foundation in place that allows them to adapt or change direction when faced with unexpected change or new industry trends.
Stronger brand reputation: Being a learning organization will value stakeholders as well. With increased innovation, customers or clients can expect better products or services.
How to become a learning organization
While many companies aspire to become learning organizations, it’s often easier said than done—and today’s widening skills gap is proof of that. A recent McKinsey survey found that 87% of executives said they were experiencing a skills gaps in the workforce or expected them within the next few years. In our own survey, we found that nearly 50% of professionals do not feel their company is helping them learn new skills for the future.
To begin to close these gaps, employers must recognize that a learning organization is a culture and a mindset. In a way, it can even be considered an approach to doing business. If you are ready to become a learning organization, here are some ways to get started.
Invest in the right technology
Technological innovation is progressing faster than ever before and technology itself is becoming more critical to a company’s success. If your organization is not up to speed on the latest developments in your industry, you risk falling behind—both in terms of your market share and your ability to attract and retain top talent. To keep their skills up-to-date, most professionals in today’s market want to utilize the latest and greatest technology. If their employer is using very outdated technology, they’ll likely move on.
Facilitate effective communication and information sharing
Most information flows through an organization through talking. And the more people talk to each other, the more everyone learns. Unfortunately, many professionals are hesitant to speak up and it’s all too easy for individual teams to become disconnected from other departments. To unblock these bottlenecks, hold town halls, offer cross-training opportunities, and host events where employees can get to know each other in a more casual environment.
With the rise of remote and hybrid work, you also need to invest in and facilitate digital communication channels. Communication is a key foundation to being a learning organization, so it is critical to ensure employees have the ability to easily collaborate and share information across different locations. Read also: Remote Working Technology: 4 Tools Employers Should Invest In
Upskill your staff
A learning organization understands that career development is a two-way street. While it’s important for companies to offer the growth opportunities that professionals desire, you also need to identify and cultivate the skills the organization requires to hit future growth objectives. To get started, ask yourself:
- What skills is the company currently lacking?
- What roles will the company need to fill for future success?
- Is there any additional training or support we can offer to empower and incentivize our staff to learn new skills?
- Which employees have the transferable skills or relevant experience to address new projects or initiatives?
Find creative ways for people to learn
Many employees don’t feel they have enough time in their work week to learn new skills. To get around this common challenge, try moving beyond traditional learning and think of how you can bring learning to people in different ways. Some different ways to do this include:
- Mentorship programs
- Stretch assignments or shadowing opportunities
- Quick emails from leaders about best practices or new tactics to try out
- Regular forums for employees to learn from each other
Implement succession planning
Part of being a learning organization involves preparing people to lead your company in the future. Without the right people in place to step in or get promoted to take over higher-level responsibilities as C-level employees and mid-level managers leave or retire, overall productivity and team morale can slump.
A lack of succession planning can have a number of long-term effects on your organization. Not only will many employees leave to develop these skills elsewhere, but the ones who do stay will feel ill-prepared to step into leadership roles once their time comes. As a result, you should find ways to invest in more management training for your staff. Read also: Succession Planning: A Key Strategy For Employee Development
Recognize and reward people for learning
To build a learning culture, ensure the organization is recognizing and rewarding employees for learning-related accomplishments. A great way to get started is to help employees set learning goals—and give them opportunities to apply what they have learned in real-world scenarios. Then, find ways to recognize and reward them for these accomplishments. Showing you truly value and support employees who make learning a priority can help ensure your training and development initiatives make a real difference across the organization.