5 Things Learning Organizations Do Differently

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It’s easy to see the appeal of becoming a learning organization. The idea is no longer new or groundbreaking: concepts such as continuous improvement and organizational learning emerged as early as the 1980’s, yet remain relevant and ubiquitous even to this day. In an environment where rapid and accelerated changes in technology, culture and society are the norm, continuous learning is an organization’s best bet at survival and success.

Learning organizations have an instant, intuitive appeal: when an organization can learn from its experiences, it can adapt quickly and change in response to the call of the times. Learning organizations can remain relevant, giving them an edge over organizations that are stuck on its traditions and tried-and-tested ways. Continuous organizational learning can increase efficiency and productivity, improve employee satisfaction, and boost customer loyalty.

But how does an organization even reach that point?

It’s important to remember that learning is a process – and learning organizations are no different. They are constantly engaged in a virtuous cycle of transformation and growth. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is. It’s hard to chart the course of a learning organization because it is responsive to the needs of a specific time, place and situation. And because of this, it’s easy to find oneself making a commitment to continuous learning without … learning!

So instead of talking theory, we’ve laid out below 5 key things that learning organizations do differently. Here are a few steps that organizations, its people and its leadership can take towards becoming a learning organization:

Learning organizations empower their people.

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, names the five disciplines or principles of a learning organization. One of these is having a Shared Vision. He stresses how important it is for the people in any organization to agree on its collective purpose. But how do we get people to buy into our vision for the organization?

We can start by looking at how people view their role within the organization. Are they only interested in their day-to-day work, or are they given opportunities to see the results of the organization’s collective output? Are they stuck in specific tasks and closed teams, or are they given opportunities beyond their position and title?

Remember, before any learning organization can commit to a shared vision, its people must believe they have a stake in making it happen. David Garvin suggests a few important steps management can take to empower its people:

before any learning organization can commit to a shared vision, its people must believe they have a stake in making it happen

What works:

  • Increase accountability and responsibility by providing incentives and rewards for leadership and creativity.
  • Encourage collaboration among teams. Keep lines of communication open, both horizontally and laterally. Give employees opportunities to serve on cross-functional teams.
  • Encourage conversations about the organization and its current directions.

Learning organizations make room for mistakes.

A common problem organizations often experience are employees avoiding responsibility and blaming others whenever something goes wrong. Managers or team leaders often react to mistakes by deciding to take charge and “fix” the situation. This happens because employees and managers alike are afraid to fail. The prevailing mindset is that all mistakes are bad, must be reversed, and in some cases, will even be punished accordingly.

Newsflash: failures, missteps and miscalculations are all inevitable. In fact, they are the ripest opportunities for learning, both on a personal and organizational level. Senge emphasizes the importance for personal mastery and self-improvement towards organizational learning, but this can only happen if employees feel safe enough to admit to their own weaknesses.

So how do we as an organization react to mistakes? Do we scramble to fix the problem, or do we provide time to reflect and analyze our errors? Learning organizations have constant conversations about what worked and what didn’t. Garvin suggests encouraging a growth mindset in employees by providing spaces for experimentation and creativity:

What works:

  • Conduct strategic reviews and provide an open space to discuss approaches that may or may not have worked, as well as next steps.
  • Encourage teams to design small interventions or programs aimed at making incremental change. This doesn’t have to be anything too big, or scary, but it can promote risk-taking and creativity among your employees.
  • Provide opportunities for personal coaching and team mentoring.

Learning organizations train teams to solve problems.

In The Fifth Discipline, Senge describes “the myth of the management team,” as one of the biggest hurdles to organizational learning. Often, people within an organization will look to management not only for direction, but also for answers. But a learning organization doesn’t limit learning to one all-important team. Encouraging leadership among your employees also means providing them the tools to think critically, and systematically solve problems on their own.

One example described by Garvin is Xerox’s Leadership Through Quality Initiative. Employees of Xerox were trained in the company’s six-step problem solving process and were taught to use various tools for idea generation, data analysis and action planning. The use of the six-step process was used whenever applicable, from small group discussions to company-wide planning. Systematic problem solving quickly became a part of their organizational culture.

Learning organizations not only empower their people and encourage an open mindset; they also ensure that teams and individuals are equipped to find creative solutions and innovations on their own.

What works:

  • Set aside ample time for teams to engage in strategic planning and strategic review.
  • Train employees in a problem-solving process that is relevant to the needs of the 
 Equip team members with the skills and tools to solve problems on their own.
  • Reward teams for their innovation and creativity.

Learning organizations constantly search for better practices.

For many organizations, learning is a response to an external or internal catalyst. Learning is treated as a reactive rather than a proactive process. Senge describes this as a Fixation on Events. There’s nothing wrong with responding to events necessarily, except when we limit our learning to the short-term. True learning organizations not only think long-term, they are also constantly searching for better and best practices. Anticipating changes in the market, in technology or in consumer demands – and planning accordingly – puts the learning organization ahead of the pack.

Any organization is in danger of being trapped in old mental models – assumptions about how the organization should operate in its current environment. A learning organization is willing to revise its beliefs and embrace unfamiliar mental models – they look for answers both within and beyond the company. Periodic assessments of an organization’s successes and failures allow an organization to learn from its own experiences. Garvin also encourages the “enthusiastic borrowing” of best practices from other organizations, when relevant and applicable.

What works:

  • Conduct case studies, evaluations and periodic reviews. Come up with next steps for implementation, and record key insights.
  • Benchmark with other organizations. Study, identify and compare best practices from neighboring companies. Develop and implement recommendations based on these 
best practices.
  • Have conversations with stakeholders and customers to get immediate feedback about service and company practices.

Learning organizations open the barriers to continuous learning.

Finally, learning organizations never settle. Some organizations tend to view learning as an end product, rather than a continuous process. Learning organizations, however, make a conscious effort to nurture learning and encourage continuous improvement.

This means that learning is seen as a shared experience, and any new insight is cascaded throughout the organization. This can be done formally or informally, in-person or through technology. Either way, it is important for a company to properly document its processes, findings, and best practices. Having a system for knowledge generation and knowledge sharing within the company encourages constantly learning and collaboration among employees.

What works:

  • Invest in a simple online learning management system that is easily accessible to all employees.
  • Rotate your employees, especially those who perform well and have experiences or skills you’d like the rest of your organization to adopt. People learn best through example.
  • Design and implement training programs based on your organization’s best practices. Make sure to explicitly link training to immediate on-the-job application.

In this day and age, you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that doesn’t, at face value, commit to continuous improvement and learning. But becoming a learning organization, as with most things, is much easier said than done. Instead of getting stuck in the semantics, try taking a few concrete first steps. Empower your people, create a safe environment for learning and encourage your teams to get in the nitty-gritty work of problem solving! The key to learning is doing.

So, get to the doing, and start learning.


  • Garvin, D.A. (1993). “Building a Learning Organization,” Harvard Business Review, July 1993.
  • Senge, P.M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday.

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