How to create a learning organization

As we approach the onset of the next great industrial revolution, learning is as important as it has ever been. An incredible 85 percent of today’s elementary school children will, by 2030, be working in professions that do not exist yet. And what makes that statistic more mind-boggling still is that it dates back to 2017 — several years before the onset of the global pandemic.

Thankfully, there are a virtually infinite number of resources available to us to help us develop our knowledge and skills. But we also must adopt a mindset that encourages and embraces the idea of learning, and that’s something that can take some time to instil in an organization.

A lot is made of the term ‘learning organization’, but what does it actually mean? I wanted to take a bit of time to discuss the benefits of establishing a learning organization, and what it really takes to get there.

What is a learning organization?

A learning organization is a company dedicated to the constant learning and development of its team. That dedication doesn’t just mean buying courses from Udemy. It’s about a shift in the values and principles of the company. Learning is not just facilitated in this type of organization, it’s also encouraged and nurtured to create proactively learning team members.

That may sound a bit vague, so let’s talk about some examples.

A regular company might praise employees for developing new skills at their own leisure, and even use them in their processes. A learning organization will encourage and support the development of said skills from the get-go.

A regular company won’t set time aside for employees to learn during working hours. A learning organization understands the value of personal growth, and incorporates learning as a weekly, or even daily routine in the company.

A regular company will formulate values based on what sounds good on paper, or what customers want to hear. A learning organization incorporates learning as a principle in their value statement.

A regular company will haphazardly develop new projects, or improve existing ones. A learning company takes education and self-improvement to the macro level, learning from their past and developing or improving projects based on what the numbers show.

You may notice that your company already does some things as a learning organization. However, if you want to truly become a learning organization, a substantial shift in attitudes is required.

What are the benefits of a learning organization?

When you’re focused on efficiency and profit, it can be easy to write off learning exercises as a waste of time. It can seem risky to try new things or deviate from the way you’ve always done things as an organization.

But promoting risk-taking and learning can have clear benefits across the board, such as:

  • Teaching your employees how to get the job done faster. Whether they read about a new workflow, a better system to do their job, or just new technology, in the long term they’ll do their job more effectively. From the get-go, you can see that you’re recuperating your “productivity loss”.
  • Helping people to do a better job. The same tech, new practices, or systems can help your employees achieve better results.
  • Cultivating innovation. New systems and ideas can be easily born out of education, which in turn gives you competitive advantages and benefits to outline for potential customers.
  • Happier team members. Learning new things and developing new skills helps your employees feel more accomplished, and as such happier in the workplace.

So the benefits are clearly there. Let’s see how you can pull it off.

Practical improvements

The first step (although not the most important one) to turn your company into a learning organization is to change the day-to-day operations of your business to support learning. These changes include:

  • Letting your employees study and learn on the job. I know companies that have mandatory reading each week, and then the whole team meets on Friday to discuss what they read. It’s not easy to do this with larger teams, but it’s still an idea to take into account. Even if you don’t designate fixed ‘learning time’, your teams should be encouraged to risk failure to try new things.
  • Talking about learning and education, and encouraging your employees to do it. Leading by example, and doing it yourself, is a great first step to encourage this behaviour.
  • Sponsoring learning opportunities. This can be as simple as purchasing a training subscription, and recommending courses. If you want to take it a step further, you can scout and vet more expensive courses, such as management training, and then either make them available to your highest-potential team members.
  • Encouraging individuals to share their knowledge. For example, if there’s only one person that understands SEO in your marketing team, you could have them prepare a crash course to share with everyone about SEO.
  • Taking measurements. A learning organization is not just about your employees growing, it’s also about the organization as a whole. You want to get in the habit of analyzing past performance, and implement changes based on that.

These are just a few tips, so you can definitely think of more best practices, especially some that apply best to your company.

Mindset and values

Turning your company into a learning organization is more of a mindset shift and change in values than anything else. If you can adapt your mindset, and your employee’s mindset to default to learning, then education automatically becomes a value in your company.

But how can you do it?

First, follow the practical tips we outlined above. After that, you should outline why education is important, and what it can provide for your company. This will help you internalize education and learning as an intrinsic value, so your mindset can default to that whenever it needs to.

Education is not just about reading books or watching courses. One of the best ways people learn is by experience, so a mindset shift towards learning should encourage experimentation. If your employees try something new, but they mess up, you shouldn’t scold them. Sure, you should impress on them the gravity of the mistake, if the outcomes are truly problematic. But most importantly, you should treat every failure as a good thing. A learning opportunity.

It’s an old adage, yes. But that’s because it’s true. Mistakes teach us what we need to avoid, or what we need to do better. And they’re fundamental for a mindset shift in your company.

Lastly, update your value statement to reflect a default to learning. Even if at first it’s just on paper, if you follow our practical tips, and focus on a mindset shift, it’ll slowly become real.

Final thoughts

Turning your company into a learning organization can take time, so you shouldn’t abandon the process if it doesn’t seem to be working from the first week. Education in and of itself takes time, let alone changing an entire organization to value it.

But if you put in the effort, it will improve your culture, breed innovation and increase productivity for years to come.

I’m Philip J. Keezer, president and founder of management consulting firm Grindstone Capital. Dedicated to hard work, learning, positivity and accountability.

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