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What is a Learning Organization and Why Do They Matter?

“In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” – Eric Hoffer

How does an organization get better at what it does? Sounds like a simplistic question, but if the answers were so obvious most of consultants would be out of business!  Part of the challenge is that what works for an organization in one situation, time, and place won’t work again in a different situation, time, and place. So how does an organization continually evaluate its environment, reflect on what is and isn’t working and adapt intelligently? The focus of the Learning and People practice at Olive Grove is to help organizations develop those skills. This includes working with clients to assess and build their capacity to harness the following factors that enable them to become a learning organization: culture, leadership, human capital, system/processes and physical environment. A learning organization is stronger and smarter than the sum of its parts because it harnesses the complimentary powers of these five factors in a way that creates a synergistic effect and positions them to better navigate internal and external changes.

As we have integrated this approach into our work, we have seen some great changes manifesting in our clients. One example of this is helping clients to understand how they have migrated away from their explicit values and started to live by a different set of rules. Often times the implicit values don’t serve the greater purpose of the organization and are very hard to dislodge simply because they are implicit and lie under the surface of regular organizational discussions. Our work helps clients identify implicit values that reinforce unhealthy organizational cultures, understand how these values are manifest and systematically work to modify collective organizational behaviors. Another benefit of investing in building a learning organization that we see is an increase in staff morale and productivity. During our work we often see increased staff engagement as staff begin to better understand their role in the organization and feel a greater sense of ownership and investment in organizational outcomes.

Building a learning organization requires a systems approach that works with a number of inter-related factors. Our model addresses the interaction of five factors that must be viewed as part of an integrated whole. As the graphic suggests these five factors, while discreet content areas, overlap and create the space for a learning organization to emerge. The greater the overlap and mutual reinforcement of each factor, the greater the potential for a learning organization. Some examples of how these factors contribute to a learning organization include:

An organizational culture that:

  • Encourages people to view mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than as personal failures.
  • Provides space for direct communication and constructive management of conflict.

Organizational leadership that:

  • Is open to staff inquiry, feedback and contribution on real issues.
  • Aligns performance evaluations and incentives with organizational values, vision and strategy

Human capital management that:

  • Intentionally develops staff and makes use of mentorship.

Systems and processes that:

  • Provide clear and consistent decision-making protocols.
  • Capture and share knowledge effectively.

A physical environment that:

  • Provides access to supervisors or mentors.
  • Encourages interaction between departments and across hierarchies

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How does culture, leadership, human capital, system/processes and physical environment impact your organization? Are these factors supporting your organization to learn and adapt effectively? What can you do to move your organization towards a learning organization model? If these questions pique your interest Olive Grove can help you answer them and build a strong and nimble learning organization to take on the inevitable changes we all face.

Mona Jones-Romansic

Mona Jones-Romansic

Mona is known as a highly intuitive and insightful consultant whose systems-focused approach surfaces the fundamental obstacles facing her clients rather than simply addressing symptomatic issues.\r\nHer facilitation style creates a safe space for her clients to reflect, turn towards challenges honestly and openly, and leverage their unrealized strengths for greater impact.