To ensure that employees have the opportunities to perform, that managers support training activities and that the work environment is conducive for continuous learning, many companies are striving to become learning organisations. A learning organization is one that seeks to create its own future; that assumes learning is an ongoing and creative process for its members; and one that develops, adapts, and transforms itself in response to the needs and aspirations of people, both inside and outside itself (Navran Associates Newsletter 1993).
What are some of the key features of a learning organisation?
1. Supportive learning environment
One of the first thing to consider is with regards to building a supportive learning environment is to instil a culture of speaking up. In most workplaces, people are keeping quiet and going along with the flow rather than speaking up about what’s bothering them. Employees are the organisation’s first line of defence. Encouraging employees to speak up is important in uncovering issues promptly and effectively. According to Maxfield and Grenny’s research, an employee’s failure to raise their concerns about a project or workplace situation costs an organisation an average of $7,500 in lost time and resources. Companies could pave the way in promoting a “speak up” culture by tapping on leaders to model the behaviour themselves and also by rewarding employees who ask questions.
2. Consider different cultural perspectives.
Diversity is reality as we work in a globally-connected workplace and most companies have a mixture of a racially diverse workforce. There are many benefits when there is diversity in the workplace as various cultures form the basis of a rich resource of alternative ideas to do things and the opportunity to learn from best practices of other cultures. In particular, new perspectives may be gleaned and this stimulates creativity in problem solving in many work situations. While each of us come from different cultural backgrounds and affects our responses to others, we learn to be mindful of the beliefs and assumptions of others. A positive learning environment starts with supporting the contributions and respecting the power and influence of all cultures.
3. Encouraging risk-taking and innovation
Greater consumer power and increased competition means that companies need to find new ways to attract and retain their customers. In order for that to happen, companies need to innovate and push the limits of possibility. Risk-taking should not be regarded as merely a process, but it should be a behaviour that is adopted by employees in the organisation. Managers need to encourage a culture of smart risk-taking through helping employees to learn from mistakes and experimenting with new ways of doing things. If managers are tolerant and supportive in times of failure, they encourage an environment of growth rather than a fear of learning. In such a culture, employees feel comfortable and safe in proposing new ideas that will ultimately support a circle of innovation.
4. Learning processes and practices
Knowledge creation, dissemination and sharing are practised in a learning organisation. The ability to create new knowledge puts the organisation at a competitive advantage over others. Before developing initiatives to develop employees, there is a need to ensure that systems are in place to support them. Systems should be developed for creating, capturing and sharing knowledge and information. For instance, process documentation outlines the steps for a task or procedure that makes it easier for all employees to adhere to. In a customer service environment, a simple process documentation includes how to answer a call, responding to queries and ending the call in a proper manner. Setting up online communities of practice provides an opportunity for those who have undergone training to exchange ideas or seek advice from like-minded individuals. These platforms support and enhance knowledge retention and transfer of learning too.
5. Managerial support
Managers need to play an active role in their employee’s learning. Managers are most aware of the learning needs of their direct reports and are in a position to make a difference in their work performance. Setting aside time to identify work issues and problems, learning processes and conducting post-training performance audits are some of the ways managers can support employees in their development. For example, managers could start by actively listening to employees concerns and training interests and prompt them to identify or plan their career paths. This step should not be done only during performance appraisals, but throughout the year. Training is merely a tool to impart knowledge, hence the manager needs to create opportunities for applying new skills and behaviour at work. Being open to new ideas and suggestions on how to improve productivity or enhance better outcomes requires the manager to adopt a flexible mindset. After all, learning is about sharing information, experimenting with new ideas and making mistakes. With managerial support, employees will embrace development initiatives and take active steps to be a learning organisation.