How Becoming a Learning Organization Can Benefit Your Company

Alison Rhoades

It has been said that the best skill that people can acquire today is the ability to learn new things. Indeed, in an age where technology and a global economy are transforming the entire professional landscape, workers can no longer hope to remain in the same position, or even company, for decades at a time. Likewise, companies can not afford to cling to the status quo, avoid change, and hope that things will remain steady. Organizations must embrace the idea that learning is critical to their business models and jobs.

Whether you’re a burgeoning startup or a fortune 500 company, it is inarguable that continued, sustained learning is a key driver for success. When a company’s staff is engaged, curious, and in a constant process of self reflection, collaboration, and growth, this can only benefit the company as a whole. However, this means that the company must set up a culture wherein learning is encouraged and promoted, and where employees feel not only safe to communicate their opinions, but driven to challenge themselves and bring new ideas to the table. They must become a learning organization

What are learning organizations?

Learning organizations are companies that foster an environment of learning, sharing, and reflection. In the words of the concept’s originator, Peter Senge, learning organizations are places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” For a more straightforward definition, Harvard Business School Professor David A. Garvin argues that a learning organization is simply a company, “skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

The concept of a learning organization came out of the field of systems thinking, a framework for the study of systems. For Peter Senge, companies often fail to see themselves as a dynamic, evolving set of systems and rather as something static. In addition to systems thinking, Senge defined the four following components necessary for learning organizations to be successful:

  • Personal mastery


    is centered on the individual worker and their commitment to learning, where employees strive to continuously improve and better themselves.

  • Mental models


    are preconceived notions or memories about the organization by employees or the company as a whole that must be challenged in order to progress. A successful learning organization must do away with the baggage of what the company was and focus on what it can be.

  • A shared vision


    is vital for establishing a unified long-term goal that motivates the continued learning of the group.

  • Team learning


    involves continued dialogue and discussion among staff members, encouraging staff to bring their ideas to the table without fear of judgement.

When these structures are established within the organization, according to Senge, learning can flourish. Thanks to Senge, many companies have embraced the idea of becoming a learning organization in the last years, but they have failed to implement practices that reflect their desire to continue learning. In order to truly be a learning organization, businesses must not only strive to learn, but find ways of applying what they have learned to their own business models.

Drawing on Senge’s theory and his own research, David A. Garvin argues that learning organizations feature five main skill sets; namely, systematic problem solving, experimentation, learning from past experiences or mistakes, and the fast and efficient transferring and dissemination of knowledge. Though many companies boast some of these competencies, few manage to consistently maintain all at once. Garvin suggests creating systems and processes that aid companies in sticking to their objectives. These can include training in new problem-solving techniques, activities for seeking out new knowledge, and a process for reflecting on past experiences and talking about lessons learned.

Creating an environment of psychological safety is particularly important, wherein team members feel comfortable expressing their opinions and ideas while supporting one another. This helps people feel more comfortable admitting mistakes and fosters an environment of creativity where innovation can blossom.

While these changes can be hard to implement, Susan M. Heathfield argues that leaders should take the first step by providing a vision for the company, modeling and advocating for the kinds of changes they would like to see reflected in their workplace and team members. Even if leaders can’t influence the inner-workings of the organization as a whole, they can start with their own team. “This is the leadership,” says Amy C. Edmonson, “that creates the environment in which these more structured processes can take form.”

What are the benefits of becoming a learning organization?

Becoming a learning organization may seem like a huge endeavor, particularly for companies with rigid hierarchies in place or a set way of doing things. As Garvin explains, “A learning organization is not cultivated effortlessly. It arises from a series of concrete steps and widely distributed activities, not unlike the workings of business processes such as logistics, billing, order fulfillment, and product development.” However, there are numerous benefits to turning your organization into a learning organization. Here are just a few examples:

  • Happier and more fulfilled employees While not everyone may identify as a passionate lifelong learner, it’s certain that the benefits of the continual accumulation of knowledge makes us happier and healthier both inside and outside the workplace. There’s even evidence to show that learning new skills actually improves your brain health! Your employees, after all, are your greatest asset, and the more stimulated and engaged they are, the more productive and inventive your company will be.

  • More innovation The emphasis on learning and innovation in companies may seem like a recent trend, but it was way back in 1989 that Ray Stata suggested that organizational learning is the key to innovation, particularly on the management level. It should come as no surprise that the emphasis on idea sharing and team collaboration within learning organizations necessarily leads to bigger and brighter ideas.

  • Improved collaboration Because learning organizations are built around teams interacting with one another and sharing knowledge, these companies tend to have a strong sense of community and support. Conflict is less common because everyone is working toward a common goal and learning from one another.

  • Continued and sustained improvements To be a learning organization, a company has to reflect on and learn from their mistakes or failures. The willingness to try new things, the process of admitting that something didn’t work and moving forward are central to making the kinds of improvements and innovations that your company needs to make in order to succeed.

The trend is catching on! Some well-known companies have already been setting the precedent as top-quality learning organizations. In 2017, T-Mobile and the American Heart Association made the Learning 100! top ten list, along with other organizations, for their unique approaches to bringing team building, on-site education programs, and other learning initiatives such as e-learning to their companies.

Although transforming into a learning organization can be a time consuming process, its advantages are sure to outweigh the work. In this day and age, a focus on continued learning and growth are an essential factor for businesses looking to be the next cutting-edge innovators of the future. Becoming a learning organization can help you get there.

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