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Creating a Continuous Learning Organisation

Friday, October 25, 2013 - 07:33

By Leon Gettler

Continuous learning has now become a critical way for organisations to get an edge over their competitors. In the current business environment, organisations must be able to learn continuously in order to deal with these changes and, in the end, to survive. Of course, there is nothing new in this. Organisations have always said we want to have a “continuous learning culture”. In practice, however, this has meant a series of training events, not a continuous flow of learning. Managers play a critical role in changing that.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, David Garvin says learning organisations are skilled at five main activities: systematic problem solving, experimentation with new approaches, learning from their own experience and past history, learning from the experiences and best practices of others, and transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organisation. .

“The first step is to foster an environment that is conducive to learning. There must be time for reflection and analysis, to think about strategic plans, dissect customer needs, assess current work systems, and invent new products. Learning is difficult when employees are harried or rushed; it tends to be driven out by the pressures of the moment. Only if top management explicitly frees up employees’ time for the purpose does learning occur with any frequency. That time will be doubly productive if employees possess the skills to use it wisely. Training in brainstorming, problem solving, evaluating experiments, and other core learning skills is therefore essential.”

And much of it comes down to the managers. As Kelsey Meyer at Forbes points out, managers today have to read extensively (and that includes the opinions of people they don’t agree with), they have to tune into podcasts, get involved in question and answer sessions, challenge themselves to attend a new workshop or class once a quarter (“Choose skills that are completely outside of your function, or something that would be complementary. Woodworking, cooking, or coding classes can exercise different parts of your brain and allow you to think more critically”) and relearn stuff that they had picked up long ago but may have forgotten.

Experts say companies these days have to provide continuous coaching, mentoring, seminars, workshops, group discussions and Q&A sessions. Managers also have to make sure there is lots of feedback from employees, customers and clients.

Psychologist Justine La Roche says it’s important to give employees time to learn. “With cost cuts and efficiency drives demanding people ‘do more with less’ learning in this context is considered a luxury, not a route to competitive advantage," La Roche writes.

“Regardless of whether the ‘no time to learn’ barrier is real or perceived, the result is the same – a vicious cycle of busy mediocrity. One way to address this issue is by detailing the roles and responsibilities of employees, their managers and the organisation overall, highlighting that ongoing learning is not only encouraged but expected.

She says they also need to give employees access to appropriate resources to identify and reflect on learning opportunities.

“Also critical to implementation is educating managers on the important role they play in supporting the development of their teams and role modelling a learning orientation. With this in mind, we have supported numerous organisations to design and deliver manager workshops that build coaching skills and competence in conducting development conversations," she writes.