Learning organisations check all alternatives and learn based on them

What does it take to become a learning organisation?

A few months ago, I wrote an article on how individuals learn (check here: Determine the right way to improve learning). Organisations are not different from us, subject to the same rules. Organisations have to develop, change, learn, and sometimes pivot to stay competitive. At some point in time, each organisation should become a learning organisation. However, very few organisations are trying to learn and try new things.

What is the reason behind that? How to change it?

He who moves not forward goes backwards.

Goethe’s words are the most common quote regarding learning self-and organisational development.

We often exchange fast learning and adaptation for short-term stability and safety in the long run. It can work for organisations that:

  • don’t need to compete on the open market or
  • in organisations in regulated sectors (this may be why banks cannot be fully agile… hmmm…

It may lead to decision paralysis and the inability to respond to customer needs in all other situations. That’s why organisations pivot and try to reorganise their structures to minimise such risk.

I tried to compare different organisational structures based on their ability to respond to needs and pivot.

Company structures vs ability to learn

Types of organisations based on the ability to change (from hierarchical to learning organisation)
Responsibility for strategic decisions vs actions performed

Hierarchical organisations

In traditional organisations, one person (often detached from the actual situation) decides based on presented data from the lower parts of the organisation and uses people as resources to perform actions in a chosen direction. It leads to extensive growth in management levels required by the organisations to act effectively.

It does not matter if the company created a strategy up-front or emerged from the performed work. Organisations focus on following the plan and how to utilise available resources effectively. The organisation will still try to learn, but only in areas required for effective strategy execution.

Above all, people are not empowered to make their own decisions based on the outcome. Instead, they are responsible for the output of their work. As a result, it may not be the best suited for their skillset. Because of top-down behaviours, people will have limited opportunities to prepare for the future and grow in the direction most interested to them. It may lead to:

  • exhaustion,
  • demotivation,
  • lower effectiveness,
  • improved retention,
  • etc.

It looks different if employees are empowered and can make outcome-based decisions.

From empowered people…

There is no need for an extended hierarchy because people are much closer to the organisation’s strategy. Instead, the end structure will reflect the company’s need for strategy adaptation and required adjustments.

Even though top management still makes all strategic decisions, employees are responsible for their processes and actions. They can adjust their approach according to current needs. It also improves their ability to change. They can either use their existing skills to perform required work or learn and extend their list of possible solutions for problems they face.

When a strategy is created on a higher level, the company structure will be similar to the hierarchical organisation from the top and more fluent at the operational levels. However, structures in organisations with emerging strategies are more fragile, and teams are much less stable because of the necessity to respond to emerging needs.

… to the learning organisation

At the far right end, we can find true learning organisations similar to the beehive. Employees in such organisations are aware of the organisation’s needs and limitations and can respond quickly to the market.

Being a true learning organisation is not El Dorado. Because of the distribution of ownership among employees, it is much harder to become stable. This kind of job requires much more adjustments and compromises.

Above all, if the organisation does not have a clear vision and purpose, it may lead to counterproductive behaviours, where people start to fight with each other.

Are you an old bus or an F1 race car?

I can compare organisations to cars. Similarly to a school bus, an organisation can slowly go to the selected destination at a stable pace, where all employees can catch up with everything. Even without total alignment across a whole company, it still can move forward. In the end, this organisation won’t achieve greatness and may achieve its goal too late. However, they will reach their destination.

An organisation can also work as an F1 race car crew, where everyone has to be able to quickly respond to the changing environment and the need of the team. You need only a few ingredients:

  • transparency
  • clear vision & purpose
  • trust in each other
  • ability to respond to change

If you miss any of those ingredients, you may finish on barriers. However, the award is high. In other words, with the correct people and support from all levels, everything is possible.


Learning organisations see what they are doing every day as a laboratory for learning; on-the-job learning. Therefore, their thoughts and behaviours constantly reflect the idea that everything that happens at work can be an opportunity to teach, train and help others get better in their role or discipline.

It’s about putting into place the operating conditions that:

  • Provide challenging experiences – they allow people to change their mindset and the view on the world and easier notice opportunities;
  • Gives opportunities to practice – let people try unfamiliar ideas, learn about their limitations and prepare for the unknown;
  • Analyse their actions in an open and safe for everyone – the real-life experience is the best teacher, but further reflection and outcome analysis can boost it even further;
  • Time for reflection-giving someone space to mentally absorb and digest what everything means in the larger framework or bigger picture.

It is what a true learning organisation is. Remember: Failure is the first step in learning.

Is this what your organisation looks like?

Further reading

As usual, below you can find more information on this subject:

A natural born Scrum Master. Always mentally attached to Agile - initially a member of Development Team, eventually Scrum Master in the Scrum Team and Agile Coach in the organisation. The most important for me is to deliver value to end-users thanks to engagement of motivated team. For the past few years I have been gaining experience in project, product and team management. I prefer people-oriented managing style. I constantly repeat to everyone that good work environment can give huge benefit in to the project, its product quality and working environment. Because of that I became Scrum Master to fully support my teams as servant leader by using transparency, inspection and adaptation. I help other teams to be better specialists in their field of action. I see their success as my own even if I am working from shadows. I love to share my experience and knowledge on conferences and meetups - as a speaker and participant. Still trying to discover new ways of work and to improve my workshop.

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