Great Business Ideas: Building a learning organization

Great Small Business Ideas to Start: Building a learning organization

Being open and keen to learn, develop, and improve is a defining characteristic of a successful leader. It is also a common feature of a successful, dynamic organization—but what does it really mean?

The idea

Beware organizations that feel a need to proudly tell you about their character: they may be speaking too soon, or just too much. For example, Enron had posters proudly announcing its integrity right up to the moment its senior managers were indicted and implicated in one of the worst ever corporate scandals. Similarly, when a politician (or anyone) says “Trust me,” that’s usually the last thing you would want to do.

To its great credit, one business that probably does not think of itself as a learning organization is the international publisher Pearson, yet that is exactly what it is becoming. Pearson has a host of impressive, world-class brands (including the Financial Times and Penguin), and this ensures it can invariably attract the brightest and the best. Yet despite its great heritage, brands, and people, there is no air of complacency, just a keenness to learn, and a t ireless desire to collaborate, develop and improve. Working with Pearson is a little like working with an Olympic athlete: it is good and it knows what it can accomplish, but it is still striving hard to get even better and do even more. This is a fundamental aspect of great organizations, yet it can often be lost or forgotten, with potentially disastrous results.

Being a learning organization, however, means more than just wanting to improve. Renowned business writer Peter Senge views a learning organization as one “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.”

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In practice

Senge believes that five disciplines are central to learning organizations.

Consider which of these five vital aspects of learning could be improved within your business:

  1. Systems thinking is the ability to comprehend and address the whole, understanding the interrelationship between the parts. One of the key problems with many businesses is that they apply simplistic frameworks to what are complex systems. We tend to focus on the parts rather than seeing the whole, and fail to see organization as a dynamic process. So a better appreciation of systems will lead to more appropriate action.
  2. Personal mastery is the ability to clarify our personal vision, focus our energies, be patient, and display objectivity. People with a high level of personal mastery are continually learning, they are acutely aware of their ignorance and their growth areas, and yet they are also deeply self-confident. This seems paradoxical, but for people with personal mastery the journey is seen as the reward.
  3. Mental models are deeply ingrained views, assumptions, and generalizations that influence how we understand the world and how we act. Using mental models starts with looking in the mirror: learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, bringing them to the surface, and holding them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on “learningful” conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.
  4. Building a shared vision means developing a shared picture of the future. Such a vision has the power to be uplifting, encouraging experimentation and innovation. Crucially, it can also foster a long-term perspective. What is needed for success, however, is an ability to translate a vision into a clear, practical set of principles and guiding practices.
  5. Team learning is the final aspect of organizational learning, and is defined by Peter Senge as “the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire.” It builds on personal mastery and shared vision, and recognizes that people need to be able to act together. When teams learn together, Senge suggests, not only can there be good results for the organization, but members will develop their skills more rapidly.
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