In Peter Senge's book "The Fifth Discipline," he outlines the idea of a learning organization. The concept is that a company facilitating learning for its employees is then constantly transforming itself. What's the benefit of becoming a learning organization? Remaining competitive in today's ever-changing business environment.
During Saba's Insight conference last year, one of the speakers expanded on Senge's work and presented the learning organization in a unique way that stuck with me. Instead of saying that we need to become a learning organization, the speaker said we need to become a continuous learning organization. The keyword here being continuous. I like the sound of that!
A new mindset
Moving to a continuous learning organization involves a bit of a mindset shift, specifically when it comes to "learning." If you Google the word learning, it's "the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study or being taught." By contrast, the definition of training is "the action of teaching a person a particular skill or behavior."
Becoming a continuous learning organization isn't about training, it's about learning. And learning is about creating an environment where employees can acquire knowledge or skills through experience, study or training. If learning were a mathematic equation, it might look something like this:
Learning = Exposure + Experience
The question becomes, "How can organizations build a continuous learning culture?" I'm glad you asked. Here are five key elements:
- Strive for a common organizational vision. Companies need to share their vision in employment branding, orientation and onboarding, as well as throughout the employee life cycle. Employees need to see how their work helps the organization achieve its vision. Linking our daily work to the organizational vision is powerful. Not only will it help to retain employees who connect with the company's vision but, realistically speaking, it will help employees who no longer connect to opt out.
- Create an open opportunity culture. Organizations need to make sure that employees enjoy continuous opportunities to learn. And that employees don't have to wait an unreasonable amount of time for those opportunities. In today's candidate-driven talent market, employees aren't going to wait for months and years for opportunities. Nor should organizations want them to. The better employees are, the better the company can be.
- Promote personal mastery. This ties into #2 above. When it comes to continuous learning, personal mastery expands so any employee can attend any type of training. Why limit leadership training to manager-level and above? Every single employee would benefit from the content. On the flip side, why not encourage a new manager to shadow their employees so they can see a true "day in the life"? It could be a huge benefit for everyone involved.
- Develop content-rich communication. In #3 (personal mastery), we mentioned content. All of the content that employees receive should be "content-rich" in terms of value, authenticity and accessibility. This doesn't just apply to internal memos, emails and 1:1 meetings. The marker "content-rich" should apply to all forms of communication including performance reviews as well as formal and informal training and development programs.
- Share internal and external best practices. Please notice this doesn't say "duplicate" best practices. That's not the point. Best practices provide inspiration. They can be used to start conversations, solicit feedback and develop content (see #4). Sometimes to step into becoming a continuous learning organization, we need to examine what others are doing and ask ourselves, "Could we make something like that work for us?"
The learning pyramid
When these five key elements are brought together, it builds a pyramid that filters down to employees. We're often used to seeing pyramids flowing upward, however, in this case, the goal is clear. A continuous learning organization needs employees to survive. The company's values define their vision, which drives senior management and the goals they set. Employees work on those goals.
If organizations want to remain competitive, they need to learn how to create a continuous learning culture. Senior management must support the five key elements for success. The organization needs to make employee learning a priority, not just with words but with time and monetary investment. And lastly, the effort must be supported at every level of the organization.
Continuous learning isn't something that entry-level employees should check off as part of an onboarding activity. For it to succeed, it must be a process that is ingrained into the company culture. Start today to become a continuous learning organization.