This blog post was co-written with the help of Jane Daly, Chief Insight Officer with Towards Maturity. Jane combines over 15 years of practical experience in senior learning roles. She is fascinated by how organizations create commercial learning environments, sustain learning and transform – and why they don't. Together, we've compiled the key concepts necessary of a new learning organization.
Recently, the idea of becoming a learning organization has been the sole aspiration of the learning and development (L&D) department. It paints a picture of a business where staff connects and engages in L&D initiatives without continual cajoling or enlisting. It symbolizes the perfect learning culture that results in self-directed learning and fabulous net promoter scores!
Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, has said that a learning organization is a group of people working together to enhance their capabilities to create results they really care about. So the learning organization is not just a distant hope for L&D, it is a shared responsibility for making change happen. That mutual responsibility lies with leaders, individuals and, yes, people professionals.
Towards Maturity's research shows that we need to work smarter not harder. Organizations that track in the top 10 percent (Top Deck) of the Towards Maturity Index are three times more likely to report benefits relating to growth, profitability, transformation and productivity than the rest. What's more, Top Deck organizations are continually evolving their learning strategies in line with changes in their businesses. They are willing to change, take risks and champion new ways of working and learning, even when everything is apparently moving along just fine.
Towards Maturity's research shows that we need to work smarter, not harder.
There are six notable characteristics that define the new learning organization...
Characteristic 1: Clarity of purpose
A shared vision of outcomes that matter.
Shared purpose across the business sits at the heart of the new learning organization, and within Top Deck organizations we see responsibility for learning shift from the L&D department to a place of mutual decision making. For example, business and L&D leaders at this stage are more likely to work together to identify the business outcomes associated with learning and therefore support the learning process. Eighty-eight percent of Top Deck organizations agree that senior managers work with L&D to define what key performance indicators need to improve (vs. 33 percent average in the rest of our sample). Staff also have a clear understanding of how their work contributes to the overall performance of the business.
Characteristic 2: Holistic people experience
A trusted brand that expects and facilitates continuous learning from start to finish.
Formal programs are still important, but Top Deck organizations highlight that the emphasis is on behavior change. In program development, outcomes always come first, with 88 percent identifying actions needed up front to achieve business outcomes, and 97 percent including actions to achieve those outcomes (vs. 43 percent and 47 percent average). These organizations are using their formal learning programs to model change for managers and leaders as well as for those joining the company by embedding more technology into the process. Top Deck L&D leaders communicate more and are starting to help staff to connect and share at their point of need.
Characteristic 3: Thriving ecosystem
Individuals, managers and the extended enterprise working towards common goals.
A strong characteristic of Top Deck L&D leaders is that they see the individuals in their organizations as connected contributors to the learning culture. Seventy-one percent of learning professionals agree their staff know how to work together to connect and share knowledge productively (vs. 22 percent average). L&D are tuning into the voice of their staff and are proactive in finding out how staff learn for themselves (76 percent vs. 28 percent average). Eighty-two percent of L&D organizations are helping staff to locate in-house experts when they need them (vs. 36 percent average).
Characteristic 4: Agile, digitally enabled infrastructure
Supporting and enabling a fluid exchange of ideas and skills.
Digital transformation isn't just changing the way that new learning organizations deliver services and connect with customers; it also enables the exchange of learning and sharing of new ideas at speed. Technology is a pillar of these organizations, and Top Deck L&D teams are starting to leverage its full capability. All organizations are using live online learning, such as VoIP (voice over internet protocol) tools, webinars and communication tools. The Top Deck is also prioritizing the skills needed internally to support sharing. These high-performing organizations recognize their weaknesses in facilitating collaboration, but the difference is that 44 percent of the Top Deck have set this as a priority area for skills development now compared with 25 percent average.
Characteristic 5: Continual engagement
Self-directed, connected, accumulating collective understanding.
Top Deck organizations show us that while continual engagement in learning is essential it is not the sole responsibility of learning leaders. Managers also play a role and are not only active in ensuring formal learning is more successful (88 percent discuss aims and objectives of learning with team members vs. 38 percent average) but they also support an environment where individuals have permission to share and encouragement to grow.
Characteristic 6: Intelligent decision making
Using performance analytics to inform and adapt.
Business and L&D work together to make learning decisions, and there is also a significant increase in the use of data to inform those decisions. While this is still an area for improvement, Top Deck organizations are more than twice as likely both to gather data and to use it to improve services: 68 percent track performance data to increase the impact of the learning program (vs. 22 percent average) and 52 percent actively use benchmarking as a tool to improve their service (vs.17 percent average).
Mutual responsibilities of business and learning leaders
Throughout the analysis of top-performing organizations, the mutual responsibilities of both business leaders and people professionals have underpinned success. Each of these characteristics reflects the collective opportunity to work together to deliver what is important to individuals and organizations today. A key feature of the new learning organization is that it is constantly evolving as it responds to change. Becoming a learning organization requires continual change and transformation of the L&D teams.
Here are three things that learning leaders can do now to support the shift:
Learn from the Top Deck: Don't be intimidated. Top Deck organizations are organizations like you: small, large, private, public and not-for-profit. Benchmark your strategy against theirs to identify small changes that can make a big difference.
Learn to let go: Some of our past successes can hinder our future progress.
Learn to learn: Yes, we are busy, yes, we are overwhelmed coping with now let alone the future, but growing our own skills in new areas will build the confidence and courage needed to play our critical role in the new learning organization.
While evolving into a learning organization may have once been a distant hope for L&D professionals, by applying these best practices while people professionals, leaders and individuals share the accountability, organizations like those among the Top Deck are making it a reality.