The Learning Organization vs. An Organization of Learners

The concept of a Learning Organization is well-established but rare in practice. Just what do people mean when they say they have—or want—a Learning Organization? Usually, it’s just a fancy way to say that the organization values Learning, evidenced by the amount of training they provide for employees.

But a true Learning Organization requires more…much more.

Let’s start with this: Organizational Learning is always preceded by Individual Learning. An organization doesn’t learn; individuals within the organization do. Not to put too fine a point on it, what we’re talking about is an Organization of Learners.

What does it mean to be a “Learner”? Here’s a quick checklist:

  • You are willing to get out of your Comfort Zone and try new things.
  • You examine each experience for new learning.
  • You learn from your successes and failures.

When you have Learners in the majority, you are on the way to being a true Learning Organization. But not quite there yet. There are a couple of other factors:

  • Learners have to be willing to share—both successes and failures. People have to be willing to put up their hands and say, “Hey everybody! Look at this dumb thing I did! I want to tell you what I learned so you don’t make the same mistake.”
  • You need formal Organizational Memory. There has to be a place to gather and share learnings. Many organizations do this informally, either through oral tradition (storytelling, mentoring, etc.) or through written methods (newsletters, databases, etc.). A true Learning Organization is one that takes steps to ensure that what has been learned is retained.

An organization of Learners is faster and more efficient. When one person learns something, the entire organization learns it. Success spreads exponentially. Mistakes are made and learned from in parallel, not in series.

But it requires individuals who are willing to learn and share, and an organizational Culture that supports them.


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