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What Are Learning Organizations, and What Do They Really Do?

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  • Being such an organization is a good thing. Yet even as we use the term, we might not be sure what it means.

Source | | Warren Wilhelm

For years we’ve been hearing the term “learning organization” used to describe a company or other entity. It is usually used as a compliment: being such an organization is a good thing. Yet even as we use the term, we might not be sure what it means exactly.

Learning organizations and the people in them learn constantly from everything they do. They use their own experience and that of others to improve their performance. They learn from their successes and also from their failures. Continuous learning is systemically built into the organization’s DNA and infrastructure. The value of continuous learning is espoused, driven and modeled by the CEO and senior management. There is no doubt in every organization member’s mind that continuous learning is expected and will be rewarded.

In a true learning organization, communication is open and widespread, people at all levels are included in most communications and it’s assumed everyone “needs to know.”

Further, senior leaders demonstrate they are learning constantly by communicating what they are learning as they learn; people are rewarded for learning with recognition, growth jobs, promotions and even financial compensation, and people who don’t learn are managed out of the organization.

To be a learning organization provides a competitive advantage: learning organizations are superior competitors, they have brand equity their competitors cannot match, and they attract and retain the best talent.

With all these advantages, one would think that most organizations would strive to be learning organizations. And, in fact, many do.

But to become one is not so easy. Becoming and sustaining a true learning organization requires a lot of work and dedication, and it takes time, energy and resources. Many are thwarted in their attempts to become a learning organization by the press of daily work, inability to persevere, lack of support from the top or the unwillingness to fully commit to the idea.

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