Illustration of a business professional presenting a chart to other business professionals.

Arie de Geus, Dutch business executive and former head of the Strategic Planning Group at Shell (then known as Royal Dutch Shell) famously said: “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” This quote has become something of a mantra for proponents of the ‘learning organisation’: defined as an organisation that improves and transforms itself continually.

Going beyond simply teaching new skills to their members, learning organisations have the embrace of change and new ideas built into their fabric. But while that sounds like a great state to achieve, what makes an organisation a ‘learning’ one? How can organisations achieve this, and what does it look like in practice?

Econsultancy’s latest report, ‘Winning the Race for Digital Skills: The New Best Practices of Effective Learning’ delves into this in depth, but in this article, I’ll offer an introduction to the ideas covered by author Stefan Tornquist: what it means to be a learning organisation, and why organisations should strive towards this goal.

What separates an organisation with learners from a learning organisation?

Having an organisation whose members learn is definitely an important step towards becoming a learning organisation, but it’s only part of the equation. Tornquist says that hiring employees with a learning mindset is the key to creating a learning organisation.

“The ability to thrive professionally is something that the best people look for in an organisation before they even consider applying to work there,” he writes.

Therefore, if an organisation creates opportunities for its employees to learn, thrive and grow, it will attract a high calibre of applicants, who will bring with them a thirst for development and apply that to their work with the organisation. “And so a virtuous circular relationship between vision, culture, talent, and performance is created,” Tornquist concludes.

The ability to thrive professionally is something that the best people look for in an organisation before they even consider applying to work there

Graphic illustrating a virtuous cycle between vision, talent and culture. Five circles feed into one another, as follows: Attractiveness to candidates, right people hired, given what they need to do their work, strong L&D culture, shared vision for the business and its people.

A virtuous circle: Organisational vision, talent and culture feed into one another to create a cycle that benefits the entire company (Source: Econsultancy)

The importance of culture

At an organisational level, mindset is often called ‘culture’ – the culture of an organisation determines the types of people it attracts and fosters, and employees will typically be attracted to an organisational culture that complements their values and priorities.

Borrowing from Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Tornquist explains that the opposite of an organisational learning culture is a ‘control’ culture – one in which the status quo dominates. Organisations with ‘control’ cultures strive for stability, but this comes at the expense of new ideas, (potentially beneficial) risk-taking, and creativity.

By contrast, learning organisations embrace change to the extent that it is possible for the people within the organisation to actively create its culture, rather than simply accept it.

Tornquist describes two types of control-based cultures that employees might find themselves within, and two types of cultures that are emblematic of a learning organisation. In a survey of just under 1,500 professionals that accompanied the report, respondents were asked to identify which descriptor best fit their organisational culture:

Control-based cultures

  • “Traditional environment with clear chain of command, multiple management tiers, and an emphasis on stability” – identified by 28% of respondents
  • “Market-driven environment exclusively focused on the bottom line” – identified by 27%

Learning-based cultures

  • “Collaborative environment where the individual is valued, and communication is a top priority” – identified by 23% of respondents
  • “Flexible environment that emphasises innovation, individual responsibility, and risk-taking to achieve marketing growth” – identified by 22%

Overall, employees at control-based organisations made up the majority of the sample, with 55% to learning organisations’ 45%. However, Tornquist offers some pointers for control-based organisations looking to improve their culture:

  • Shift emphasis from compliance/required training and experiment with incentives for learning.
  • Offer learning opportunities in knowledge and mindset to complement skills focus.
  • Identify learning opportunities that align with corporate growth strategy.
  • Wider mix of learning modes with an emphasis on live-learning such as workshops, mini-missions, and external events.

The five types of professional learner and what they mean for upskilling programs

Why become a learning organisation?

I’ve already mentioned some of the innate advantages of becoming a learning organisation, such as facilitating innovation, adapting to change, and attracting a higher quality of would-be employees who are looking for an environment where they can thrive.

In addition to these, Tornquist highlights a strong business case for skills-related L&D – particularly at a time when many professionals note that digital skills need updating at least monthly, and training can be the quickest way to add new skillsets.

On top of this, he writes, “becoming a learning organisation has many benefits which are particularly important in the context of digital transformation.” Changing minds and attitudes is often the biggest challenge of digital transformation: so to already have achieved this (or to be perpetually achieving this) means that an organisation is already primed for digital transformation success.

Other benefits that becoming a learning organisation can bring include:

  • Developing a leadership pipeline
  • Promoting organisational agility
  • Updating the organisation’s attitude towards failure
  • Positioning line managers as facilitators, not dictators
  • Sharing outcomes, rather than case studies
  • Encouraging transparency
  • Giving everyone a voice
  • Maintaining a progressive outlook

Or, as Tornquist summarises: “The benefits of becoming a learning organisation range from increasing agility and ability to cope with change to developing a leadership pipeline and improving communication.”

For more on instilling a culture of learning into your business and how it benefits the wider organisation, download Econsultancy’s report, ‘Winning the Race for Digital Skills: The New Best Practices of Effective Learning’.