What’s wrong with a learning organisation?


The desire to become a learning organisation takes a prominent position in many plans for change.
However, I’ve noticed that this aim for change rarely leads to action. What’s more, it seems to have the effect of a self-denying prophecy. The aim for a learning organisation gets in the way of learning itself.

I wondered how this is possible. And it became clear to me that aiming for a learning organisation is surrounded by three burdens.

It includes a pointy finger

If you say to an employee “we are aiming for a learning organisation” then there is a good chance that he interprets this sentence as: “you are not learning”. Also if you didn’t mean it like this.

This just happens to be the effect of change goals that are ‘good in itself’, which no one can actually oppose. Because of their normativity they hinder the conversation about how far you are still removed from your objective. While this conversation is no less than the essence of a learning organisation.

It’s an empty shell

Aiming for a learning organisation is a hard change goal because it doesn’t give content-based direction. It only says that the organisation is learning and not what the organisation is learning. Naturally, it’s possible that each employee fleshes this out individually. But without a common direction you can at most speak about learning individuals, but not about a learning organisation.

It puts the key in the wrong hands

If an organisation is less learning than you would like, the first question to ask is: ‘what is going on?’ If it then turns out that this can be traced back to a high work pressure, an unsafe atmosphere, excessive performance-oriented guidance or a management style that is too directive, it’s then inappropriate to see employees as those who ‘must’ change. As they then don’t hold the key to a learning organisation.

Then what?

There’s nothing wrong with a learning organisation. What’s more: only organisations in which common reflection on the own effectiveness is part of the core business, can flourish in a complex world that is changing continuously. But if you want to stimulate this in an organisation there is one important motto:

Don’t see it as your change goal.

See it as your change approach. Organise changes as a common search. Not to search for the sake of it, but to solve an urgent problem involving work.

So go on a search to solve it. Ask and welcome questions. Discover what’s really going on. Experiment with unusual solutions. Trace hindering assumptions. Cheerfully return to paths you have taken with dead ends. Be surprised by the patterns that are revealed to you along the way and what they say about your leadership and that of others. And let go of the idea that you already know where you are heading during your journey.

The more often you go through this search process, the better you as an organisation become in the art of seeking. Until it has become second nature. You have revealed yourself as a learning organisation unnoticed.

There just happen to be things that can only come to life when you stop aiming for it, but simply start doing it.

Annemarie Mars, February 2018

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