How a learning culture primes your organization for agility

Article11 min read

November 1, 2022

If your organization struggles to keep up with the ever-changing realities of your industry — and of the world of business at large — your organization is not alone. For one, the current and ongoing digital transformation, the emerging skill gaps that follow in its wake, and the pressure to innovate and adapt to continuing change can all make for challenging terrain to navigate for any organization, big or small.

The solution? A higher adaptability and enterprise agility through education. In other words, to keep up with the ever-changing realities and demands of your industry, your organization will need to first and foremost build a culture of learning within its ranks — and become what thought leader Peter Senge dubbed a “learning organization.” 1

Learning organization meets a transformative world head-on. That’s because these organizations help to create agile learners, and agile learners move quickly, adjust skillfully, and drive innovation. It’s no wonder then that the organizations that get this right are 46% more likely to be first to market, 37% to be more productive, and 92% to be more likely to innovate.2

Read on to find out how learning and development (L&D) managers can use Senge’s framework as a guide to develop a learning culture that inspires agility within their business.

What is a learning organization?

To put it simply, a learning organization is one that promotes the learning and professional development of all its members. A learning organization does not fight change — instead, it continuously develops itself to adapt to new needs and demands.3

The characteristics of a learning organization includes systems and processes to support experimentation, new modes of thinking, and a culture of inquiry.

How to create a learning organization

Pause for a moment and look at your colleagues. Note the wide experience and expertise each of them could bring to the table if given the chance and motivation. Is it possible that one of them has the very solution to one of your organization’s problems, but may never have had the opportunity or drive to share it?

When you create a learning culture, you send the following message to everyone: The knowledge and skills you have matter, and your professional development is our priority.

This is where the L&D team comes in. In an evolving business landscape where upskilling and reskilling are more important than ever, L&D managers and their teams must be able to provide impactful learning solutions that meet the individual needs of diverse teams within their organization, and inject key skills that have a direct impact on business success and growth. Combined, the drive to learn and continuous upskilling help organizations to pivot in the face of rampant change.4

Senge’s framework, which he describes in his seminal work The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, uses the following five “disciplines” or areas that together make up a roadmap to creating a learning organization:5

  • Systems thinking
  • Personal mastery 
  • Mental models
  • Shared vision
  • Team learning

These disciplines prepare individuals, teams, and organizations with the skills and practices needed to make a learning organization work. They also help pinpoint areas of improvement that can be targeted by L&D teams. Let’s have a look at each one of them below.

1. Systems thinking

Systems thinking demands that one views their organization as a complex system that’s made up of numerous smaller structures. It’s much like a spider’s web, where it’s the small strands that ultimately make the whole strong — meaning that individual decisions are understood to have a broader impact.

To reach systems thinking — or the ability to see one’s organization as a system of interconnected structures — you will have to understand your organization as a whole, from the bigger-picture structures to the architecture of departments and teams. You then need to identify — and this is key to systems thinking — the small cogs (short-term objectives) that keep the big machine (long-term goals) working.6

For example, take a set of skills a marketing team has. Perhaps their strength as a team are insights into digital marketing essentials. Now identify the processes that help put these skills to use, and the technologies that enable collaboration within and between this team and other teams within the organization.

Such an exercise might look like weekly campaign meetings where contributors can track progress, share data and learnings, and monitor how campaign KPIs link to higher-level business goals like overall sales. Observe how synchronous communications tools like Slack, for instance, and increased autonomy allow the team to optimize campaigns in real time.

By pinpointing how such skills, processes, and technologies affect each other, your organization can now identify barriers and suggest improvements and opportunities to fill emerging skills gaps — both of which are foundational to building enterprise agility and a culture of learning.

In our example, that might be eliminating management sign-off on campaign tweaks, scheduling more regular check-ins, or even evaluating if teams should be training in a new digital marketing specialization to boost campaign ROI further.

2. Personal mastery

The second pillar of a learning organization is an investment in personal mastery — in other words, a commitment to ongoing growth and development through deeper insights into personal beliefs, purpose, and vision. Personal mastery is achieved through a set of repeatable strategies and tools that equip individuals to perform at their best.7

Contrary to what its name suggests, personal mastery is not only concerned with individual opportunities to grow new skills and expertise. It’s also about the way in which an organization supports such opportunities and helps team members link their efforts to the broader mission of the organization.

By doing so, and as Senge puts it, “Learning in this context does not mean acquiring more information, but expanding the ability to produce results.”8 This means that a digital marketer is not just gaining a new accreditation; they’re also acquiring knowledge that’ll enable more targeted campaigns and higher conversion rates in their day-to-day.

And with online learning providing new opportunities for performance-based learning (otherwise known as learning in the flow of work),9 teams will have the chance to put their learning into action directly.

The benefits of putting newly learned skills into practice are twofold. First, when individual team members are given the opportunity to grow their careers, they stay motivated in their roles and remain happy with their current organization. According to Gallup insights, skills development programs increased job satisfaction for 71% of workers in the U.S.10

And when these employees focus on upskilling, and gain new and in-demand skills that are needed to cope with industry shifts, they also become part of increasing organizational agility.

3. Mental models

It is no secret that our assumptions and preconceptions about ourselves, about others, and about the world at large affect our emotions and behavior. What is more, we are often unaware of these thinking patterns and constructs. This, in turn, can affect how we show up at work. If we hold on to an unconscious belief that we’re not capable of doing something, we might not jump at a promising opportunity, either — or underperform.

This could even affect broader business outcomes. For example, if a leadership team is convinced that they’re already using the best technology, they could close themselves off to a new solution that could boost team efficiency and even save on licensing fees.

By working through what Senge coined “mental models”, an organization examines its shared and individual thinking, and its blind spots. This can be done at a high level, through annual and quarterly reviews across the company. Alternatively, this kind of reflection can be built into routine activities, including project review and debriefing sessions or into training initiatives that help teams to interrogate any areas of assumption.

One such assumption, for example, could be that a business thinks that they already understand their product’s user base, and how the organization fits into their clients’ lives. In other words, by interrogating assumptions, organizations shed light on the knowledge they should be questioning and the skills they should focus on building. In our example, L&D teams could lead the practice of reflective thinking, or other development opportunities that help individuals to gain insight into personal, or team-wide mental models.

When they work through this step of self-inquiry, teams learn to identify weak points, and by doing so they make room for new ideas, new and in-demand knowledge, and ultimately more informed decision-making.11

4. Shared vision

Workers who share and support their organization’s vision, and what their organization stands for, perform better and tend to remain longer within their organization.12 Take an employee who works for a company that’s committed to promoting gender equality in real terms — through transparency around pay, equal parental leave, childcare services, and programs that support women’s advancement in the workplace.

If this particular employee supports their organization’s commitment to gender equality, and shares in the organization’s mission of promoting equitable practices, they’ll be intrinsically motivated to make sure the organization meets its vision and mission, and may feel more driven to perform for the good of the company. Case in point: Researchers have established a clear link between employee satisfaction and wellness at work, and individual links to the broader outcomes of their organization.13

Which leads us back to team buy-in: When an organization involves its employees in discussing the company’s mission and goals, and seeks their input on an ongoing basis, it also equips and empowers them to take part in organizational growth and learning. Once originally owned by leadership, the organization’s vision and mission are now owned and shared by all, sparking dialogue and bringing more diverse perspectives to the table.14

And as L&D leaders know, for learning initiatives to really pack a punch, it should have clear links to company-wide strategic goals, as well as individual and team level goals. So it’s essential that L&D teams are involved in this process of engagement on vision and mission.15

5. Team learning

Senge believed that the role of teams within a learning organization is significant. According to him, teams have an “extraordinary capacity for positive change.”16 That’s because people can achieve more together.

A focus on team-level learning — where teams think together, engage in dialogue and cooperative problem-solving, and share collective insights — is a powerful vehicle for innovation and agility. If one developer is struggling to integrate the latest of a string of product updates, they may make better headway when partnered up with a product manager who understands the business need behind a change, and with a software engineer who’s been working with the platform since it was first built.

Such a learning collaboration fosters conversations within and between departments. It also primes teams to work with a shared vision, an understanding of how organizational systems impact each other, and a grasp of how individual and team activities feed into the whole.17 But before team learning can take place, a team and its organization have to address one major barrier to success: silo mentality.

Silo mentality translates into departmental isolation: Departments or groups may be unwilling to share knowledge or information, and may even lack trust in other departments or groups. Organizational silos affect communication, erode trust, restrict innovation, and make it harder to pivot operations.18 Such a situation could be exacerbated even further by existing procedures or organizational cultures that preclude this more open and collaborative approach to learning and working, such as unspoken but real competition between departments, which results in departments safeguarding information and not sharing it with any other group. Fortunately, the work of L&D teams — in educating and fostering collaboration — helps to break down silos and set the stage for team learning to prosper.

Ready to build agility? Turn your organization into one of learning.

With a firm foundation for new skill development, an increased knowledge base, and robust modes of thought, organizations can build the internal resources they need to respond to frequent industry shifts. When enterprises invest in these competencies through L&D initiatives, they can meet change with agility and navigate disruptions more effectively.

For more insights on how you, too, can harness the power of online education to boost learning on the job, take a look at our white paper, ‘Three Key Steps Towards a Transformational Culture of Learning.’

Accelerate the workforce of the future, with edX

Whether you’re a business leader, L&D executive, or other professional, we offer compelling data and insights for why an outcomes-based skills program is key to succeeding in tomorrow’s workplace.

  1. Best practices for cultivating learning agility in the workplace. (2021). InStride. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  2. How To Foster A Culture Of Continuous Learning. (2021). Forbes. Retrieved October 3, 2022.
  3.  Establishing a Learning Organization Culture. (2021). Matter. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  4. Building a learning culture that drives business forward. (2021). McKinsey. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  5. Establishing a Learning Organization Culture. (2021). Matter. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  6. Senge’s Five Disciplines of Learning Organizations. (2022). ToolsHero. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  7. Personal Mastery and Peter Senge: Definition & Examples. (2021). Retrieved October 6, 2022.
  8. The Benefits Of A Learning Organization Culture. (2021). Bloomfire. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  9. Learning in the Flow of Work. (2021). Forbes. Retrieved September 21, 2022.
  10. The American Upskilling Study: Empowering Workers for the Jobs of Tomorrow. (2021). Gallup. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  11. The Benefits Of A Learning Organization Culture. (2021). Bloomfire. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  12. What Is Employee Engagement and How Do You Improve It? (2020). Gallup. Retrieved October 23, 2022.
  13. 6 Research-Backed Ways to Promote Employee Well-being. (2022). Great Place to Work. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  14. The Benefits Of A Learning Organization Culture. (2021). Bloomfire. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  15. L&D Teams: 5 Core Features of Successful Learning & Development. (2022). Elm Learning. Retrieved October 23, 2022.
  16. Creating a Learning Work Culture That Meets Professional Needs. (2021). Inside Higher Education. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  17. The Changing Role of the Modern Sales Team. (undated). SalesForce. Retrieved September 16, 2022.
  18. The Changing Role of the Modern Sales Team. (undated). SalesForce. Retrieved September 16, 2022.

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