Organizations today are faced with an ever changing global business environment that requires a competitive edge. A major strategy many organizations have adopted is turning their organizations into “learning organizations.” This approach creates a major advantage for organizations that can learn and adopt to change faster than their competitors. Despite much research focused on the return on investment for learning organizations, some organizations are hesitant to adopt this structure. This is partly due to the fact that a strategy focused on learning within organizations changes the dynamics within every part of that organization. However, this change is one that should be embraced and not feared.
Organizations create a competitive advantage by initiating a learning organization structure. The benefits of the learning organization structure include the following:
• Attracting and retaining quality employees with similar values,
• Enjoying higher revenue growth and employee performance,
• Providing better response to consumer needs, and thus retaining them, and
• Having a better chance at becoming or maintaining leader status in the industry..
Famous organizational theorist Peter Senge, who wrote The Fifth Discipline, defined learning organizations as "Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together." Organizations start the journey towards becoming a learning organization by understanding what this structure actually is. Learning organizations are identified by the following characteristics:
• A “pancake” organizational structure in which power is evenly distributed based on knowledge in employees,
• Organizational purpose and goals reflect employee values,
• Goals allow for voluntary cooperation in participating in organizational learning,
• Employees share knowledge and make more decisions with minimum management supervision, and
• A tight knit community of learners who control and conform to the organization because they hold the same views and goals as the organization.
Essentially a learning organization will support a competitive edge because employees:
• Have the capacity for change,
• Can work across boundaries with the free flow of information and values,
• Have the ability to learn rapidly, and
• Have the ability to engage in “systems thinking.”
Systems thinking includes diagnosis and fundamental culture change as part of the organization’s ongoing management process. Developing and maintaining a competitive organization requires making changes that generate innovation and constant improvements. Learning is what produces this competitive edge.
When an organization develops into a competitive learning organization, employees succeed by solving problems in an efficient, constructive manner. Although there is no set formula, organizations should know that they need to maintain a “forward thinking” perspective in which opportunities and potential vulnerabilities can be foreseen. There will be times that an industry will be faced with changing goals such as creating more cost effective processes during a slow period, or increasing up customer service during busy times. In these cases, organizations must have a plan in place to change learning strategies to direct employees.
Employees must develop skills to make them well-rounded workers with the ability to understand and solve potential problems that exist in a world of change. “Technology, equipment, and supplies can be duplicated,” comments Astron’s National Director Jennifer Loftus. “People are the one organizational aspect that can’t be copied. Structures and systems that allow organizations to tap into and enhance the power of those people are the keys to growth and success in the future. HR is strategically poised with the requisite skills and expertise to bring learning structures into their organizations to make positive change for all.”