How “Learning Organizations” Beat Natural Selection

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This is the first article in a 3-part series.   Albert Einstein once famously said: “Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”   Perhaps no greater factor to determining organizational success in recent years is the ability of an organization to recognize business challenges and adapt, that is, to make the necessary changes to help foster growth and higher performance. While, a product or a specific strategy might be copied or borrowed from an a competitor, or a new technological tool might help spur a more streamlined or enhanced business process, in the bigger picture the key components in impactful organizational development is observation of challenges, formulation of clear objectives to help meet those challenges, and effective management of the processes to meet those objectives.  

Organizational Learning

This all begins with organizational learning, which refers not only to the acquisition of new knowledge, but also an increase in the ability to apply new knowledge to improve performance. As one definition has it, it is an “organization-wide continuous process that enhances its collective ability to accept, make sense of, and respond to external and internal change…It requires systematic integration and collective interpretation of new knowledge that leads to collective action…” An organization’s ability to learn from its mistakes and adapt itself to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated is crucial in ensuring it meets its long term objectives.  

The Learning Organization

In organizational learning theory, there is a lot of talk of a “learning organization”. In a videotaped Harvard Business Review interview on ‘The Importance of Learning in Organizations’, David Garvin defines a learning organization as one that is “skilled at two things – creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring and retaining knowledge; and acting – modifying its behavior to respond to those new knowledge and insights.” Amy Edmondson also adds that “the learning environment, that makes those [learning] processes possible and as important, over all of this, is leadership that really fosters and inspires the learning processes and helps create the learning environment.”   A learning organization continuously develops new ideas toward the goal of improved efficiency, productivity and performance. It then shares these ideas throughout the organization, at which point the organization’s structure – departments, teams and individuals – turns those ideas into actions. It also is able study which ideas and processes are working and which are not succeeding, and is able to continue to adapt to those results.

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Pillars of a Learning Organization

The key components of a learning organization are learning from evaluation, committing to evidence-informed practice and applying best practices and change initiatives.   A learning organization is important in order to adapt to changes of various kinds. Globalization, deregulation of various markets, and technological changes, in particular the internet, has dramatically altered the way organizations conduct their activities and how they learn as well. Yet, internal changes are a major driver for the need to adapt as well. Mergers and acquisitions, financial difficulties, expansion, competitive pressures, leadership transition – any of these factors can disrupt team and individual performance.  

Only the Strongest Survive

Those organizations that learn more rapidly than the competition can move ahead of them in this ever-changing environment. It’s the Natural Selection process at work, but in an organizational context: those who fail to adapt and evolve faster than the rate of changing threats will simply not be able to compete.
  There is no way to overstate the importance of organizational learning in the flexibility of a business, as it allows even-paced, widely diverse adaptation of individuals and teams as units to new ideas without slow down or learning models that cost expensive manpower and time. When learning is embraced and celebrated, and knowledge is shared and valued, the entire organization sees the benefits. Individual team members are more motivated and fulfilled, sharing their knowledge and experience as they take in new ideas that contribute to their own individual and collective organizational growth. Managers are empowered to make better decisions to adapt to new challenges. For more information, watch this great video for tactical advice on how to train adults to adapt to the learning approach.
Jason is the Lead Author & Editor of TrainingStation Blog. Jason established the Training Station blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to training, learning and development.