Adaptability to change: A Learning Organisation or Organisational Learning?

by | Feb 4, 2019 | Insights | 0 comments

Learning is dynamic, evolving and critical for organisations to adapt to change. Instead of radical and rapid change, continuous change, growth and innovation are more valuable and beneficial for organisations.

Training, coaching and mentoring all contribute to employee development and learning. If you consider employees the driver or your outcomes, then learning is the fuel for the drivers.

So, is there any benefit in fostering a Learning Organisation or facilitating Organisational Learning? These two concepts differ widely in their meaning and area of application; however, they have been used inter-changeably, inferring the same purpose, thinking and ideology.

General Principles of Learning

That fact that individual learning is important for organisations should not surprise anyone.

Learning influences organisational culture, behaviour and efficiency. Essentially learning is sharing information, experimentation, and implementation new ideas, and yes, sometimes mistakes happen, but this is the learning process.

Learning is:

  1. Personal – Learning is an active process, the learner responds as an ‘individual’, they respond through their own lens/experience, ultimately modifying their thinking, feeling and/or actions
  2. Outcome oriented – it helps move the individual, teams and organisations towards a goal/ result
  3. Social – it takes place in response to the environment
  4. Transferable – whatever is learned in one context will apply in another context
  5. Timeless – people draw on the knowledge and experiences they have over time and draw on those experiences; learning is cumulative

Remember, learning is not an end in and of itself, it is however, the vehicle for creating a new future state for your organisation.

Learning Organisation

Peter Senge defined learning organisations 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 see the whole together(1)

This definition continues to inspire and inform our current view of learning organisations – that is, organisations that have developed the continuous ability to grow, adapt and transform.

In addition, Peter Senge collated five key inter-related elements of learning organisations: ‘The Five Disciplines’.

If organisations are continually learning, they are adapting to the changing environment and expectations that are ever present. Organisations must be prepared through continual learning, to

  1. Deal with changes
  2. Develop adaptability

Typical characteristics of learning organisations include:

  1. Supportive learning environment

Organisational Learning starts with teams and individuals are the substance of these teams and the  organisation as a whole; they must be nurtured, supported and challenged.

Without a culture of learning, nothing will happen. Embedding a workplace learning culture starts with recognising that learning is not once-off, it must be nurtured and supported by all aspects of the organization (supervision, coaching, mentoring, resources, social media).

Further, learning will only occur if managers actively free up employees’ time to learn and do this regularly.

  1. 2Encouraging risk-taking and innovation

Managers and supervisors play a critical role here; they are central to creating and fostering an environment that is conducive to learning and open to innovative thinking without the fear of judgement or blame.

Nothing inhibits innovation quicker than punishing those who generate ideas that ultimately don’t work.

Managers must be open to feedback themselves. Leaders must challenge assumption and be open to their assumptions being challenged, facilitate self-reflection, and model collaborative and inclusive behaviours.

  1. 3.Change and adaptation

Collaboration and communication are key. People, by nature are resistant to change; it takes people out of their comfort zone, raises more questions and creates ‘unknowns’. Change initiatives (internally or externally driven) create tension in individuals and teams, and ultimately, organisations.

Understanding and communicating how and why the organisation is going to change, and how this will affect the people, makes it easier to plan  and implement strategies to address ‘resistance’ to change.

Here are 5 Strategies for Managing Resistance to Change.

A learning organisation actively encourages, supports and enables collective learning – promotes and facilitates action learning.

Organisational Learning

Argrys & Schön (1978)(2) defined Organisational Learning as the “detection and correction of error”

Learning, within the context of ‘organisational learning’ (OL) is the collective process of creating, using, and sharing knowledge that changes behaviour of individuals or groups within the organisation; it starts with a focus on teams and organisations that need to become smarter. The organisation improves as it gains experience and knowledge.

Organisations themselves cannot learn – people do. Learning is therefore a direct product of understanding and solving inconsistencies or errors. This learning, over time, becomes the organisation’s ‘knowledge/memory’, and as such, the organisation does not lose out on its learning when members leave. Knowledge/memory creation is an integral part of organisational learning.

  • What does your organisation do with the knowledge about resources, processes, and best practices that are in your staff heads (organisational knowledge/memory)?
  • How does your organisation retain this when staff leave?

Argrys and Schön further identify three types of organisational learning:

  • Single loop learning: A simple linear process of problem identification and resolution within the current knowledge and structure. The root cause of the problem is not explored.
  • Double loop learning: A deeper understanding of cause and effect and deepens our understanding of our assumptions and improves our decision-making. Double loop learning requires self-awareness, honesty and accountability.

Single and Double loop learning:

  • Deutero-learning: Occurs when organisations learn how to undertake both Single-loop and Double-loop learning. Organisations learn how to learn.

‘Organisational learning’, as a reflective process, occurs across three levels; individual, group, and organisational, involving three stages:

  1. The acquisition of information
  2. Sharing of information
  3. Implementing shared information – creating ‘knowledge’

The value of Organisational Learning:

It is equally important to understand and evaluate how readily and quickly your organisation un-learns -that is, deliberately and consciously forgetting/eliminating some of the past.

 It is during this un-learning that staff may display considerable resistance.

Organisational learning can, and should, co-exist in a with a learning organisation; that is, organisational learning occurs in a learning organisation. Continuous improvement requires an ongoing commitment to learning, recognising both the need for learning and that learning takes time.

  • Do you evaluate the value of organisational learning initiatives?
  • Does the work environment promote the further development of the knowledge and skills of employees?

Organisational Learning can be viewed as the ‘activity/process of learning’, and Learning Organisation as the ‘type of organisation’. Strong and supportive leadership and culture are critically important.

Both Organisational Learning and a Learning Organisation strive for improvement and thrive in changing environments: by growing its people, the people help the organisation grow.

Return on investment in learning

When it comes to evaluating the benefit and impact learning initiatives, there is no approach that works best. Essentially, organisations will look at performance improvements, behaviour change and return on investment (ROI).

McKinsey and Company note only 8 percent of organisations monitor the learning programs’ return on investment.

Factors that impact on the benefits and impact of learning initiatives:

  • Organisational Culture – impacting the learning capability of organisations
  • Business model
  • Resource allocation – including time and budget
  • Intent and motivation of the learner to implement learning


  1. Senge, Peter. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: Τhe Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday
  2. Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Bill Miliotis

Organisational Architect and Change Leader.

Working across multiple sectors, Bill facilitates the creation and implementation of lasting development, growth and outcomes.

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