Learning Organisations

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A long time ago, Margaret Thatcher once said, 'There is no such thing as society, only individuals.' The same could be said about the learning organisation: 'There is no such thing as a learning organisation, only individuals learning within the organisation.'

Of course, if this were true, there would be little point in writing or reading this article - it's a bit like saying that there is no such thing as an orchestra, only musicians. If you follow this to its logical conclusion, you could imagine what a management consultant might say about an orchestra...

Four oboe players are idle for long periods and their work should be more evenly spread. Since the twelve first violins often play identical notes this is unnecessary duplication and the number of players should be drastically cut as a cheaper method of amplification is available. Similarly there is too much effort and duplication when it comes to playing semiquavers and when it comes to having passages, already played on one set of instruments, repeated on other instruments. In this way musical scores could also be pruned, resulting in more significant savings.

The idea of an organisation that can learn - and that organisational learning is greater than the sum of the individuals' learning - is a powerful concept that can have deep implications for the way that we run our businesses. There would be no organisational learning if its members didn't learn, but as Daft and Weick said, 'Individuals come and go but organisations preserve knowledge, behaviours, mental maps norms and values over time.' This is amply demonstrated in 'The Fable of the Five Monkeys' which tells of a scientific experiment that demonstrates how an organisational memory of an event can remain after all those who were in the organisation at the time of the event had left the organisation...

There was an interesting experiment that started with five monkeys in a cage. A banana hung inside the cage with a set of steps placed underneath it. After a while, a monkey went to the steps and started to climb towards the banana, but when he touched the steps, he set off a spray that soaked all the other monkeys with cold water. Another monkey tried to reach the banana with the same result. It didn’t take long for the monkeys to learn that the best way to stay dry was to prevent any monkey from attempting to reach the banana.

The next stage of the experiment was to remove the spray from the cage and to replace one of the monkeys with a new one. Of course, the new monkey saw the banana and went over to climb the steps. To his horror, the other monkeys attacked him. After another attempt, he learnt that if he touched the steps, he would be assaulted.

Next, another of the original five was replaced with a new monkey. The newcomer went to the steps and was attacked. The previous newcomer joined in the attack with enthusiasm!

Then, a third monkey was replaced with a new one and then a fourth. Every time a newcomer approached the steps, he was attacked. Most of the monkeys beating him had no idea why they were not allowed to climb the steps or why they were joining in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fifth monkey, none of the monkeys had ever been sprayed with water. Still, no monkey ever approached the steps. Why not? Because as far as they knew it was the way it had always been done around here... and that is how company policybegins.

The idea of the learning organisation has been present in the organisation development literature for the past forty years. Now, it is attracting the attention of business managers and consultants with the notion of the Learning organisation being put forward as a strategy for businesses to deal with the need for adaptation and responsiveness in rapidly changing circumstances.

What is learning?

Before we can define the learning organisation, we need a working definition of what learning is. Learning is like time: we all know what it is until we have to define it. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what learning is and have often found myself 'tied up in knots'.

So, I went back to basics and considered a very simple example of learning: how animals learn to avoid fire. Very simply, if an animal gets too close to a fire, it gets burnt. The animal remembers the pain and 'learns' that avoiding fire would be to its benefit. Next time it sees a fire it knows that if it goes too close it will get burnt, but if it keeps its distance it will be safe. So, for this specific set of circumstances, the animal has opted to change its behaviour. Of course, it could override its current learning and choose to approach the fire, but it is far more likely to be afraid and run away from the fire. From this simple example, I have defined this working definition of learning:

'An organism is said to have learnt when it has increased its options for applying, to a specific set of circumstances, new or different behaviour which it believes will be to its benefit.'

Notice that I have used phrases like: 'increased its options' and 'ability to'. This is because learning is not always immediately followed by an observable behaviour — learning is often stored for future use.

There are several levels at which an organism can determine whether an event is harmful or beneficial — ranging from the basic needs of food, water, sex and shelter to self-esteem and realising its full potential. Maslow organised these needs into a hierarchy with the higher needs being unable to be fulfilled without first satisfying the lower needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Figure 1 Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We can deduce from our definition of learning that in order to learn, an organism needs the ability to:

This is also true for an organisation and we will return to these criteria when we look at implementing a learning organisation.

Single-loop learning

The illustration of the animal and the fire is an example of 'single-loop learning': the learnt behaviour of running away from the fire was not questioned, and the behaviour is likely to be repeated every time a fire is encountered.

Double-loop learning

At some time during evolution, someone questioned the target of putting as much distance between themselves and the fire as possible, and considered the benefits of coming closer to the fire for warmth and cooking. This is an example of 'double-loop' learning where the targets themselves are questioned.

It is important not to run away with the idea that learning is a substitute for training. Training is one of the methods by which individuals learn:

Individual and organisational learning
Figure 2 Individual and organisational learning

What is a learning organisation?

There are many definitions of the learning organisation but the one I like (based on Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell) is:

'A learning organisation is an organisation that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself to achieve superior competitive performance.'

Many companies who claim to be learning organisations interpret the concept in terms of the first half of this definition. Creating learning opportunities for everyone is a radical step for many companies, but it is only half the struggle. Bringing about learning at the level of the whole company is not achieved by simply training individuals. The aspiration to be a learning organisation involves creating a company which is capable of changing, adapting, developing and transforming itself in response internal and external pressures.

A crucial criterion is the difference between single-loop and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning involves incremental improvements through 'error detection and correction' and examples of this are easy to find. The case of an animal learning to avoid fire is an example of single-loop learning — the animal constantly monitors its distance from the fire and adjusts that distance to what it has learnt to be a safe amount.

If an organisation (or individual) wants to continuously transform itself to achieve superior performance, it also needs to master the process of double-loop learning where the current norms and assumptions are subject to continuous challenge and review. Using the fire example again, you could imagine a tribe of cavemen being afraid of fire and always retreating from it. Then, one day this norm is challenged and the advantages of fire for keeping warm and cooking are realised and the norm becomes one of approaching fire.

In practice this means the questioning of managerial decisions and directions on a regular basis so that companies do not simply improve within the current mode of operations but are able to shift, when appropriate, to a different way of 'being and doing'. One difficulty in achieving this internal challenge is finding a way to confront senior managers who are the controllers and guardians of the present way of doing things while not removing their authority to act — and act quickly.

Implementing a Learning organisation

There are three phases to implementing a learning organisation:

1. Preparation 2. Implement single-loop learning 3. Implement double-loop learning

The time it takes to implement a learning organisation depends on the learning maturity of your organisation. If your training needs analysis is linked to a business planning process, then you probably have already implemented a single-loop learning process and you will be able to implement double-loop learning over the course of a business year. If you don't have a business planning process, then it will take at least two years: one year to implement single-loop learning and another year to implement double-loop learning. In one sense, a learning organisation can never be fully implemented because of the need to constantly challenge and adapt goals and norms.


Implementing a learning organisation cannot succeed unless a critical mass of employees and managers have a passion for learning. Like any change process, you can't expect to have everyone aboard from the first day. There will always be people who resist change so, rather than expending a lot of energy trying to change those who don't want to change, concentrate on motivating the critical mass you need for change to occur.

It's a bit like lighting a fire: it isn't much good trying to light a log with a match — it's much better to light some kindling, then ignite some twigs and finally the logs will be caught up in the blaze and start burning brightly and strongly.

Additionally, for change to succeed, you need agreement on:

If there is disagreement, or if any of these three factors is missing, change will not happen.

One of the ways in which you can encourage learning is to subsidise any learning that people want to undertake. Some companies have programmes in which they give every individual a personal learning budget to spend on learning. It takes a lot of courage and determination to implement such a policy. Some managers will be uncomfortable with paying people to learn anything that isn't work-related. Many people will think that learning isn't work and work isn't learning. Part of the paradigm shift that is required is for the organisation to realise that all learning is work-related because the ability to learn is an essential skill in a changing world.

A few employees may have a drunken weekend under the guise of 'team building'. To avoid this and other advantage-taking, it is essential that every learning event has agreed objectives and that these objectives are reviewed after the event.

Implement single-loop learning

The first thing you need to do is to establish the purpose of the organisation — what it is there to do. This is also called a 'mission'. It could be as simple as: 'To manufacture mince pies for Marks and Spencer'.

Even a simple mission like this makes it clear what the organisation does and who it is done for. From there you can develop objectives in terms of quality, cost and delivery.

Then the objectives need to be deployed throughout the organisation. Most organisations cascade the objectives without translating them so they that make sense at every level of the organisation. A better approach is to use Policy Deployment.

Policy Deployment

Figure 3 Policy Deployment

In Policy Deployment, a 'policy' is an objective that has both a 'what' and a 'how'. The 'how' at one level becomes the 'what' at the next level which is then translated into a meaningful 'how' for that level.

Now the organisation can monitor its process, learn from both successes and deviations and take appropriate corrective and sustaining actions. This is an example of a business process which has incorporated single-loop learning.

Business Process

Figure 4 Single-loop learning as part of the business process

Implement double-loop learning

Where a mission is about what the organisation is here to do today, a vision is about where the organisation could be in the future if it were to transform itself. A vision is best created out of a thorough and challenging diagnosis of where the organisation is today. Not just examining whether the objectives were met, but challenging those objectives in the light of what has changed, what could change and what needs to change.

Now is also the time to see whether you are succeeding in creating a learning organisation by seeing whether your organisation has the capacity to:

...and whether it shares what are generally accepted to be the characteristics of a learning organisation:

Having established the new norms, you can now recycle through the process. And a final word of warning: once you have embedded the new norms into the business process, it is very easy to slip back into single-loop learning because these norms can themselves become outdated.


Burgoyne, John (1992) Creating a Learning Organisation, RSA Journal April 1992

Daft, R L and Weick, K E (1984) Toward a Model of Organisation as Interpretation Systems, Academy of Management Review, 9, (2), 294–295.

Pedler, Mike (1991) Realising the Learning Company, EMFD Research Conference

Sofo, Dr Francesco (1993) Strategies for Developing a Learning Organisation, Training and Development in Australia September 1993.


Building the Learning Organization: Achieving Strategic Advantage Through a Commitment to Learning
by Michael J. Marquardt Ed.D.
Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2011)

The Fifth Discipline
by Peter Senge, PM
Random House (2006)

Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization
by Edward Hess
Columbia Business School Publishing (2019)

The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development
by Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne, Tom Boydell
McGraw-Hill (1996)

Organisational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective
by Roderick Smith
Routledge (2016)

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