Learning to learn: establishing the building blocks for learning organisations

21 September 2015 | Silvester Hwenha | Opinion

The rapid information and technological developments worldwide coupled with the rise in big data have increased the need for the more efficient use of knowledge. According to the World Development Report (1998-99) “knowledge, not capital, is the key to sustained economic growth and improvements in human wellbeing”.

Thus knowledge has become an indispensable asset for national development and the most successful nations in the world today are those that have become adept at acquiring, sharing and utilising knowledge.

Similarly, organisations whose decision-making, performance management and business growth are driven and influenced by knowledge management tend to be more successful than their peers. Such organisations tend to be more adaptive, responsive, dynamic and flexible, with the ability to manage change and cope with uncertainty.

Effective management of knowledge enables the right information to be made available to the right people at the right time thereby increasing organisational productivity and efficiency through timely decision-making.

Despite playing a critical role in organisational development, knowledge management is often not a top priority in many organisations. As a result, essential knowledge, experiences and institutional memory are lost as employees retire or resign and join other organisations. In some cases, organisations inadvertently establish rigid structures that do not permit knowledge sharing across teams or departments. However, for most organisations the reality is that they simply do not know how to transform themselves into learning organisations.

The question then is how can an organisation harness and leverage its intellectual capital and collective organisational experiences to achieve its strategic objectives? In other words, how can it become a learning organisation?

In essence organisational learning is a continuous process dependent on the sum total of individual knowledge and experiences within the organisation. People are therefore the most valuable resource of any organisation in the knowledge economy. In order to create a learning organisation the discipline of learning has to be practised at individual level and then cascaded to teams and departments until it becomes embedded in the organisational culture.

There are various ways by which organisations can transform themselves into learning organisations. Below are three fundamental building blocks that can enhance organisational learning:

  • Recruitment and talent management: Recruit, encourage and support individuals committed to personal development through mentoring support and on-job training. These processes enhance employee motivation and increase personal knowledge and creativity. Induction of new staff should be a comprehensive and efficient process enabling the continuity of job functions. In cases where staff turnover is high, knowledge harvesting strategies such as exit interviews with staff should be implemented.
  • Positive organisational culture: The organisation ought to develop and implement strategies that will enhance individual and team knowledge regarding its core business and functions. Promoting and supporting collaboration between individuals within teams and across teams further provides a culture of learning. The organisation should also encourage and allow staff to engage in external networks and communities of practice for the sharing of experiences, the exchange of ideas and peer mentoring.
  • Effective knowledge management: Knowledge management is about people, systems and processes as well as technology. As such effective knowledge management must combine relevant technology tools, healthy working relationships and open communication in the workplace. The most critical part of knowledge management lies in the ability of the organisation to transform information into accessible and reusable knowledge. This knowledge often creates a competitive edge for the organisation by enhancing its ability to create new services and products and to take advantage of opportunities for growth.

Learning organisations use knowledge to support strategic decision-making. They structure partnerships and collaborative work arrangements based on information exchange and knowledge sharing. Ultimately, organisational success will continue to be defined by how efficiently organisations create, harness, package and utilise knowledge.