Building a successful learning organization

In my last post, I described WHY it is increasingly important to improve organizational learning. In this article I will explain a little more about HOW it’s done. (Tip! Read my last post “Why we need to upgrade learning now“.

This is how I define a learning organization:

An effective learning organization develops and learns from its environment; customers, suppliers, competitors, researchers and others in the network. The organization learns by collaboratively adding new knowledge and developing new capabilities, products, services and working methods. It is efficient in sharing knowledge and translate this into useful capabilities amongst employees.

Now it’s not just me who has ideas about what an effective learning organization is. Several international organizations are researching and evaluating learning in organizations. Some examples are “Corporate University Exchange”, “Towards Maturity” and “Association of Talent Development”. The organization I think offers the most useful model is Bersin Deloitte. They have the most extensive research, have been active for the longest time and have a model that is easy to embrace and follow.

Bersin assess successful learning organizations mainly according to these factors:

  • ALIGNMENT – The ability to adapt learning after the organization’s strategy and the needs of the individuals.
  • EFFECT – The ability to transfer investment in learning into effect at work and increased capabilities in the organization.
  • EFFICIENCY – The ability to be cost and time-efficient.

Out of the research that has been going on since 2001, som capabilities have been shown to contribute more to an increasingly effective learning organization. For example, the organization’s learning culture, ability to develop learning activities in different formats (classrooms, eLearning, video, etc.), ability to plan and follow up, etc.

Building an effective learning organization takes time. It requires change and maturity when it comes to learning. An efficient tool to assess the organization’s current situation is Bersin’s “Learning Maturity Model”. I think it is simple and clear and I use it with my customers.

4 levels of a successful learning organization

Steps towards an effective learning organization

The maturity model is divided into a number of levels where learning can be described as follows:

Level 1: Incidental Training:

  • Focus on short-term needs/”fire fighting”.
  • Mostly classroom training and a few eLearnings.
  • The training function is decentralized/uncoordinated.
  • Informal governance of the training function.
  • Few have the skill needed as a learning professional.

Level 2: Training and Development Excellence:

  • Focus on effective formal training.
  • Goal- and role-driven learning.
  • Flexible learning methods, mix of synchronous and asynchronous.
  • Clear organisation for L&D with division of responsibilities central vs local.
  • Focus on governance/efficiency.

Level 3: Talent and Performance Improvement:

  • Focus on performance at work.
  • Encourage informal learning.
  • Just-in-time learning.
  • Integrates learning into business processes.
  • Integrating learning with HR/TM.

Level 4: Organizational Capability Development:

  • Focus on developing the organization’s capabilities
  • User-generated content
  • Knowledge sharing & collaboration
  • Learning part of the organization’s strategy
  • Experts/employees responsible for creating learning activities

Developing an effective learning organization?

Developing an effective learning organization is to constantly improve in responding to the organization’s goals and the needs of individuals. We need to ensure that learning transfers into individual performance and organizational capabilities. At the same time we need to make this more cost- and time efficient. In detail, L&D has to grow new capabilities, e.g.

  • Development model for learning journeys (e.g. Design Thinking).
  • Ability to measure and evaluate the effect of learning.
  • Ability to produce content in many different forms (classrooms, eLearning, video, simulation, etc.)
  • Embedding learning in systems and work processes.
  • Etc.

It’s not just about working with new learning methods. Equally important is to introduce effective working methods,e.g. Design Thinking for developing learning journeys. The learning methods are associated with the systems and tools used, such as LXP or virtual classroom systems.

Organization and governance determine how learning is adapted to the needs of the organization how the work is coordinated and effective. To make everything happen, new roles and competences in the training function are needed. Last but perhaps most important to build a learning organization is a learning culture.

For each level of the maturity model, there are quite a few abilities the organization needs to develop. One tool we usually use is the “learning maturity matrix” below. It lists the most important capabilities at each level. From technology to learning culture. We use the matrix when assessing the current situation within an organization and to plan and develop new abilities. (Click on the image for details)

A little carelessly, you could say that L&D and the organization needs to acquire all these capabilities. Of course, it’s not easy and takes many years. Although many capabilities at level 1 and 2 are basic, however, it is not just to graze the points from the bottom and above. A good exercise is to develop a plan for how you want to develop learning within your organization. This can be part of annual business planning.

To know what you need to develop, you must first understand your current situation. What different learning methods are you able to deliver? How is the learning culture at your company? What processes supports learning? Where you are going, your “Vision & Future State” then depends on what your organization strategy is but also on the trends that impacts the organization and best-practices as described above.

The gap between the Future State and the Current State provides the basis for your Gap-analysis and Roadmap. You need to prioritize which capabilities are most important in the short term and what resources and skills you have to move forward. It determines how quickly your organization can move forward and how you set up the Roadmap.

Introducing new capabilities usually requires you to work widely. For example, if you want to introduce social learning & knowledge sharing, you will need to implement social platforms, adapt support organization and roles at L&D, find new ways of working and not least change the culture around collaboration and sharing knowledge.

This process is ongoing and should be tightly connected to the organizations business planning.



Author: Johan Skoglöf
Johan är visionär och senior konsult med missionen att hjälpa företag att skapa framtidens lärande organisation. Med över 25 år i branschen och kunder som Ericsson, Volvo, Scania, SEB, Handelsbanken, HM och ICA har Johan en bred erfarenhet i hur lärande organisationer skapas.

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