Revisiting the Learning Organisation


It was in 1991 that Mike Pedler, Tom Boydell and John Burgoyne published The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development (McGraw Hill 1991). I had just developed Colourblind as my first foray into commercially producing the activities I had been using in my work, and I was both hungry and excited about work and life. I have to say that initially it was the way that the Learning Company was represented as a jigsaw puzzle that caught my attention, but as soon as my colleagues and I began using this concept and structure with client groups we recognised that here was something both comprehensive and accessible. Once you could provoke the conversation that began with the definition that a learning company is;


'An organisation which facilitates the learning of all of its members and continuously transforms itself’


By challenging the client to consider the benefits that would accrue to becoming such an organisation, the attractions of this as a working concept became immediately obvious. People just ‘got it’, and the ways of working that the authors suggested allowed us to make huge progress in making learning central to Management and Organisational Development initiatives. The question is, does the idea of the learning company still have currency in this harsher, less idealistic, post-recessionary landscape?


We at RSVP Design believe that it does, and certainly the recent publication of Handbook of Research on the Learning Organization: Adaptation and Context edited by Anders Örtenblad (pub. Edward Elgar 2013) offers evidence of its increasing potency in China and the Islamic world, and its relevance to specific types of organisation and context.


So why do we, as experiential educators, still have affinity with a concept from a quarter of a century ago?


For me, one of the most important contributions to the field was the HBR article “Building a Learning Organisation” written by David A. Garvin in 1993. This challenged the ‘reverential and utopian paradise is just around the corner’ message that writers like Peter Senge had woven around the Learning Organisation, and replaced it with a much more practical set of tools. His definition of the Learning Organisation as

“An organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

seems tailor-made to support an experiential approach.


Consider the structure that Garvin provided through his endorsement that Learning Organizations are skilled at five main activities:


  • Systematic problem solving
  • Experimentation with new approaches
  • Learning from their own experience and past history
  • Learning from the experiences and best practices of others
  • Transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization


This could almost be applied directly as a structure for a review of a large scale, ‘multi-task - multi-team’ exercise such as RSVP Design’s Top Priority or Shaping the Future. Alternatively it offers an obvious learning progression when using smaller scale learning tools to punctuate a programme of management, leadership or organisational development. This learning is then immediately transferable to the workplace to support the informed transition to an organisation that sees learning as central to all growth activity.


Happily, we've begun to talk to some new customers about large scale initiatives that, at their heart, are about the transition towards becoming learning organisations. We never bought into the new-age rhetoric about this being a mystical path towards enlightenment and, with these new customers, we've been able to demonstrate that a very practical, measurable and accessible approach, based on experiential methodologies and the recognition of the material value of learning, is still as relevant today as it ever was.

Talk to us today about using our larger scale activities and business simulations 

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