Culture versus Technology in a Learning Organisation

There’s an existential threat buried in how we imagine a Learning Organisation, and only an experiential learning process is going to allow us to reconcile the differences that give rise to the threat.


My February blog “Revisiting the Learning Organisation” provoked a very interesting set of responses from readers across the continents. It seems as though this is a subject that resonates with people in the world of learning, and one that divides them - roughly about a 50-50 divide according to my calculations.

Learning as Technology

When it comes to the question “What makes an organisation a Learning Organisation?” about half of the people who commented on that blog gave an answer that related to technology. Among these the popular answers were:

  • 24/7 connectedness
  • Easy access channels for learning / ideas exchange
  • Comprehensive learner management systems
  • Constant ‘radar-on’ status looking for innovation outside the organisation

Learning as Culture

In contrast, the other half of the people who took the time to comment saw the answer very much in terms of engagement with learning and a set of attitudes that value learning itself as an asset, e.g.

  • Learning as a strategic leadership issue
  • Management approaches that create time and space for learning
  • A learning-aware culture (characterised by frequent, learning-focused, interpersonal exchanges)
  • A prevailing emotional intelligence that recognises learning as beneficial, even when is cannot be directly linked to performance

To be fair to these commentators, the majority did not ascribe strictly to one camp or another, most saw the differentiators of a Learning Organisation as either the right technology supported by appropriate attitudes, or the right attitudes supported by appropriate technology. And I have to say that I agree (though I’m very much a believer in technology as enabler rather than technology as driver).

Learning as Culture with Technology Support

Professionally we need to take notice of these responses. The experiential learning designs that are created by RSVP Design need to recognise the organisational ideal that our clients might see as their ultimate developmental direction. So does this mean that we need to revisit our product catalogue and overwrite the already comprehensive briefing notes with a substantial framework of supporting technology? A smartphone in every box? It won’t come as any surprise to those who know us to know that that isn’t in our immediate plans, for one very good reason.

It’s one thing to possess the technology that enables learning to be monitored, exchanged and acquired within an organisation, it’s an entirely different thing to understand the learning process that is being enabled by the technology. And I would contend that without this understanding it’s extremely difficult to deploy the technology appropriately, and no level of investment in ‘better’ technology is going to achieve its potential return on investment. For this reason we’re strong advocates of the design thinking behind our learning tools: they have been crafted to explore and develop the learning processes that we believe to be fundamental to members of a Learning Organisation.

Technology can play a strong part in this exploration and development, but it’s only when these learning processes are fully understood and embraced that the technology will realise its potential in support of learning.

Tools that Build Good Learning Process

We have great examples in our bestselling tools:

  • Colourblind has its origins in the development of the communication skills that underpin the learning journey that produces Air Traffic Controllers
  • Challenging Assumptions surfaces the ‘self editing tendency’ and other barriers to the unlearning that must happen if any new learning is to be acquired
  • Simbolsis a great demonstration of the parallel strands of individual contribution and knowledge management that keep a team learning initiative on track

But there are also some very specific areas of learning that can be given added developmental focus by introducing some of our lesser known tools:

  • Simmetricsallows participants to learn the value of pre-planning through the experience of teamwork without structure, as a contrast to teamwork against an agreed plan.
  • Colourblind Plus builds learning around the skills of precision communication as required by technical and distributed networks with restricted communications channels.
  • Images of Resilienceallow individuals and groups to identify their strengths and address their development areas when approaching learning.

Our belief in RSVP Design is that building these skills makes for learners who demonstrate high levels of awareness, emotional intelligence and motivation around learning. If organisations then provide the right direction and technological support, the path towards becoming a Learning Organisation must surely be more straightforward?

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