Principles of organisational and individual learning

By Maretha Prinsloo on May 24, 2019

Principles of Organisational Learning

The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
Marcel Proust


Within educational contexts, the concept of “learning” has traditionally been seen as knowledge transfer. In the workplace too, learning is largely associated with technical training and work experience. The focus is thus mostly on the “what”, or the content of the materials being mastered, while initiatives aimed at enhancing learning through the development of thinking processes per se, or the “how” of processing, are generally neglected.

Yet, the fast-changing and the information-rich world we live and the world-of-work places a high premium on learning – especially in terms of the development of metacognitive awareness and thus critical thinking capabilities – at both individual and organisational levels. In fact, learning has become a prerequisite for work-related effectiveness and organisational survival.

This article will focus on the different ways in which organisations can extend the traditional concept of learning by implementing the principles of “learning organisations”.


Embedding ‘learning’ within an organisation

Various strategies and techniques can be implemented within organisations to establish a learning culture. A critical prerequisite, however, is that learning values be embraced by executives at the highest level. Learning goals should also be included as part of the organisation’s value statement and culture, since agility and modifiability do, after all, remain necessary for organisational viability in the long term.

Merely including learning goals as part of the organisation’s vision and mission statements is, however, not sufficient to create a learning culture. For learning as a value to be embedded within the organisational fabric, a number of additional initiatives are required. Initiatives such as the following:

1. Creating a learning organisation

Organisational awareness and interconnectedness are key to the creation of a learning organisation, a concept popularised by Peter Senge (1990). To use the brain metaphor, where intellectual power is associated with the degree of neural interconnectedness, organisations too can become increasingly resilient, agile and flexible, given the diversity of interaction between role players.

2. Facilitating shared meaning

In addition, an understanding of the organisational core competence and the context within which it operates can be encouraged through collective anticipation and employee participation. In other words, through involvement, experience, interaction, collaboration and discussion. Although in practice, this often results in disagreement, misunderstanding and confrontation. However, within a context characterised by an understanding and facilitation of process-oriented conflict resolution (Mindell, 2010), the potential disagreements associated with the sharing of ideas, as well as regular post-mortem analyses, can become powerful learning opportunities by which the integration of opposing views can be achieved.

Thus, almost paradoxically, through the introduction of opportunities for complex interactions across functions, coherence is achieved through the continuous synthesis of goals and mental models. The degree of shared meaning achieved significantly reduces unnecessary complexity of systems and contributes to longer-term sustainability. Learning thus becomes an emergent process, aimed at improving organisational viability through engagement. It also, almost invariably, tends to bring about continuous organisational adaptation and transformation.

3. Allowing for more flexible organisational structures

From a structural perspective, traditional hierarchical organisations tend to encourage a focus on status, promotional opportunities, salary increases and delegation of responsibilities, as opposed to learning. By adopting holacratic, circular or matrix organisational structures, the decentralisation and distribution of power throughout all functional units, programmes and projects within the organisation, can be achieved.

Within such distributed or sociocratic structures, behaviour is guided by governance principles and leadership capability instead of by levels of authority. It tends to optimise people engagement, job satisfaction and learning, as it allows for a sense of ownership among all participants. In addition, such decentralisation tends to be conducive to the organic emergence of valuable strategic contributions and the agility of the entire system. The optimal implementation of holacratic structures tends to redefine the system in terms of unitary goals, instead of pluralistic individual objectives and interests.

Organisational structures characterised by the interaction and distribution of power, and guided by learning values, become self-organising, which is a key principle of viable systems functioning.

4. Collaboration to foster knowledge transfer

From a functional perspective, learning organisations emphasise collaboration as a basis for knowledge transfer and flexibility. In addition to mere problem solving by experts, such collaboration and networking should ideally include the sharing of ideas. The discussion of approaches and opinions tends to be an effective catalyst to evolve and integrate systems functioning. Certain organisations even create knowledge-transfer platforms to exchange ideas of an operational and strategic nature.

Collaboration and discussion also optimise team learning through the emergence of a coherent work culture, as well as the alignment of mental models. Ultimately, this may result in a shared vision which continually emerges from and evolves to serve the purposes of the integrated system. This can differ from imposed organisational strategies, which some employees may be unable to resonate with.

5. Providing performance feedback

Learning and performance improvement within the organisational context can also be achieved through regular performance feedback. Research findings have repeatedly emphasised the effectiveness of personal performance feedback and the mentoring and coaching of individuals by their peers and managers. Traditional performance appraisal practices, however, often take on an evaluative slant, which tends to trigger defensiveness and self-justification rather than behavioural change. In contrast, a culture of openness and regular personal feedback by team members and leaders tends to contribute to learning goals and team integration.

6. Developing cognitive skills

Ideally, learning organisations should also invest in the development of knowledge, cognitive skills and values of employees. In addition to internal technical knowledge and skills-based training as well as subsidised opportunities for formal education, mileage can be obtained from focused cognitive development. Analytical and systems or strategic thinking, as well as values training, may be useful.


Overall, there is an apparent need for organisations to incorporate certain principles to become a learning organisation. Organisations could, therefore, focus on enhancing learning through the development of their employees’ thinking processes.

A second article will soon follow focusing on how organisations can provide cognitive developmental opportunities to individuals and teams.

Call us on +27 11 884 0878