Business planning - The learning organisation

Learning, development and improvement are crucial in the uncertain business climate caused by Brexit, says Neville Stein.

Neville Stein
Neville Stein

Article 50 has now been triggered and the only certainty is that things will change. We know the "why", it is just the "what", "how" and "when" that remain a bit of a mystery. Uncertainty and insecurity will challenge our businesses, but at least we are in an industry that is used to adapting and changing to factors beyond our control. We have never been able to affect or change the unpredictable British weather, for example, but we have been able to respond to it by creating year-round offerings and services and "weatherproofing" sales and income in the best way possible.

The question now is can we "Brexit-proof" and, if so, how? Nothing can be truly weatherproof, let alone Brexit-proof, but the seismic change of Brexit requires a massive change in the culture of our businesses so that none of us are left behind. We need to become centres of learning, development and improvement rather than just focusing on sales, profit and loss.

Many business leaders believe that for organisations to excel in the current business climate they need to be creative and self-sustaining.

If organisations are consistently learning they will be adapting to the new information and changes that are a constant in today’s world.

Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organisational Learning, popularised the term "learning organisation", describing such an organisation as a place "where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning to see the whole (reality) together, or in other words people in an organisation irrespective of age, length of service, seniority or job roles do not stop learning for the good of the organisation." It is a long quote but it really describes the culture and environment we need.

Cultural change

How then do we create such a learning organisation? It is not all about spending money on numerous training courses and printing off certificates. It is about cultural change and it starts at the top with leadership. We need to understand the difference between leadership and management and to use both roles to maximum advantage.

The main aim of a manager is to maximise the output of the company through planning, organising, motivating, directing and controlling. A leader, on the other hand, exists to set the company vision. The best leaders think radically, follow their intuition, question assumptions and are innovative, motivational and not adverse to risk. They may not always have organisational skill, but their vision for the organisation often unites and inspires people.

Some people naturally have such attributes, but with effort and nurturing they really can be developed in most of us. You can use the "act as if" principle, for example, acting as if you have the attributes of leadership to truly develop them. To help people do this, Senge defined various leadership roles:

-The leader is like the designer of a ship rather than the captain. 

The leader as a designer creates a common vision for an organisation, a sense of purpose and shared values. Do you have a business mission statement’? If so, how current and relevant is it to your business today?

-The leader then creates "policies, strategies and structures that translate guiding ideas into business decisions". The leader establishes "effective learning processes that will allow for continuous improvement of the policies, strategies and structures". Do you have these in place?

-The leader may act as a teacher and a coach. They help others think for themselves, learn and develop rather than being spoon-fed and micro-managed. They are approachable and accessible.

-The leader is a steward in attitude and behaviour. They aspire to the greater purpose of building a better organisation and looking to the future rather than focusing on short-term growth and profit. How long-term is your vision?

Continuous learning

To become a leader who can inspire a learning culture you will also need to adopt the habit of continuous leaning in the first place and among the leaders in your team.
When did you last read something that inspired you? There are many books on business leadership styles and on how various companies embraced the concept and succeeded as learning organisations. Look beyond your own backyard and be alert to new ideas from any source. Visit interesting businesses that do what you do and those that do something completely different. Much can be learnt from both. Just do not stop learning.

Everyone has the capability to learn and achieve more that they currently do and most find their jobs far more rewarding when given such opportunities, not just to learn but to use their knowledge and initiative with more freedom and recognition. Senge stated in 1990: "Learning organisations are possible because, deep down, we are all learners. No one has to teach an infant to learn. In fact, no one has to teach infants anything. They are intrinsically inquisitive, masterful learners who learn to walk, speak... Learning organisations are possible because not only is it our nature to learn but we love to learn."

Skills and knowledge

As we advance through our careers many of us have ceased to regularly use the skills and knowledge we gained at horticultural college. In fact, if I consider my cohort, many have developed new skills as a result of moving into completely new industries. Those of us who have remained in this industry have had to learn new skills, often very different to what we were taught at college, and that is because we live in a changing environment that so often renders some of our original skills and knowledge obsolete and therefore demands the adoption of new skills and knowledge.

So encouraging your employees to embrace what has become known as continuing professional development (CPD) and developing an organisation where CPD is both encouraged and valued will set you well on the path to becoming a learning organisation. This in turn will avoid stagnation and challenge our traditional reluctance to embrace change.

Change does require effort, but it actually requires more effort in the long run trying to maintain an ineffective non-progressive status quo. What it really requires is good leadership — improve that and you will begin to create a learning organisation that will enable it to meet the challenges of Brexit.

Neville Stein is managing director of business consultancy Ovation.

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