The Learning College

Colleges and other institutions of learning are not necessarily ‘learning organisations’. Dick Evans explains.

In the 1980s, many businesses began to move towards becoming ‘learning organisations’. Interestingly, institutions of learning, colleges, universities, and training providers, which should perhaps have been in the vanguard, are only now beginning to follow suit.

The development of the learning organisation idea is founded on the assumption that learning pays, not just for the individual but also for the organisations to which they belong. Even though the development of the learning organisation concept has been occurring over the last two decades, its definition and operation still lacks precision. Many of the claims made about the benefits of learning organisations assume that learning naturally leads to change. This again needs to be carefully analysed. It is a very difficult equation to justify because of the complexities and dynamics associated with learning that are occurring throughout the institution and the outside environment that surrounds a particular organisation. Learning organisations most certainly cannot exist in a self-contained educational vacuum. The issue of partnerships is all-important.

Institutions of learning are not necessarily learning organisations. The reasons for this are both complex and multidimensional and include the traditional ways teaching and learning occur within colleges and universities. Too often these are riddled with inertia and rigid methods of delivery.

There are three useful definitions of a learning organisation:

1.    “A Learning Organisation is systematic, accelerated learning that is accomplished by the organisational system as a whole, rather than the learning of individual members within the system. Learning organisations are able to transform data into value-laden knowledge and thereby increase the long term adaptive capacity. ” (Michael Marquardt)

2.    “A Learning Organisation is one which facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. ” (Jones & Hendry)

3.    “A learning organisation is an organisation which develops its capabilities continuously in order to create its own future” (Torben Hjuler)

These definitions stress the importance of the workforce and how central and essential learning is to the organisation, but they also indicate the difficulties as the learning organisation idea challenges the traditional management structures and ways of operation. Fundamental changes are required by the organisation and all its employees. One can identify, from these definitions and others, common values of a learning organisation.

Some of these include that the organisation:

  • provides opportunities for all employees to realise their potential
  • develops a purpose owned and understood by all
  • integrates learning and work
  • provides a variety of learning contexts that facilitates effective learning
  • invests in its future through programmes of education/training for all its employees
  • is aware of external environment and adopts a proactive approach in dealing with it and
  • maintains a culture of flexibility, responsiveness and creativity.

The success of employee development schemes such as those operated by Ford, Rover and British Aerospace, bears testimony to the importance of companies investing in their workforce. Recent research from the US indicates that at least 50% of a company’s profitability can be identified with its commitment to and subsequent investment in its staff. Any organisation wishing to obtain world class status must espouse this approach.

As one can see from the values that an organisation needs to adopt, a new kind of culture and changed attitudes and methods of operating must be created. Like quality, it is a journey and it takes time. The ever changing internal and external environment necessitates this time factor, but the journey adds value to any organisation’s performance and can set, albeit relatively, it ahead of its competitors. Companies, whether they are for profit or not, have to see the advantages of taking up the values of becoming a learning organisation. Very often the journey can be assisted by being kite marked in terms of quality standards, for example Investors in People, Business Excellence Model. IS0 9000, etc. But these are only one aspect of the concept of a learning organisation. The overall title ‘Learning Organisation’ is more than just a quality flag flying outside a company or a brass plate displayed in the reception. Although quality awards are important elements, the concept of learning organisation transcends these individual achievements. This is why the values that are practised throughout and beyond the organisation are so important. Effective leadership and management are essential. Aspects of leadership should include support/encouragement through mentoring and coaching, leading by example, confidence building and communicating organisational values.

It is interesting to reflect how different types of organisation move towards being a learning organisation and the motivators and drivers that bring it about. For profit organisations, it can be largely driven by productivity. Hence profit, dividends to shareholders, market share, investment in research and development, better quality and higher reputation, new products and services and pleasant working conditions for its staff are all seen as being important. For non-profit making organisations, too, drivers will include high quality services and products, a good and favourable reputation, attractive, effective and attractive learning and teaching environments. When one analyses the characteristics and values that are essential, there is a great deal of commonality between for-profit and not-for-profit organisations.

One could argue that colleges and universities are learning organisations already (after all, education is their core business) but this is a false and dangerous assumption. The characteristics/values that have underpinned a learning organisation eclipse this apparently obvious assumption. Educational institutions have to identify, develop, implement and monitor continuously all the strategic objectives they state about being a true learning organisation and these expose the deeper structures of leadership, management and operation that are so essential in the way the learning organisations operate.

So let us step back to see how organisations locate themselves within their competitive environments and in relationship to society in general. Each has a mission (or vision) underpinned by strategic objectives and performance indicators (with measurable targets). This can be shown somewhat simplistically below and attempts to show how the values and characteristics inform and influence the organisational performance.

The mission must be aspirational and state what the organisation’s purpose is. The strategic objectives define and describe how the organisation will achieve its purpose and the performance indicators clearly state how well the organisation performs. The values are the beliefs which underpin all that the organisation aspires to and espouses. All these elements must possess consistency and coherence.


So what values should be adopted by an organisation in order for it to become a learning organisation?

  • People
  • Services and products
  • Environment.

Each of these values is multidimensional and some of the aspects associated with these will be explored later. Even accepting the difficulties with the very word ‘value’, indeed it might be more appropriate to adopt another term. Whatever term is finally decided would require carefully reflective analysis before it is adopted. It is this interpretation that precipitates a great deal of difficulty to an organisation. Once an organisation commits itself to these it must be prepared to accept and deal with misinterpretation. This is most certainly true for the ‘people’ statement and the concept of the word ‘empowerment’ so often found in literature on Learning Organisations. Empowerment is a double edged sword and has to be managed carefully. If an organisation empowers its staff there are real dangers that you empower staff who do not believe in the organisation’s commitment to them. They could be alienated and negative about past experiences, personal and professional and use empowerment to weaken and possibly influence others who similarly might not make a commitment to the institution’s beliefs. These staff could be destructive and lead to all kinds of tensions, suspicions and difficulties for the organisation. There needs to be a framework of checks and balances to make certain that these difficulties do not cause too many problems -not a traditional, autocratic or control freak mentality, but one which recognises these individuals and makes every attempt to attenuate their influence through coaching and mentoring.


The nature of employment is undergoing dramatic transformations at present. Organisations are adopting and implementing a plethora of management guru approaches and jargon, for example ‘de-layering’, ‘downsizing’ and ‘configuring into teams to realise synergistic dynamism’. Workforces are reduced, with all the attendant problems including insecurity, low morale, reduced prospects for promotion and cultures of blame and suspicion. These and other attitudes occur at a time when organisations are openly stating that they are investing in their people. This causes all kinds of problems and presents significant challenges to HR Managers.

What ‘carrots’ can be used to motivate the workforce to believe in and own the concept of a Learning Organisation when the ‘stick’ of likely redundancy and related feelings of job insecurity is being wielded? It is an almost impossible equation to balance and yet any organisation’s ultimate success depends on, that somewhat overused term ‘people are its most valuable asset’. The result of downsizing is that the people remaining have to do more, very often with little or no financial gain. Colleges particularly have been subjected to unrealistic efficiency gains since their incorporation in 1993 and have been, in many cases, unable to award annual increases in salary. Couple this with more students and less staff, and the resultant perception is ‘having to do more for less’. It does create all kinds of tensions/suspicions which deter staff from readily believing in an institution’s commitment to its people. Obviously investing in people does not necessarily mean more money, but as recent research in the private sector on staff motivation showed, it is still an important driver/motivator. Others are shorter hours, flexible working conditions, job sharing and comfortable work environments. An organisation could also adopt a human resource strategy in which compulsory redundancy is used as a last resort for its full-time staff. Yet even this can cause difficulties – it can slow down institutional development as some of the full-time staff may, even with support and opportunities for learning, be unable to respond effectively to the inevitable changes. There are also real dangers that the college might lose many good part-time and contract staff. This highlights the complexity of espousing institutional values. Colleges should also adopt a fair and realistic minimum wage.

Clearly, staff are but one part of the organisation’s commitment to people including, as it does, its students and other people who use the products and services that a college offers. They too have to be considered very carefully in the development of the Learning Organisation. They must have opportunities for high quality provision with all the necessary support that attaches to the commitment they have given to learn. Another value that colleges can, arguably should have, is that students engaged with all levels and types of learning should be treated equally. Equally important, student success is essential, students must be retained and achieve their qualification goals and leave knowing their time at the college has been satisfying and enjoyable.

Finally, other users of a college’s services and products must also be embraced in the institution’s belief in people, especially employers. They must be involved in developing and managing provision on an equal basis. Provision must match their needs and learning opportunities be delivered at a location, pace and with a content that is relevant and appropriate. It must increasingly be customised. The college must engender a culture of customer loyalty and hence guarantee return business.

If a college is to develop the concept of a Learning Organisation it must create these values even though they can precipitate difficulties.

If staff believe that the college is committed to them, they will contribute to its well-being and ultimate success. Successful students will be effective ambassadors for the college and employers will remain loyal to the institution. If students do not succeed and employers are not satisfied, then staff are not operating with a learning organisation approach. But if these aspects do occur, the college will surely be en route to becoming a learning organisation and not just an organisation of learning.

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