How to create a learning organisation

The challenge

This article is the result of a change design workshop, where an organisation is trying to become a learning organisation and create a culture of innovation, using an Agile project management approach.

The organisation wants to create an environment of professionalism, pride and personal responsibility.

The problems

There is growing recognition within the organisation that the old methods of motivation through promotions and job title inflation don’t work.

  • For a start, the organisation wants a flat structure which means it doesn’t have many promotions to offer.
  • Another issue is that younger members of staff are more interested in the ability to pursue their interests than they are in increasing levels of status and assigned responsibility.

There is an increasing cynicism about the benefits of greater responsibility. Staff are happy to take responsibility in areas where they wish to grow their experience and skills but rising through the ranks to be responsible for increasing numbers of people is not a guarantee of motivation.

The current structure of the organisation is a typical hierarchy with a silo mentality. Staff communicate well within departments, but their loyalty is too often to their area of the business rather than being focused on the customer. Customer need is met by multiple departments but there is little cross functional cooperation. Key Performance Indicators and other metrics are often based on departmental performance (not customer satisfaction) which reinforces this territorial mentality.

This isn’t a surprise. In hierarchical structures staff are confronted by barriers telling them not to step outside of their area of responsibility. They have a clearly defined role, constrained by the role definitions of their superiors, their peers and subordinates. So where is the incentive to learn new skills and have new experiences that takes their thinking outside of their area? In a hierarchy, working outside of your remit runs the risk of challenging the authority of colleagues, stepping on their toes and creating a combative atmosphere.

The very definition of superiors and subordinates is also problematic. It implies that contribution is more valuable the more senior someone is. But in a true agile culture there is recognition that seniority conveys different responsibilities but that they are no more or less valuable than others. For example, I am currently working with a hospital group who recognise that all staff are part of the medical solution whether they are surgeons who operate or cleaners that are part of the infection control solution.

This structure  also restricts the inflow of information from external sources. The hierarchy encourages an inward looking approach, concerning itself with the current and future positions of staff within the existing structure. Where is the impetus to learn from others and open up the conversation to do things differently?

The solution

Creating a learning organisation means changing the structure that the current culture is based upon. What is needed is a more agile structure, using cross functional teams, where individuals are encouraged (and expected) to take responsibility for originating and implementing new ideas and improvements.

Metrics are based on the achievement of the team, not on individual performance or departmental efficiencies or cost cutting. This requires a re- think to how budgets are calculated and how resources are allocated. We need to shift from basing decisions on how the silos operate to providing what is needed to successfully deliver individual initiatives.


Expecting to achieve the benefits of a learning organisation by changing surface elements e.g. allocating a couple of hours a week to new ideas, or giving staff the freedom to create their own learning and development plans is not enough. There has to be a real change in how the organisation is structured if we are to encourage self-motivation and personal responsibility. Innovation is self-directed. It starts with an individual having the willingness to share their ideas. Is that really going to happen in a tightly controlled hierarchy?