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  • Stewart Mathers

How do organisations learn?

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

Organisations evolve and change over time, but do they actually learn? If we choose to accept that they do, then how can organisations optimise their learning strategy, and what are the implications for leaders and support functions such as HR and L&D?

When I first read Charles Handy’s work in the 1990s, I became fascinated by his description of organisations’ culture styles, and how these may reflect the way organisations learn. If ‘culture’ is another way of saying ‘a collective set of habits’ – where the ‘set’ is greater than the sum of its parts – what are the habits of organisations that influence their learning style?


Over the last 25 years I have been fortunate to work with a wide range of organisations in various L&D roles. Although much has been written on organisational culture during that time, I believe Handy’s descriptors still serve as a helpful starting point for discussing how they learn:


Power Culture: charismatic leader/s with centralised control; dynamic, agile and responsive, risk-taking; status attached to connections and proximity to the centre. Learning style – learn by doing; through informal interventions with prompt feedback, reinforced by rewards and recognition from the centre, supported by active networking and ‘useful’ contacts.


Role Culture: hierarchic leaders with status attached to titles and seniority; bureaucratic decision-making processes; emphasis on compliance and conformity. Learning style – learn by formal, structured programmes; analysing and reviewing details; driven by centralised systems and procedures; reinforced by permission from appropriate authorities.


Task Culture: matrix leadership focused on specific projects and outcomes; best-practice oriented; status attached to expertise and successful track record of delivery. Learning style – learn by research and development;  establishing and sharing ownership of best practice; reinforced by consensus and standardisation; supported by reflection and introspection.


Person Culture: collective leadership by expert associates; informal, relatively unstructured processes; flat power-sharing, status attached to specialisation; highly flexible and individualistic. Learning style – learn by individual development and specialisation; reinforced by qualifications, fellowships and professional accreditations, supported by forums and specialist working groups.

So, how do organisations learn, and what are the implications for HR and L&D? In practice, organisations are rarely as simple as the models above, and often show a complex and changing combination of styles.  When designing learning programmes, therefore, it’s important to remember that one size does not fit all. Instead, a constantly evolving blend of interventions is required to make the learning strategy have a positive and sustainable impact.

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