How coaching helps create an Organisational Learning Culture

Why is an organisational learning culture so vital?

Who is this article for?

  • Business leaders responsible for improving organisational effectiveness
  • HR Directors implementing and building an organisational learning culture

There’s no doubt that the world is changing with increasing speed, and with often dramatic consequences. The new term to capture this is ‘VUCA’ – we live in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We can see this demonstrated every day with advances in technology, with events in politics, in mass migration and social unrest, and in changing economic and business markets. For organisations, this means being more alert to changes in their operational landscape, being more agile, more market and customer responsive, and more performance driven than ever before - and this trend will continue.

Why is embracing an organisational learning culture so important?

It’s an often-stated truism that all organisations rely on the people it employs for their success. No organisation anywhere can be successful without the skill, ingenuity, commitment and resilience of its people, and never more so than now. The challenge for successful organisations is how to ride the crest of the VUCA wave, to be ahead of the game as far as possible, and to create new opportunities for their business and services to thrive.

To ride the VUCA wave organisations must draw out and draw on the unique talents of every individual - and to do that, organisations must be re-constructed to facilitate the creation of ingenuity, the sharing of learning and the transfer of knowledge.

In essence they must become a learning organisation, with an organisational learning culture embedded throughout.

What is a learning organisation?

The corporate strategist and academic Pete Senge coined the phrase ‘the learning organisation’ in the 1990s. Much has been written since by many consultants and academics about the value of creating ‘organisations 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 together’ (Senge).

More recently, David Garvin of Harvard Business School said that ‘a learning organisation is an organisation skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights.’ (Garvin).

Whichever definition you prefer (and there are many others) there can be no doubt that the organisation that learns together achieves together, and this is the only way to ride the crest of the wave and move forward.

Those organisations that do not embrace change are effectively going backwards and will fall back to be taken by the prevailing current to wherever it is headed. This indicates a choice for organisations. Either maintain the status quo, aim for linear improvement and risk the consequences (which might be seriously detrimental) or develop the kind of organisational culture that emboldens staff to think outside of the box, to challenge the status quo and to take personal responsibility and ownership.

This would involve the organisation moving:

From - Towards:

Risk averse - Experimental

Hierarchy - Relational

Rules - Flexibility

Silos and rigid structure - Matrix and loose structure

Opacity and control - Transparency and facilitation

Chains of command - Personal responsibility

Organisational authority - Individual authority

Higher level of decision making - Lowest possible level of decision making

Feedback as criticism - Feedback as learning and development

Anxiety/fear of failure - Inner freedom to act/enjoyment

None of this is rocket science and many organisations have been travelling this route for years. Unfortunately, however, not all organisations have been successful in creating the kind of organisational learning culture they seek.

What has often happened is that the focus for organisational change – transformation even – has been on the structures, communications systems, procedures, and in creating espoused values; the kind you see on the reception area wall and which have been knocked out by the senior management team in a day’s expensively facilitated workshop. This is like losing your car keys at night on the pavement but looking for them under a lamp-post 20 yards away because you can see better. It’s easier to do but it won’t give the result you want. Re-designing the structures, communications systems and procedures etc might be necessary at some point, but it is secondary.

The primary focus in creating an effective organisational learning culture is to:

  • establishing new relationships throughout the organisation which are based on trust, respect, honesty and appreciation
  • create supportive conversations that allow for disagreement and constructive criticism
  • create clear goals which are co-operatively and mutually supported but owned personally
  • give feedback for personal development and share learning to pool new ideas at all levels

How coaching enables an organisational learning culture to thrive

So what is the answer? Well, we are all human and we can easily lose sight of what motivates us in the often seemingly daily grind of working life. This moves us away from an appreciation of our own power and authenticity. In the 21st century workplace, there is now an expectation, and rightly so, that we should be able to re-connect with our sense of self at work to find energy, intrinsic motivation and fulfilment. An enlightened workplace, one which allows a learning culture to thrive, can offer us the opportunity to rediscover ourselves and our gifts and talents. The added benefits for the organisation are obviously immense, it’s a mega sized win/win and coaching is the process by which it can be achieved.

Coaching is the art of facilitating the learning, performance and development of others (Myles Downey). There are many other definitions, but this short sentence captures the essence of what coaching is about. Given why an organisational learning culture is vital to organisational survival in a VUCA world, and what is required to establish one as described in the ‘from/towards’ list above, it is obvious that the intent of coaching describes exactly how such a culture can be nurtured.

Coaching is a conversational approach that engenders trust, mutual co-operation and appreciation, clarity of thought and higher levels of discretionary effort. The authority to think and act upon one’s own insights towards specific goals allows higher levels of personal ownership and responsibility, and ultimately is more satisfying for the individual.

Moreover, the non-directive nature of coaching, which is by far the most effective approach, not only gives individuals permission to think for themselves, it forces them to do so. This can open extraordinary horizons of possibility for the individual who can now find themselves far more capable and innovative than even they themselves thought possible. If only I had £5 for every manager I know who has said to me I never thought x had it in them to do that / I’m amazed by the impact that coaching has had on the performance of y / Since I’ve started coaching z their motivation has gone through the roof

organisational learning culture

Compare this with the common directive style of day-to day conversation in organisations, where there is no real permission to think for oneself. The result is a consistent re-cycling of old knowledge (which gets older by the day) and ways of doing things, whilst brilliant employees put their extraordinary gifts and talents on hold. It is certainly true that the upcoming generation of workers will not be content with such mind-numbing and motivationally restrictive management practices. Something needs to change.

It is well established scientifically that the world as we each see it is a construct of our individual perception – our senses select information, our brain constructs a simulation of the world and then finally we get a conscious experience. What is possible is already defined, and therefore narrowed.

In effect, we become the narrative that our brain is telling us and what is possible is limited to the narrative (I can do this, but I can’t do that/I’m not good enough for that/I’m capable of doing x but not y/I’ll never be able to do z, I’m not strong or clever enough/ etc…).

Coaching is intended to raise awareness (and generate responsibility) and so increases our range of perception. The process helps us each understand and appreciate what more we each individually might be capable of, if we made the choice to do so, and how to move forward into action. We may not all be able to be Tim Peake and leave the planet, but everyone is capable of making so much more of their working lives and achieving a sense of achievement and fulfilment at work.

All we need is the opportunity to think for ourselves, and to be trusted to deliver to the best of our abilities. A coaching culture fulfils this requirement. There might be some training to do, there might be some processes to change, some rules to relax. Ultimately though, a learning culture is simply a network of trusting, appreciative relationships, a set of common goals, good communications and honest feedback, and a thirst for new ideas put into practice to serve the vision of the organisation.

The possibility is that workplaces are places of outstanding performance as well as joyful and engaging places to be. Work should be like this, in fact it must if organisations are to thrive in a VUCA world and as Voltaire neatly summed up 300 years ago:

‘No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. So think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too’.

What next?

Coaching Focus can help you implement and support a learning culture across your organisation. To discuss where you're at, and where we may be able to help, speak with Trayton Vance.