The current business environment is highly competitive, so businesses operating in diverse spheres try to use various opportunities to enhance their performance. At present considerable attention is paid to people and knowledge. It has been acknowledged that organizations capable of learning obtain considerable competitive advantage (Odor, 2018, p. 1). Such organizations tend to attract the best talent, which results in high performance and sustainable development of a company.
Employees in such companies innovate and introduce new vision, which helps industries evolve. It is possible to name numerous learning organizations as the vast majority of them are high-performers in their market. For instance, Microsoft or Honda are such organizations that have managed to adapt to the ever-changing business environment and become top companies in the global market (Odor, 2018, p. 6). The best illustration of the enterprise capable of timely changes is the learning organization. This paper deals with the major characteristics of learning organizations and the way these specifics enhance training transfer.
The Definition of a Learning Organization
The concept of the learning organization appeared decades ago, and several definitions exist. The concept was introduced by Peter Senge, a founder and chairman of the Society of Organizational Learning, in 1990 (Odor, 2018, p. 5). Senge defined this kind of company as the one that “encourages and facilitates learning in order to continually transform itself to survive and excel in a rapidly changing business environment” (Odor, 2018, p. 5). Widyastuti, Qosasi, Savitri Noor and Kurniawati (2017) define the concept as employees’ “behavior” regarding “leadership that facilitates… the creation of cooperation and teamwork, the creation of staff empowerment atmosphere to improve themselves” (p. 207). Mitleton-Kelly (n.d.) defines a learning organization as “one that is able to change its behaviors and mind-sets as a result of experience” (p. 1).
Such elements as change, collaboration, and leadership are central to these definitions, as well as the concept under consideration. Interestingly, some researchers see learning organizations as people’s behavior instead of focusing on resources, management, and administration. This approach suggests that modern people’s consensus regarding the value of the individual, so people have truly become major organizational assets.
Some researchers concentrate on the components of the term rather than the exact relations among these elements. For example, Serrat (2009) states that a learning organization is an enterprise consisting of such subsystems as “organization, people, knowledge, and technology” (p. 1). Based on these definitions, it is possible to develop an explanation that includes all the major features mentioned by researchers. The learning organization is a combination of people’s behaviors that enhance the company’s capacity to learn to transform in order to adjust to the changing business environment for achieving competitive advantage.
The Features of a Learning Organization
Every learning organization, irrespective of the area of its operations, has several features common for this type of companies. These characteristic features can be grouped into organizational, employee-related, technological, and knowledge-based. It is necessary to note that companies may adopt only some methods and approaches and give little attention to certain aspects (Madumali & Tharuka Perera, 2018, p. 219).
Such businesses will still be referred to as learning organizations although they may need further development and enhancement of particular aspects. The establishment of the culture of learning is the critical premise and background for the creation of a learning organization. It is also important to add that companies that are not learning organizations may transform into such enterprises, although the process of transformation may require the investment of considerable time and resources.
Learning organizations have several basic features that ensure their excellent performance and development. Continuous transformations are the most apparent characteristics of learning organizations. These changes depend on the shifts of the external environment and are pivotal for being resilient to negative influences and capable of remaining competitive (Mitleton-Kelly, n.d., p. 2). At the same time, changes are also deeply rooted in certain internal aspects. For example, people innovate to improve their performance and achieve their professional goals.
The primary feature of a learning organization is its commitment to learning that is ensured and facilitated by means, motives, and opportunities for learning (Serrat, 2009, p. 2). Leaders within the company acknowledge the value of learning and provide motives (the reasons for learning), means (models and strategies), and the opportunity (the space for learning). It is typical of learning organizations to allocate resources to ensure the availability of time and space for learning, sufficient budgets, informal and formal networks, as well as specific training programs. Mitleton-Kelly (n.d.) stresses that an important peculiarity of the learning organization is the creation of a strong network of interpersonal relationships and the support of peers and leaders (p. 1).
The networks become the proper platforms for knowledge sharing and innovation, as well as the development of learning culture. These major organizational aspects constitute the basics of a learning organization.
The focus on people can be seen as another attribute of learning organizations. These companies employ people who are eager to learn, can reflect on their experiences and can use their understanding to contribute to effective knowledge sharing (Serrat, 2009, p. 2). Clearly, such people can perform well in an appropriate working environment that is characterized by trust, collaboration, support, and teamwork. Serrat (2009) also adds that retention and development are important elements of business practice (p. 2). Leaders try to ensure the effective use of resources aimed at training employees.
Learning organizations make sure that employees obtain the necessary skills, and the process of this acquisition is regarded as people’s basic activity. Therefore, the time spent on training is often paid as any other task performed by employees. Peer support is integral to daily practices, which facilitates the creation of formal and informal networks (Mitleton-Kelly, n.d., p. 1). Mentorship is another feature of learning organizations that contributes to their success. Support instead of supervision, and managing instead of bossing enable companies to establish the necessary atmosphere (Serrat, 2009, p. 4). The use of this approach may require the allocation of additional funds as more training may be needed. However, this model contributes to improving organizational performance and gaining a competitive advantage.
Effective leadership and people empowerment are characteristic features of learning organizations. Mitleton-Kelly (n.d.) emphasizes that distributed leadership is common for such companies, and employees are regarded as responsible change agents committed to the sustainable development of their organizations (p. 1). Self-organization is one of the outcomes of this approach, and it occurs naturally.
The communication around the water cooler often results in innovation and the development of creative ideas that contribute to improving organizational performance. Natural self-organization may occur if the appropriate organizational culture is established and employees (or, at least, a part of the staff) are united by a goal or idea. However, self-organization can be encouraged by the creation of specific spaces and platforms. By encouraging people to communicate and collaborate, leaders will facilitate the process of transformation into a learning organization.
As mentioned above, knowledge is one of the constituent parts of a learning organization. Leaders understand that the production and dissemination of knowledge can be individual and collective. The former type is common for people and organizations while the latter may need additional efforts to be made to create collective knowledge. Knowledge sharing can take several forms including planned and emergent (Serrat, 2009, p. 2).
The latter is often based on the creation of a passion for learning and the provision of opportunities for informal knowledge sharing. Planned knowledge sharing consists of educational programs and training. The provision of feedback and information dissemination are critical features of learning organizations (Serrat, 2009, p. 5). Such companies have sophisticated systems for knowledge sharing, including norms, practices, documentation, and protocols.
The concept of co-evolution of ideas is also seen as a feature of a learning organization. Each employee generates ideas that are transformed by other peoples’ ideas, which is the process of co-evolution shaping organizational behavior (Mitleton-Kelly, n.d., p. 2). However, this environment has proved to be beneficial for the establishment of the learning culture. This process is encouraged by leaders in learning organizations. Finally, effective communication is the necessary background for efficient knowledge co-evolution.
As mentioned above, the effective use of technology to facilitate knowledge sharing is a characteristic feature of a learning organization. Serrat (2009) identifies several purposes for using technology, including but not confined to developing and sustaining learning communities, retaining employees, raising employees’ awareness of relevant aspects, creating communities and networks, and encouraging innovation (p. 5). Clearly, technology is employed to disseminate data and manage information flow. Learning organizations are characterized by the provision of training regarding technology use, which contributes to setting the learning culture.
Learning Organization Characteristics and Transfer of Training
The availability of a set of traits of learning organizations contributes to the transfer of training, which is beneficial for the success of any business. The transfer of training can be defined as “the extent to which the learning that results from a training experience transfers to the job and leads to meaningful changes in work performance” (Ford, Baldwin, & Prasad, 2018, p. 202). Training transfer is also the process of transforming individual learning to the collective one. Employees gain experiences that turn into ideas, protocols, and, eventually, new culture, which results in the adoption of the new knowledge and skills by different leaders and employees in other departments. The specifics of learning organizations have a substantial effect on the transfer of training and serve as the facilitators of this process.
Organizational aspects are associated with the development of the culture of learning and the facilitation of training transfer. Inherent culture of learning that is possible when employees are willing to develop, share knowledge and innovate is the most appropriate platform for the transfer of training (Mitleton-Kelly, n.d., p. 1). Employees accumulate knowledge and share it effectively, which leads to the effective utilization of skills obtained in the course of training. The use of gained knowledge has a positive effect on organizational performance because employees develop innovative strategies and approaches to address emerging issues.
Leaders try to create and maintain the focus on learning, which is another method to transfer training to positive organizational outcomes. When leaders provide motives, means, and opportunities, employees are encouraged to invest their time in training and effectively utilize the gained knowledge (Serrat, 2009, p. 2). Since they have proper platforms for knowledge sharing, people discuss their experiences and have an opportunity to translate them into new or even innovative ideas, practices, and approaches. Employees are able to gain knowledge and use their skills in various settings when addressing existing and emerging issues.
The organizational aspects of learning organizations are central to the transfer of training because strong networks are created. Learning organizations pay specific attention to supporting the development of effective relationships among employees (Mitleton-Kelly, n.d., p. 1). These networks are primary channels for the spread of knowledge and experience. Through these channels, employees receive knowledge and develop skills that are further transformed into collective knowledge. The establishment of the learning culture is often another outcome of this practice.
The statement that people are companies’ primary assets is not uncommon in a present-day business environment. At that, it is specifically true for learning organizations where the input and knowledge of an individual often translate into better performance of the entire organization. Ford et al. (2018) claim that peer support and mentorship are essential for the transfer of training (p. 204). The provision of training is a complex process that requires the creation of an effective working atmosphere where people support each other and are eager to share their ideas.
The transfer of training occurs when people provide support to their peers, which is one of the ways individual knowledge turns into a collective one. Employees encourage and help each other to understand some complex information or train specific skills. They generate ideas, and this is critical when new challenges appear, so acquired skills are used to handle diverse issues. Ford et al. (2018) add that retention of ideas and the focus on a set of skills can result in decay (p. 204). If particular skills and knowledge are regarded as a priority, if they are supported and promoted, new ideas will hardly emerge. Clearly, this approach can result in lower performance and considerable losses for companies.
The empowerment of each employee is another instrument for transferring training. Distributed leadership helps individuals to innovate and share knowledge without concerns related to personal gains (Mitleton-Kelly, n.d., p. 1). People become responsible actors who are committed to organizational goals. They see opportunities and share their vision facilitating the process of generating ideas within the company. Training serves as the basis of new knowledge, but employee empowerment is the factor in making people elaborate on this information and innovate.
Knowledge-related characteristics of learning organizations are also instrumental in transferring training. The concept of co-evolution of knowledge is closely related to the concept of training transfer. The free flow of ideas and their interactions intensify training transfer as individuals’ skills and ideas become available to the entire staff of the organization (Mitleton-Kelly, n.d., p. 2).
Importantly, these skills and ideas are constantly changing under the influence of each other, as well as external factors, which helps in transferring training and making every idea useful for high organizational performance. In learning organizations, this process is often natural and emerges as a response to the provided training. In many cases, the involvement of leaders is necessary, and employees are encouraged to share ideas freely through the created channels. Leaders’ support and mentorship are also possible strategies to employ to facilitate knowledge sharing and innovation.
Training programs are an indispensable part of the modern business world, but learning organizations can benefit from them to the fullest. Ford et al. (2018) state that employees gain knowledge and skills that tend to be utilized for addressing a set of issues (p. 203). However, in learning organizations, ideas co-evolve and transform, so people are prepared to react accordingly when new challenges appear. This process is possible if companies have effective knowledge sharing platforms and channels that are technology-based.
The view of technology as a means of information dissemination is incomplete and can result in certain decay. In order to intensify the process of learning and training transfer, technology should address a set of objectives including the creation of the learning community, and raising people’s awareness (Serrat, 2009, p. 5). Of course, technology is utilized to implement training, but in learning organizations, it is also employed for training transfer. Simulations and similar software can be used to help people develop new approaches to solving existing and upcoming issues.
Technology can also facilitate the empowerment of employees, which is an important component of training transfer (Serrat, 2009, p. 5). Individuals share their ideas and suggestions through numerous tools, including but not confined to wikis, mind maps, internal communication systems. These activities help them to become responsible change actors who identify opportunities and have the necessary skills to seize them. Clearly, these instruments are also valuable for the transfer of training as individual knowledge transform into a collective understanding of important aspects and employees’ ability to respond to challenges effectively.
In conclusion, it is necessary to note that learning organizations are the primary change agents of the business world as they are the major sources of innovation. Several definitions of such organizations exist, but they all share several elements in common. The learning organization is the one characterized by change, strong leadership, and employee empowerment, as well as a successful adaptation to the ever-changing environment. The four central components of a learning organization are the organization, people, technology, and knowledge.
Other most relevant features of learning organizations are also the creation of learning communities, peer support, mentorship, and effective communication. Learning organizations allocate considerable funds to ensure the provision of the necessary training and the establishment of the learning culture within the company. The mentioned traits contribute to the transfer of training, which is the background for obtaining a competitive advantage.
In learning organizations, individual knowledge transforms into a collective one, and employees gain skills necessary for addressing existing and upcoming challenges. It is possible to conclude that any company can become a learning organization if it manages to create the learning culture and develop the majority of the features mentioned above. Businesses should understand the value of learning, knowledge, and change in order to obtain a competitive advantage and become leaders in their markets.
Ford, J. K., Baldwin, T. T., & Prasad, J. (2018). Transfer of training: The known and the unknown. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 5(1), 201-225. Web.
Madumali, P. A., & Tharuka Perera, R. H. A. (2018). An empirical study on the factors influence on learning organizations. Global Scientific Journals, 6(6), 218-222. Web.
Mitleton-Kelly, E. (n.d.). What are the characteristics of a learning organization?. Web.
Odor, H. O. (2018). A literature review on organizational learning and learning organizations. International Journal of Economics & Management Sciences, 07(01), 1-6. Web.
Serrat, O. (2009). Building a learning organization. Knowledge Solutions. Web.
Widyastuti, S., Qosasi, A., Savitri Noor, L., & Kurniawati, D. (2017). Enhancing the competitive advantage of SMEs through innovation: The role of market and entrepreneurship orientation, learning organizations. International Journal of Economic Research, 14(20), 203-221. Web.