Aug 28, 2022 3 min read

Learning as a Strategy

Learning as a Strategy

Organizational learning as one of the central pieces of strategy is still not as common as one would think.

It's a cliche to say we live in a world full of volatility, ambiguity, uncertainty, and change. Learning is a powerful anti-dote that can help leaders and organizations thrive in uncertainty.

Metanoia

Peter Senge, in his 1990 classic The Fifth Discipline, outlined five disciplines of learning organizations. In an insightful essay, he highlights how an emphasis on learning can have a direct effect on the people in an organization.

METANOIA—A SHIFT OF MIND

When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience.

People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.

The most accurate word in Western culture to describe what happens in a learning organization is one that hasn’t had much currency for the past several hundred years. […] The word is “metanoia” and it means a shift of mind. […]

To grasp the meaning of “metanoia” is to grasp the deeper meaning of “learning,” for learning also involves a fundamental shift or movement of mind.

The problem with talking about “learning organizations” is that the “learning” has lost its central meaning in contemporary usage. Most people’s eyes glaze over if you talk to them about “learning” or “learning organizations.” The words tend to immediately evoke images of sitting passively in schoolrooms, listening, following directions, and pleasing the teacher by avoiding making mistakes.

In effect, in everyday use, learning has come to be synonymous with “taking in information.” “Yes, I learned all about that at the training yesterday.” Yet, taking in information is only distantly related to real learning. It would be nonsensical to say, “I just read a great book about bicycle riding—I’ve now learned that.”

Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.

As anthropologist Edward Hall says, “Humans are the learning organism par excellence. The drive to learn is as strong as the sexual drive—it begins earlier and lasts longer.”

This, then, is the basic meaning of a “learning organization”—an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.

Learning and the human OS

This passage hits on many of the core needs of our human OS :

  • to be part of something larger than ourselves
  • to create meaning and lead meaningful lives
  • to learn and achieve mastery
  • our need to create
  • to be engaged fully with the project of our work and lives

And these same needs go unmet in modern organizations for a variety of reasons.

Over 3 decades after the publication of The Fifth Discipline and scores of other related books and journals, learning is often relegated to the HR or L&D departments and never really gets center stage attention.

But if looked at in terms of creativity, innovation, retention, motivation, morale, and perhaps 10 other buzzwords,  learning suddenly takes on a different aura. It becomes a central piece, or at least one of the central pieces of the puzzle.

Further reading

Can you teach leadership? More importantly can you learn it? I examine some core ideas in Leadership can be learned but cannot be taught.

In a seminal HBR article, Chris Argyris highlighted some of the challenges with learning especially amongst well paid, highly educated professionals. I examined some of his key ideas in Learning How to Learn.


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Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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