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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Is Your Firm A Learning Organization?

In the last 15 years all of us have clearly learned one thing--the world is speeding up and, as even frontier markets get wired, people are getting more demanding or spoiled. They want precisely what THEY want and they want it now, not in the future. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, all companies, but especially those in communication, have to adapt and change or perish. A firm has to continually improve across all departments and you need to rethink your goals. Yet, what is a company? It is essentially its people and people only change when they are learning new things and shifting behaviors. As one person wrote to me, “Learning is the capital of the future” (More about that later).

About 25 years ago, Peter Senge of MIT wrote a book called THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE: THE ART AND PRACTICE OF THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION. His thesis was that it was not merely individuals but the organization itself which has to learn and keep learning to stay current. He described learning organizations as “organizations 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.” Sounds fabulous, huh?

Does anyone truly do it? Well, as is often the case, theorists such as Senge were more than a bit ahead of their time. Today, in 2016, I would argue that being a learning organization is crucial for the growth and even survival of many media entities and small to medium sized advertising agencies.

Did you ever ask anyone or observe what it is to be part of a great business team? Maybe even a well run department within a larger firm? To me, it always seem to hinge around an open environment for ideas and that people feel that they are doing something meaningful.

Senge identified things with a bit more precision that that. Disciplines needed in a learning organization include:

1) Systems Thinking--this is simply saying that what you do is interrelated and what you do can effect others and have long term effects. All too often I observed people 100% concerned with their own job, job security or department. No one looked at the big picture--people focused on their own “silo” or “sandbox.” Long term it hurt growth and the overall environment of the company.

2) Personal Mastery--here Senge says one lives life from a creative rather than reactive standpoint. These people are still learning and hungry for it. There are no “fat old men on tenure” who are coasting. Curiosity reigns. This is much easier said than done especially in a service organization.

3) Building A Shared Vision--teams learn to think insightfully and there is an “operational trust” among executives. There is dialog that is far more open than most organizations.

4) Leadership--autocrats need not apply. These men and women need to be teachers but not owners of the corporate vision.


About 10 years ago, I began to see the term learning organization pop up in the chairman’s letter in annual reports and corporate mission statements. I sometimes laughed out loud if I knew the group was run by a narrow minded tyrant. To me, Senge’s idea is one whose time has come. If not, many organizations we know will be swept away or much weaker over the next decade.

Finally, I mentioned that someone had written to me when I canvassed some panel members about this topic that “learning is the capital of the future.” Impressed, I asked if it were his original phrase. He said no and challenged me to find it. After some Inspector  Clouseau style research, I believe it was coined by British business writer Edward Russell-Walling. His articles on Senge are well worth your time if you do not want to plow through the original “Learning Organization” text.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a comment on the blog.




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