“To learn you need a certain degree of confidence, not too much and not too little. If you have too little confidence, you will think that you can’t learn. If you have too much, you think you don’t have to learn.” -Eric Hoffer
Mobile telephones and other devices regularly get updated, the apps that run on them also get updated. The purpose of the update is often to improve the processes flow, user experience, art appeal, activity speed, or to match with the current needs or future realities. Simply put, the purpose is to make it a better version of itself. This is how I see a learning organisation: It is an organisation with people and systems oriented towards making things better, people that aim to become better versions of themselves, and aim to keep improving the system. In a learning organisation, people are coordinated, and processes are instituted to harness tools, skills, abilities, and time among other things, for development. This inclination towards progress happens by fostering aspirations and achievements. To attain such progress an enabling environment – a learning atmosphere – is necessary.
Creating a Learning Atmosphere
A learning atmosphere is important for enabling growth and adaptability. Its cultivation requires deliberate effort. Hereafter, four ways by which a learning atmosphere can be cultivated are discussed. These are: initiation of creative tension, development of new capabilities, mindset change and the establishment of a healthy emotional space.
Firstly, we discuss creative tension. Creative tension is that energy generated between current realities and future aspirations that urges creativity and thus developments. Creative tension is initiated by knowledge of two things: current realities and future possibilities. When we know where we are (current reality) and know the future possibilities (vision) of an organisation, there is tension that inspires innovation, creativity and advancement. That tension propels us forward. Knowledge of current reality or the future possibility is insufficient, both has to be present to produce creative tension. For instance, a vision without an awareness of what it currently entails, cannot generate tension to drive the process to achieving progress, because the awareness of what needs to be changed – the gaps – are unknown. Similarly, when the current reality is known, but there is no vision of the future, there will be no progress towards the goal because the destination is unclear. Therefore, that energy is needed to shake or disrupt the system between two clearly defined points. Creative tension creates that disruption. Note that for continued growth, there will always be more possible achievements, because the vision keeps expanding. Consequently, that tension is always present in a learning organization, and it causes the organisation’s standard to improve every time an achievement is made.
Secondly, a learning atmosphere can be created through the development of new capabilities. Organisations cannot develop unless the people within them do. Therefore, it is important to have an environment that enables people to increase their capabilities to address the gaps between current realities and future possibilities. New capabilities that enable valuable contributions to be made and new roles to be occupied. Where these are lacking, organisations can get left behind and this can affect the bottom-line. The bottom-line differs from one organisation to another: To one, it may be advancements in technology; to another, higher standards of education; yet to another, cutting edge research advancements, or outstanding consulting services; the list is endless. Therefore, capacity development needs to be intentional.
Capacity development also requires humility, a system of enquiry, action plans and accountability: Humility to admit that there are gaps in knowledge and that the knowledge can be obtained from someone else; a system of enquiry to determine what exactly is lacking and how it can be attained, action plans that provide a deliberate and strategic road map towards achievements, and accountability to ensure that plans are followed up and milestones achieved are scalable. In capacity development, it is important to know that learning can occur by being taught and by sharing knowledge (by teaching). In actual fact, the word ‘learn’ came from an old English word ‘leornian’ that also means ‘teach’. An environment that allows growth and capacity development embraces a learning culture.
Thirdly, a mindset change is another important feature of a learning atmosphere. It is imperative to foster a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset (where people believe that certain things cannot change and so do not put in the required effort to make the necessary change). According to Carol Dweck Ph. D, a Stanford University Psychologist “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Why is mindset important to learning organisations? Well, the lack of learning and improvements can kill an organisation. If the mindset that things cannot change is dominant, eventually things will change, but the organization that does not will eventually cease to meet the needs of the environment and become irrelevant.
A keenness to learn and resilience to continue learning even in difficult circumstances is a feature of people with a growth mindset. Traditional methods of learning are important. However, learning can also come through criticism and conflict. Unfortunately, criticism and conflict are viewed as an attack on intelligence, talent or personality by people with a fixed mindset; and therefore resisted. Consequently, the lack of humility impedes their ability to learn through these channels. Conversely, people with a growth mindset, view conflict and criticism as feedback and use these as opportunities to learn and innovate. Generally, most people have a mix of both mindsets, with more inclination towards one. Thus, to move more towards a growth mindset, I recommend adding the word ‘yet’ when you hear your fixed mindset voice say, ‘I can’t do it’. Thereafter, take steps to grow in that area and build tenacity.
Fourthly, a healthy emotional space is needed for a learning atmosphere. Organisational transformation is not always easy, and change is typically resisted. However, in an environment with freedom of expression and feedback is seen to be implemented, people feel heard and valued. This creates an enabling environment that fosters creativity and action towards desired change. This is also a signal of empathy. An empathic workplace stimulates employee engagement and leads to a stronger bottom-line. Psychopathy is bad for organisational growth because it impedes employee engagement and collaboration. In contrast, empathy promotes honesty and compassion – both important for collaboration. Affective empathy is intrinsic, cognitive empathy is developed with experience and learning, and expertise is gained by learning and observation. So, it is possible for people to learn empathy and get better at emotional intelligence (EI). EI is an important attribute in the ambience of a learning environment. In an environment with an organisational culture that has people who believe that that they must first lead themselves and then demonstrate appropriate social behaviours, advancements can be made.
In conclusion, within a learning environment, people have the freedom to challenge the status quo, can speak without being judged; and there is an atmosphere of collaboration towards a shared vision. When this kind of environment exists that embraces disruption, risks can be taken in safe environments, prototypes can be developed and improved. Furthermore, brainstorming can lead to the development of original ideas and superior group thinking advancements. When people know that they can try out new things, they are able to explore innovation towards improvements. When this atmosphere exists, then it nurtures a learning organisation.