Are you a Learning Organization? How to Resonate with Today’s Members

Blog_26.pngBy Anna Caraveli

How, what and why your organization learns have implications far beyond the kind of information you accumulate.  They are indicators of its true focus and character, and it potential for competing successfully in the knowledge age. 

In our research we discovered that it was 8 such indicators of behavior and thought, rather than what an organization said, that revealed its true market personality and focus:  assessing challenges; learning; resource allocations; leadership and decision-making; values and assumptions; relationships and measures success.  On the basis of these indicators we grouped organizations into three personality types along a continuum, with bureaucratic, product and supply focused organizations at one end of the continuum and demand-focused, entrepreneurial organizations at the other end. Not surprisingly the latter were the ones growing and succeeding in our unpredictable and fluid environment. Bureaucratic organizations operated with a model designed for an environment of predictability, control and stability. Their very DNA was out of sync with their customers’ world and, as a result, they were at a competitive disadvantage.  


All association leaders we interviewed or worked with over the years, placed value on their knowledge resources and prided themselves for their latest market research, “data-driven” decisions, journals,  and archives.  Do expertise, information and knowledge archives make an association a learning organization?  In my opinion, most assuredly no!  

Even the most enlightened CEOs who come to us for solutions to serious challenges, bulk at our request to first interview key customers and stakeholders in-depth, to hear directly from them how they think, derive value, frame their problems and needs. Or, even though they look for answers, they may have unconsciously narrowed the categories of solutions they will accept. This means that there may be respect for certain bodies of knowledge, but not a learning culture.  We call it “the “We Already Know This” syndrom and it limits discovery and innovation. Regardless of assertions, their decisions, values and actions communicate a different message: 

We have been in existence for many years and already know our members and sector very well.  

We have no interest in getting into the details of their lives, context and way of thinking. An occasional survey or focus group is more than adequate for what we need to know. 

We have more important priorities than getting inside our members’ thoughts and experiences all the time.  

We already know who our customers are and what our market and growth potential is.

We only serve members–those who fit our criteria and qualifications

Characteristics of a Learning Organization

The first thing that strikes me when I am in a true learning organization is curiosity. No amount of knowledge is enough; no assumption remains unchallenged.   I list what I consider the key characteristic below:

  •  Learning organizations create learning cultures rather than functions.  “In a learning culture”, leadership expert, Michael Maccoby says “people take responsibility and support one another. They share experience and learn from mistakes as well as successes. Good ideas are heard, acted on and rewarded. A learning culture can only be developed from the top of the organization. …Furthermore, the measurements and incentives can either reinforce or undermine teamwork and learning together.”
  • The first step toward creating a learning organization is to shift from information to knowledge; from passive “listening” to understanding. This requires different competencies and mindset that enable intimate interactions, reading nuanced clues, extracting and interpreting from what people say, what it is that they really mean.
  • The real transformative shift is from acquiring knowledge to actually becoming a learning organization. This means that learning is not assigned to a research department but is pervasive and continuous. “Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured…and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” (Senge 1990: 3)

The first thing that Bruce Aldrich did to turn around a declining association as Deputy CEO of Photo Marketing Association (PMA), was to replace conventional “market research” with ongoing market discovery and make it part of everyone’s responsibility. Staff, for example, had to personally call those who did not renew to understand the real reasons; get member feedback on their new ideas for programs and benefits; take a deeper look at member opinions, values, business, work life etc. to extrapolate needs that mattered to them the most…”

  • Learning is not a luxury but an important capability and competitive advantage.  In a state of constant flux –“the loss of the stable state”– means learning must be fast and continuous.  Demand-focused organizations invest in “becoming adept at learning” rather than in acquiring knowledge.  “We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.” (Schon 1973: 28)
  •  Demand-focused, entrepreneurial organizations learn by doing and through results. They also learn collaboratively with peers and customers.  Collaboration and co-development

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) was very successful in increasing g not only its member basis but also its role and influence in health care by leading the development of a seminal report in family medicine, and transforming the medical practice model. To get these results, they changed the culture and framework for doing things, especially learning and developing. In the place of internal, committee-driven decision-making, it set in motion an entrepreneurial process of open and collaborative discovery and experimentation.  In June 2006 it launched an innovative 24-month National Demonstration Project (NDP) to pilot test and adapt the new model the report recommended with 36 participating family medicine practices from all across the United States.  

To get new results you must change the way you think, learn and create. How does your organization learn and apply knowledge? 

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