The Evolution of Learning Organizations and Cultures [Part 1]

A Brief History of Learning Organizations & Cultures

The idea of ‘Learning Organization’ began properly with Peter Senge’s 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline,  encouraging corporations to take learning out of the classrooms, and into the fabric of operations itself, through his five “component technologies”: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning. During the 1990s, several other university scholars followed suit (Peter Kline , Ikujiro Nonaka , Chris Argyris , and Anthony DiBella , among others). Most efforts found the practice challenging, and many authors underscored the profound change in corporate culture required to transform into a “learning organization.”

In the late 1990s, a second thread of research started to hit the mainstream. Popularized by authors like Thomas Stewart  and Tom Davenport  and fueled by new information technologies, US Firms began to hear about Knowledge Management. Knowledge Management “comprises a range of strategies…to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable the adoption of insights and experiences…KM efforts overlap with organizational learning and may be distinguished by a greater focus on managing knowledge as a strategic asset and encouraging sharing knowledge.”

A third related field of research, emerging in the 1990s, introduced corporations to the concept of Communities of Practice. “A community of practice (CoP) is, according to cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, a group of people who share a craft or a profession… [or] a common interest in a particular domain … [and] share information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally . CoPs can exist online or in real life.”  They owe their pedagogical underpinning to the concept of Situated Learning, pioneered by such researchers as John Seely Brown  and Allan Collins . Later, Seely Brown, Wenger, and Lave would join the Xerox Parc-founded Institute for Research on Learning in Palo Alto to continue their research on CoPs for the next decade.

However, as academic research in learning organizations and cultures fascinated learning professionals, few advances drove business performance directly. That translation, building learning organization principles directly into operations, was probably best achieved by Six Sigma.

According to Wikipedia, “Six Sigma originated as a set of practices designed to improve manufacturing processes and eliminate defects … The core of Six Sigma was “born” at Motorola in the 1970s out of senior executive Art Sundry’s criticism of Motorola’s bad quality.  As a result…the company discovered a connection between increases in quality and decreases in production costs.  Bill Smith subsequently formulated the particulars of the methodology at Motorola in 1986.  Six Sigma was heavily inspired by quality improvement methodologies, such as quality control, Total Quality Management (TQM), and Zero Defects,    based on the work of pioneers such as Shewhart, Deming, Juran, Crosby, and others.”

Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric (1981-2001), was an early adopter of Six Sigma. He introduced it to GE in late 1995 as part of his continuing company evolution. Under Welch, Six Sigma achieved great success and fame, as GE became one of the world’s most admired and valued companies.  “We believed then and are convinced today …that there is an ‘infinite capacity to improve everything— but there was no methodology or discipline attached to that belief. There is now. Six Sigma quality and a culture of learning, sharing, and unending excitement.”   This contributed to his being named “Manager of the Century” by Fortune Magazine in 1999  and did much to popularize the idea of learning cultures.

What is a Learning & Development Culture?

One of the earliest in-depth studies of the qualities of a Learning Culture was conducted by Josh Bersin, a global industry analyst and founder of Bersin & Associates, later Bersin by Deloitte. According to Bersin, “A learning culture is an organization-wide belief that the organization’s strategy, mission, and operations can continuously be improved through an ongoing process of individual and organizational learning. It includes a set of investments, programs, and processes to study areas of weakness, explore causes, and exploit opportunities to improve and learn at all times and all levels.”  Another foundational definition was provided by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) – now a part of Gartner, Inc. A learning culture is “a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization.”   According to the CEB, learning cultures are still the exception rather than the norm, with only 1 in 10 companies having an authentic learning culture and only 20 percent of employees demonstrating effective learning behaviors.

In 2015, Robert Grossman of The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) added, “A learning culture consists of a community of workers instilled with a “growth mindset.” People not only want to learn and apply what they’ve learned to help their organization, but they also feel compelled to share their knowledge with others.”  Grossman is referring here to the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. In her book, Mindset, Dweck describes a ‘Growth mindset’ as belonging to people who “feel their skills and intelligence can be improved with effort and persistence”; those who “embrace challenges, persist through obstacles, learn from criticism, and seek out inspiration in others’ success.”

In pursuit of efficiency, organizations can sometimes inadvertently create a culture so focused on efficient operations that it forgets to actively think about the design of its own processes or the market more broadly. Dr. Shaun McAlmont, in a 2022 HR Director article, concludes, “The ultimate goal is to create a culture of learning, in which employees are constantly developing their skills and putting those skills to use to further their personal goals and the larger goals of the organization.”

Why Care About a Learning & Development Culture?

For most companies, building a “Learning Culture” is a radically unique way to think about their business and ‘learning.’ The ‘value’ of learning is no longer just compliance with regulators or cost savings to HR. In today’s fast-paced environment of almost continual industry and technological disruption, having an adaptive, learning culture is viewed by most forward-leaning executives as critical to survival.

Resilience and Adaptability to Industry & Technology Disruption

The pace of technology is disrupting every industry, family, and career. Disruption has become the new normal as companies now compete not just for market share but to survive the next industry revolution. “Strategy and innovation consulting firm Innosight reports that the average lifespan of companies in the S&P 500 fell from 33 years in 1964 to 24 years in 2016 and is forecast to shrink to just 12 years by 2027.  LinkedIn’s talent research shows that half of today’s most in-demand skills weren’t even on the list three years ago.

In such an environment, “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture,” says Josh Bersin . Professor Edward Hess of the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School agrees. “Research suggests that within 15 years, roughly half of all jobs will be automated…What will be the competitive differentiator for employers when raw technology is cheap and widely available? I believe it will be the quality of your human workforce—having employees who are able to think, relate and learn continuously.  Hess believes “Companies that learn fastest and adapt well to changing environments perform the best over time,”  Deloitte research would seem to concur “Continuous learning firms are 46% more likely to be first to market, experience 37% higher productivity, and are 92% more likely to innovate.”

The most competitive firms (like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Wal-Mart) know that anything that can be done, can be done a little better – if you build a culture of learning which puts relentless pressure on organizational learning. Ashu Goel, CEO at WinWire Technologies and Forbes Business Council member, thinks, “Speed, agility, flexibility … Such characteristics come only when an enterprise has inquisitive, engaged employees that think dynamically and have the ability to make decisions quickly to impact the business. To build such an organization, corporations must nurture a culture of continuous learning.”

In such companies, learning is not a separate function from operations. Learning is simply everyday work, or perhaps everyday work when people are engaged in thinking deeply about what they are doing and not just mindlessly executing tasks.

Employee Engagement for the Modern Workforce

It can be surprisingly easy to create a culture that does not engage its employees. Gallup reports that “just one-fifth of employees worldwide report that they are engaged at work.”  But today’s employees are less likely than ever to stand for it. In 2018, Bersin & Linked In collaborated on a survey and found that the number one reason why respondents begin to look for a new job is an inability to learn and grow.”  Gallup also found that one critical element of engagement is the availability of “opportunities at work to learn and grow.”  With the current pace of industry disruption, today’s employees can’t expect the industry they work in to exist in 15 years, much less the company. In such an environment, savvy workers realize they need to be continuously developing themselves to stay marketable and relevant.

Katie Tynan, Principal Analyst at Forrester and Author of How Did I Not See This Coming?   found in a 2020 Forrester report, “The brightest minds seek out organizations that challenge them and help them grow professionally. Your ability to attract and retain the talent and skills you need depends on your culture.”   Janice Burns, chief career experience officer, Degreed, adds, “The social contract between companies and employees is changing. It’s not just about trading time for money. Employees are looking to build skills and future-proof their careers, and that’s a big part of the value they derive from their employment.”  As Harry Cloke, Managing Director of Growth Engineering LTD, succinctly put it, “Nobody Wants to Work a Dead-End Job.”

Re-skilling for Industry 4.0

According to a brief of US workforce policy recommendations recently released by the Business Roundtable, a group of 240 CEOs of leading US companies across every sector of the economy, “As of July 2022, the United States is facing unprecedented job openings—over 11 million unfilled positions   —with 6 million unemployed individuals currently looking for work…Another almost 6 million individuals  are not in the labor force but want a job. In addition, some experts predict “high-tech industries could create some 18 million new jobs over the next five years, or one in every six jobs by 2026.”   In fact, given the increasing need for more advanced technical skills, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts “nearly 15 million Americans may need to switch to different occupations by 2030.”

This may explain why “72% of HR executives rated building talent through upskilling and reskilling as the most important factors to consider while shaping their organization’s future workforce over the next 12-24 months. However, only 33 percent see it as easy to implement.”

According to a 2021 interview with Matthew Smith, Chief Learning Officer McKinsey, “We find that 90% of companies believe they’re going to have some sort of meaningful skills gap over the coming years. They don’t have the skills today that they think they’re going to need in the future. But only 16% believe that they’re fully prepared to meet those skills gaps…But, the number that’s the most frightening for me … 60% of them say that their learning-and-development spend has no explicit connection to their strategic objectives”.

“The skills gap is a real problem … If you want to stay ahead of the competition and attract the talent you need to succeed, you must reboot your learning strategy, “says Katie Tynan (Forrester Analyst), “The old paradigm of a four-year degree leading to a four-decade career was dead before you took your first job. Digital transformation, automation technology, and a global, mobile economy have opened a vast chasm between what employees learn in school and what they need to know to succeed in a business setting. “

According to MIT and Deloitte’s 2018 survey of more than 4,300 executives overseeing digital transformation, “the most successful, fast-growing, digitally enabled companies are differentiated by one thing: they’ve transformed the way individuals and organizations learn.

And this means learning all the time, not just once a year. Among these highest-performing companies, MIT and Deloitte found that 73% of employees update their skills every six months, and 44% update them continuously. In other words, today’s successful companies are those who learn fast, learn well, and learn all the time.


This blog post has provided a brief history of learning organizations and cultures, highlighting their significance in today’s fast-paced and disruptive business environment. We explored the origins of the learning organization concept, the emergence of knowledge management and communities of practice, and the impact of Six Sigma on integrating learning principles into operations.

However, this is only the beginning of our exploration. This blog post serves as Part 1 of a 2-part series based on our comprehensive whitepaper, How to Build a Development Culture. If you’re eager to dive deeper into practical strategies and actionable steps for building a learning culture within your organization, we invite you to stay tuned for the release of Part 2, where we discuss how to build a development culture within your organization.

Alternatively, if you’re eager to access the full whitepaper and gain a comprehensive understanding of learning organizations and cultures, you can download it below.

Remember, investing in a learning and development culture is crucial for organizational resilience, employee engagement, and addressing the skills gap. We appreciate your interest in our blog series and invite you to continue your learning journey by downloading the whitepaper or staying tuned for the release of Part 2.

Download the full Whitepaper

Outlook and Trends Impacting Learning & Development

On today’s episode, we look at Part 2 of the current business landscape for L&D, what are the trends that are driving change, and what are the implications on Learning within organizations.