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ATD Blog

Creating a Learning Organization Is No Longer an Option

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

A learning organization now is a must-have. If your organization does not continuously upskilling, it falls behind. The reality is that the lifecycle of skillsets is decreasing. For example, in technical areas, the half-life of skills is as little as three years.

The tighter labor market that has emerged from the pandemic makes the learning organization even more valuable. Your company is competing on the ability to attract and retain the talent that you need to grow and execute your business strategy. Research shows that job seekers want opportunities to grow; therefore, your ability to find and keep talent depends upon you creating learning opportunities for them.

Not all companies can compete in such an intense labor market. The most valued skills include data science and AI capabilities, but factors often prevent companies from developing these top skills: budget, geography (where some highly technical skills are scarce), culture, flexibility, or the company’s brand cache (or lack thereof).

Upskilling employees with adjacent skills is an alternative strategy that enables you to build the talent you need.

Whether you are competing for prospective employees with a powerful desire to learn and grow or upskilling your existing talent, learning is an essential capability at a corporate level. Executives report that creating a learning organization is a top leadership priority for them.

From a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset

One of the obstacles to developing learning organizations is that companies often assume that employees are fixed entities. Managers tend to assume employees’ capabilities are inflexible—they are who they are and cannot learn and grow to be something else. Employees are defined by job descriptions that capture only a small amount of what your people really offer or who they can become.

This fixed mindset also is present in employees who are reluctant to take on unfamiliar challenges or learn new skills because of discomfort and uncertainty. They were hired because they were smart and had desired skills. They avoid new endeavors because they may not look smart or be skilled right away.

The opposite of this fixed mindset is a growth mindset, where companies assume that everyone in the organization can learn and grow. Not only can employees learn and grow, but a growth mindset assumes that they will if they are given the right opportunities. With a growth mindset, no one fears failure; it is taken as a natural consequence of learning.

Leaders with a growth mindset actively support and model learning. Growth mindset companies hire employees who are motivated and curious and can develop the skills the company will need for tomorrow.

Satya Nadella turned around Microsoft by putting the growth mindset at the center of the organization’s values. When Satya became CEO, the company had become rigid and hierarchical. But Microsoft’s core business constantly develops new tech, and that requires a culture driven by curiosity, collaboration, and the synergy between people with diverse perspectives.


Microsoft fostered a growth mindset by expecting employees to question everything, while continuously looking for a better approach or a groundbreaking innovation. That curiosity is what creates a learning organization. Satya also emphasized coaching; Microsoft managers are taught to “model, coach, and care” for their employees, which facilitates personal growth.

Microsoft responded to Satya’s leadership and became a renewed company, attractive to bright and promising young people who want learning and growth to define the employee experience.

Need for 21st Century Approaches

Companies that try to follow Microsoft’s lead in emphasizing a growth mindset often find that their learning methods are antiquated. The traditional approach to learning often was classroom-based. This method doesn’t work in the new remote and hybrid environments. With distributed teams, it’s impractical and costly to move all learners to a central location. Digital learning is available, but adding online courses to a workforce that’s already Zoom fatigued is not a recipe for successful learning.

More effective models for learning involve learning while doing, supplemented by videos, blogs, and books that reinforce key principles. Some organizations have found that bite-sized, on-demand learning opportunities can be effective. Employees who do not have time to attend a training can learn in small increments, each of which answers an immediate need. For example, in learning a new skill, an employee may view a YouTube video of someone performing a related task while they practice the skill. This approach to learning in the flow of work is becoming a popular method of upskilling employees.

Cisco Systems created an innovative way to facilitate learning in the flow of work. It was one of the first companies to leverage internal project-based opportunities to expose employees to new technologies, new managers, new mindsets, and new processes that keep employees learning while continuing to contribute to important company projects.

When Cisco Systems pivoted from being a server technology company to an Internet of Things (IoT) developer, it could’ve laid off its existing workforce and hired new, IoT talent. But there was a shortage of talent in the broader labor market in the areas Cisco required. They decided on a different approach: teach their existing workforce the skills they needed to be successful with their new business strategy while continuing to do the jobs that were keeping the company afloat.

To facilitate upskilling its workforce, Cisco created an internal opportunity platform. This platform enabled employees to opt-in to small project-based assignments where they learned new skills by engaging in IoT projects. People took on these assignments, in addition to their existing work, because they knew that they were upskilling to become useful to the company when it finalized its pivot toward IoT.


This example shows the importance of learning agility: the ability not only to rapidly learn new information but to adapt the knowledge you have today and apply it to new situations.

Becoming a Learning Organization May Require a Culture Change

A learning organization may involve cultural change, and this requires leadership support above all. If you want to change the culture to create a learning organization, leaders at every level must communicate the importance of learning and model it. That means not only talking about the value of learning, but actually becoming learners themselves. Performance systems in learning organizations incentivize and hold managers accountable for supporting learning in their people.

Leaders at the top level must articulate that the learning organization is a core value that supports the company’s mission. The next step is to train people in ways that support the culture change then recognize and reward them accordingly. Organizations may also create symbols that reinforce the new norms, values, and behaviors that support the learning organization as a pillar of corporate culture. For instance, a company might create an award for the manager who does the best job at growing their talent.

A Learning Organization Ensures That There Will Be a Tomorrow

A learning organization is essential for your organization’s present and future. It requires a growth mindset where an organization learns how to value curiosity and experimentation. The digital revolution continues to introduce innovative technologies that enable new ways of operating on a regular basis. To take advantage of these innovations, we must always learn.

The pandemic brought many changes and proved that creativity is needed in your approach to learning and development. Tried and true methods become obsolete, and you need newer, faster ways to develop people. For example, learning in the flow of work occurs more rapidly and more effectively than learning in an artificial environment like an offsite classroom because immediate application of the knowledge learned embeds it in people’s brains more effectively than passive learning experiences.

Becoming a learning organization may require a culture change. That starts with leadership articulating values and demonstrating them—walk the walk, as they say. Companies need to discover the best ways to enable, recognize, and reward managers for supporting learning within their teams.

The learning organization is worth the effort. Research is emerging that shows that learning organizations are more effective. If you persist, you will see measurable, visible improvements that produce business value, such as higher productivity, increased sales, higher customer satisfaction, and greater retention of key talent.

Given the pace of change today, learning is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s an essential capability.

About the Author

Edie Goldberg, PhD, is founder and president of E.L. Goldberg & Associates in Menlo Park, California. She is a nationally recognized expert in talent strategy and organizational effectiveness. She is the co-author of The Inside Gig: How Sharing Untapped Talent Across Boundaries Unleashes Organizational Capacity. Goldberg holds a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology and is a SIOP Fellow. She serves on the board of the SHRM Foundation and is an advisor to several HR technology companies. Goldberg is a past chairperson for HR People + Strategy and is the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions she has made to her profession.

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To cultivate L&D culture, taking a integrated wholistic approach is key. can integrate with LMS, HRIS and & ATS systems! The collective candidate-onboarding-development-career development of the full employee lifecycle data analyses leads to optimally informed decision making and interventions to detect early flight risk, increase engagement/commitment, improve performance of the workforce, the possibilities for maximum organizational ROI from the solution is endless!
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Outstanding article! Thank you!
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Great article! People are companies best asset. Investment in employees always have long-term gain. How can small business start by using principles for creating a learning organization? What would be the most cost effective approach to build upon?
Make development planning a critical part of your performance management process. It's for everyone; not just for people needing development or just for high-performers. Embrace a Growth Mindset mentality... embrace curiosity, focus on learning from experiences, see challenges as an opportunity to grow, not something that only certain people can do.
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