Three Ways to Transform Your College Into a Learning Organization

To solve the problems of today, sometimes it helps to go back to the classics. One of the classics that has served me well throughout my career is the concept of the “learning organization.”

As many of us in higher ed look ahead to the next year and enrollment cycle, the waters are still turbulent. COVID-19 is still very much present and many colleges are still struggling with its fallout, tight budgets and the demographic cliff that gets a little closer every year.

In order to be successful during these challenging times, institutions are going to have to continue to adapt and innovate. To do this, organizations must take intentional steps to build their people and their capacity for change. That’s why returning to the concept of the learning organization is a good building block for establishing the change management and adaptive practices that will be necessary to successfully face today’s challenges.

What is a learning organization?

In the early 1990s, books like Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline” were instrumental in identifying and promoting the idea of learning organizations, which still resonates today. In the Harvard Business Review, David Garvin (1993) defined a learning organization as: “An organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

Reflecting on that outlined list of attributes, it describes perfectly what a good enrollment management team does. Each year the strategies change, often there is some turnover in personnel and every single class has its own unique flavor. Given this yearly reality, institutions had better be continuously learning and adapting if they are going to hit their goals.

Three steps your college can take now to become a learning organization

To start establishing the foundational elements your school needs to effectively build its capacity for change, I recommend implementing these three steps.

1. Incorporate learning goals into annual personal development plans for staff

During the summer when many of your school’s offices are focused on employee reviews and goal setting, ask each employee to identify two learning goals for the year. One goal should be around something you want them to learn that is specifically related to the current challenges the institution is facing. The other should be around an area of their choice that furthers their own professional development or enjoyment at work.

For instance, you might need a team member to research a new social media platform and present their findings and strategy recommendations to the rest of the team. That same employee may also want to learn more about predictive analytics, which is beyond their job scope but really interests them. By incorporating these learning goals into a yearly plan and following up in one-on-one meetings, you can energize the employee, grow the team and gain new information that can benefit the entire organization.

2. Set yearly team-specific learning goals

As individuals, we are learning and processing information all the time. But sometimes collectively learning new concepts and practices together as a team can be very energizing.

For example, a few years ago when my team was thinking about our student visit experience, we did a group read of “The Power of Moments” by Dan Heath. It didn’t apply to everyone equally, but it gave the entire team a place of focus where we could see how we could learn together and apply new approaches.

Another time I saw this concept successfully applied was when I was leading a large IT division and we took a year to collectively focus on negotiation skills. This resulted in technicians, programmers and help desk employees improving their communications — both inside and outside of the department. Teaching these skills across the division gave us a shared language and, in the end, saved us time and energy as we had some guidelines for how to communicate with each other, other departments and vendors.

3. Ask your staff what they’re learning and discuss it

I love asking the question “What are you learning?” to new and veteran staff members. It can be an energizing question that promotes the idea and expectation that we are all growing and learning from each other. Very few jobs in higher education look the same today as they did 10 years ago — and there is no reason to believe that in 10 years those jobs will not have radically changed again.

Build your school’s capacity for change

Becoming a learning organization is about building learning skills for the long term. And what better place to do that than a university or college? How many of us have worked at colleges that had mission statements around “lifelong learning” (or other similar concepts) that seemed to only apply to students — not employees?

By recognizing that staff also must pursue learning goals, seek truth and fully engage alongside faculty and students, we are also building our own credibility and tapping into the beauty of working in higher education. And that, at its core, is what it means to be a learning organization.

For more reading around the ways higher ed is changing, check out our article “Reflections on How COVID-19 Changed the Future of Higher Education.”