Are universities learning organisations?
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! As I am currently teaching a course on Managing Learning and Development at the Workplace, I have been reflecting on how we learn when we are no longer in a formal education context. What mechanisms can we use to stay motivated and learn new things when the job demands are high? And (how) do the organisations we work in encourage and support learning? Because I’ve been working in different Higher Education institutions for the past 16 years, and as many of you are connected to this environment, I thought I’d use this opportunity to write down some of my thoughts on how universities could foster learning at the workplace. The hint is in the phrasing, “could” does indeed mean they have still some work to do. I would very much appreciate your ideas and also hopefully some good examples we could all learn from. Enjoy reading and have a nice rest of the week!
What is a learning organisation?
I’ll start with a disclaimer. I don’t want this post to be a lecture or an academic article on learning organisations. So I’ll try to keep it as jargon-free as possible. Instead, I’m writing it as an exercise of honest reflection on a working environment whose many facets I’ve witnessed along the years and in different contexts. It’s not an easy exercise, I acknowledge my bias and will try to rein in my cynicism (which might not always work). The ultimate aim is to come up with ideas on what we, as individuals, and our institutions can do to be better at learning. As simple as that, yet so complex.
So let’s start with an attempt to a definition. A learning organisation is an organisation that prioritises personal and professional growth. Where lifelong learning is part of the culture and the vision. Where knowledge sharing and collaborative learning are the modus operandi and not an exception or a privilege. Ultimately, a genuine learning organisation is an organisation that cares about the people working there, about their development and well-being, at work and beyond.
What can we identify as the main elements of a learning organisation?
A supportive learning environment: a space where we feel encouraged to learn and develop, where we feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them; an environment where we feel our opinions are valued, even when they don’t conform to the mainstream, where experimentation is rewarded and, very importantly, we are given multiple opportunities to reflect on how this is all going.
Specific learning processes and practices: continuous professional development (CPD) is embedded in the work schedule; having real discussions about what CPD is, the choices we have and the opportunities to transfer what we learn to our work; effective and explicit knowledge transfer within the organisation (i.e. among different departments and actors) as well as networking with external experts; team work as a venue for learning and not only for productivity.
Leadership that encourages learning: the role of the leader is very important, as they can support learning by listening, seeking input, providing time and resources for learning; one more important thing: making personal growth and development an integral part of appraisal and promotion (explicitly not implicitly!).
As the core business of universities is learning (I know you might have questions on that but bear with me for a moment), one would assume they are a good example of a learning organisation. Let’s have a closer look into that!
What about universities?
Considering the building blocks of a learning organisation as outlined above, with their many ramifications and interpretations, try a mental exercise to see how your university (or any other work place for that matter) is doing in all of those areas.
I will not try to come up with some extensive box ticking; instead, here are some of my thoughts, of course based on my experience but also on the experience shared with me by many academics working across the world:
The environment: while we do talk a lot about learning, when we get to unpack the concept and apply it to universities as a workplace, it’s surprising how little of what we preach we are actually putting into practice. Of course this is very context-based so I don’t want to generalise (if you don’t recognise some of the things below, you can count your blessings), but some of the things to note here are:
a culture that encourages perfectionism, where learning from mistakes is far from normalised,
a precarious work- life balance which can have consequences for well-being,
a rather hierarchical environment which can pose structural and bureaucratic barriers to learning; by working in silos, we often miss out on a valuable source of learning- learning from and with others (especially others who are different from us, i.e. work in another department or in another discipline),
often impossibly busy schedules that hardly leave us any time to reflect (although we often encourage our students to do it).
Continuous professional development (CPD): there is often a lot of confusion as to what is CPD, who handles it and at what level (central, faculty-based, both?), what (if anything) is compulsory, what is encouraged and how CPD links to the overall mission of the university. Moreover, we could use more open discussions about why CPD is important and what is the value of learning (individually and as a team) at the workplace. Last but not least, even if CPD options exist, they often require us to engage with them in our spare time, on top of all the other tasks. In short, people who are already committed to learning will find a way, while others might totally miss out on it.
Career paths and promotion criteria: academic career trajectories are still pretty rigid and seem to prioritise the “traditional” job segments such as research and teaching (and even then not equally, but that is a topic for another post). They don’t explicitly value and reward personal growth and learning “on the job”, which, ironically, is a prerequisite for doing the rest well. Moreover, existing promotion criteria often don’t reward experimentation, trying out new ideas (in research or teaching), and I may even say, from experience, that they tend to inhibit any innovation drive, for fear that it may have negative consequences for career progression.
What can we do?
Yes, there is a long way to go and we may feel overwhelmed and not in control to tackle many of those challenges. But I do believe that, through the very nature of the organisations we are working in, there is potential for improvement. It will not be quick (culture change takes time, and becoming a learning organisation is ultimately a culture change). But here is where I think we can start:
Reflect on our learning and our learning needs - content-wise, method-wise and about the environment we need to learn and thrive. What would you like to learn? How would that impact your work? What would that require from you? What support would you need? What role does learning play in your life? We are often not aware of all those things until we take a moment to think about them;
Talk about learning: sharing what we learned at conferences or courses, trying to practically link it to our work, getting other colleagues involved; talking about our learning needs. All this can be informal (by the coffee machine, in breaks, after meetings) but also more formal (monthly “learning cafes”). The idea is that continuous learning should slowly become normalised at the workplace, not only something we do in our spare time;
Reach out to colleagues from different departments: make a point of having coffee once a month with someone you don’t know yet who works in a different faculty or department. For me this has been one of the most enriching experiences and I still struggle to understand why this is not yet considered normal practice;
Proactively look for CPD opportunities: these may be within your faculty, within the university broadly, or outside university. Put them on your agenda, commit to them. Talk to your supervisor/ superior about why this is important to you and your work and career. And how about thinking of CPD opportunities you can provide or facilitate?
When you are in an appraisal talk, don’t forget to link your achievements to the learning process (informal and/or formal) that went into them. Make that link explicit!
Providing concrete and intentional strategies and incentives for learning at the workplace: a good starting point would be meaningful CPD opportunities, valued as part of the career path;
Re-thinking the work environment: start breaking down silos, explicitly encouraging people to talk to each other and share knowledge across departments and disciplines; creating a space for them to do it is crucial;
Work culture: making learning and personal development a standing topic of discussion, in various contexts, formally and informally, so that it becomes normalised and people feel empowered to do it.