President's Perspective: 13 Steps to Creating a Learning Organization

CAS President Gavin Henning introduces 13 steps for building a learning organization. Where will you begin?
This is part three of a series of blog posts regarding learning organizations. 

In my last two posts, I've written about how learning organizations can be a solution for change and the benefits of learning organizations. This post outlines 13 steps for building a learning organization. 

As a refresher, Senge (1990) describes learning organizations as 
Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (p. 3)

How does an office, department, division, or even an institution become a learning organization? The steps below as I described in an issue of the New England Journal of Higher Education are a recipe for success.
1. First, the organization must be viewed as a system of interconnected parts similar to the human body. Each part of the body depends on the others. 
2. Through a process that includes everyone in the organization from custodian to president, a shared vision must be created. 
3. The team has to be developed with the 4C's: connection, community, cooperation, and collaboration. The team must build relationships and trust so that they can work together effectively and efficiently. 
4. Intentional spaces and opportunities for inquiry, reflection, and learning must be constructed to both foster a culture of learning, but also to allow learning to actually occur. These may include group brainstorming and problem-solving sessions, personal learning and individual reflection time, or reading and discussion groups. 
5. Mental models must be challenged. These unconscious assumptions regarding how the organization should operate and how issues should be addressed must be made explicit without judgment so that ways of collaborating and problem-solving can be implemented. 
6. A shared language must also be created. The organization needs a common vocabulary with a glossary agreed upon by all members so they can communicate effectively and efficiently. Collective learning is difficult if words, terms and concepts are not understood by everyone. 
7. Developmental failure must be encouraged. Failure that leads to learning should be seen an essential step to success. To be most useful, failure must be done quickly and often to reap rewards.
8. Prototyping is one approach to intentional, developmental failure. This form of pilot testing allows an organization to learn ways to address needs and solve problems without fully scaling up a product or service. This approach also provides the opportunity to understand interoperability and impacts of the new or revised product or service on other units in the organization. An example of prototyping would be an institution that wishes to implement a new educational program for all incoming students regarding alcohol abuse. Before implementing such a program to an entire incoming class, an Office for Alcohol and Other Drugs would develop and pilot test the new program with a small group of students. This pilot testing would provide an opportunity to ensure fidelity as well as understand any concomitant issues with resources and relationships with other campus offices. 
9. While closing the loop or making improvements is the most important step in assessment, not much thought is put into this step. For effective implementation of recommendations from assessment, making improvement should be viewed and treated as a change management process. Improvements do not happen easily. This type of change requires resource allocation/reallocation, changes in processes and practices, and shift in priorities. 
10. Collaborative capacity-building must be provided to staff across the organization. This training should be aligned with the shared vision and goals. It may be helpful to task a professional development committee with the development of a curriculum for the unit striving to become a learning organization. 
11. Feedback loops must be integrated within products and services. Assessment cannot be an activity that is completed at the end of a program or service. Feedback must be incorporated into the delivery of that program or service to provide ongoing data. 
12. Knowledge must be generated. Feedback provides data, but aggregated feedback needs to be synthesized into information that can be used by the organization. 
13. Individual and collective learning should be celebrated to reinforce the activity. 

The higher education landscape is changing rapidly and there are no signs that the change will slow down. Organizations which can become learning organizations will be better prepared to not only weather the storm of change, adapt to external pressures, evolve to leverage new opportunities, but also survive. 

Considering the 13 steps above, where will you start with your program, office, department or division?

Henning, G. W. (2018). Organized anarchies: 13 steps to building a learning organization. New England Journal of Higher Education, 2/5/18.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Dr. Gavin Henning is Professor and Program Director for the Master of Higher Education Administration and Doctorate of Education at New England College. He also is the President of CAS and a recent past present of ACPA: College Student Educators International. Gavin actively contributes to higher education assessment literature, and he recently co-authored Student Affairs Assessment: Theory to Practice and co-edited Coordinating Student Affairs Divisional Assessment: A Practical Guide. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education Leadership and Policy Studies and a Master of Arts degree in Sociology both from the University of New Hampshire as well as a Master of Arts degree in College and University Administration and a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Sociology from Michigan State University.