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reflections of the team

About the Learning of Organisations

The concept of the Learning Organisation often seems lost on people. They see it merely as an organisation where the individual members are motivated to, can and will learn. As president of ECLO - a former pan-European think-tank about learning organisations - for several years, this confusion is one that I'd love to clarify.

What is a Learning Organisation?

A learning organisation is an organisation where the performance of the organisation is key and where the learning by the individuals, teams and the organisation itself is one of the main leverages to improve that performance. Where most people subscribe to the concept of learning by individuals and teams, it is sometimes not clear what organisational learning entails.

Example of Improved Performance through Customer Experience

Allow me to illustrate this three-tier learning by a very practical example, based on a personal customer experience.

Some years ago my wife and I bought a small all-in-one audio-system from a large electronics shop. The manufacturer of the system was British. So when we came home and found out that the power chord had a British power plug, we were convinced some shipping error had been made and a British instead of European version had been shipped.

So we called the shop. The person who responded on the phone sounded very surprised, admitted he was personally not too familiar with the product range and advised us to bring the product back to the shop. Reluctantly – as it was a large box - we decided to take his advice.

Back in the shop we went to the technical support desk and explained our problem. Unfortunately, the guy responded he was not familiar with the product range - another one - and that his colleague who was familiar with it, had a lunch break. "If we would have the patience to come back in 15 minutes?", he asked. What else could we do?

15 Minutes later, the expert did arrive. And to our surprise he solved our problem in about 10 seconds. "It is actually very simple", he said, "and a problem people often encounter". And then he continued, "If you unscrew the British plug, you will find a European plug inside!".

In returning home, we contemplated that even though we were happy our problem was solved, it did seem silly for such a simple solution to have to go through this frustrating process.

So what went wrong here?

  1. On the individual level; one could state that the person who was responsible for this product range knew his stuff.
  2. But the problem was that his colleagues, who also had to provide support at the technical helpdesk, were not aware of the problem nor of the solution. So at the team learning level, there was clearly room for improvement.
  3. But if this would have been handled at the organisational level, our problem would not even have occurred. If indeed, like the guy said, this problem occurred regularly, all that had to be done was to put a large sticker or eye-catching note on the box explaining that the British plug had to be unscrewed to find the European plug inside.
The learning organisation in three levels

The learning organisation in three levels

And that is what organisational learning is all about: it is about learning from your performance flaws and adapting processes, procedures, products and organisation structures to make sure they no longer occur in the future.


In this case a simple procedure that would make sure the message was clear on the box, would have saved them work, saved us time and frustrations and would clearly have improved the overall customer experience.

In essence this all boils down to collaborative learning: not just share knowledge and experience, but use it to improve the performance of the organisation. And if you are wondering how that relates to Arboth's aXles model: it's all about the eXpand in the model.