DISCUSSION Is the concept of a learning organisation still relevant today?

by Pat Cleverly _______23rd March 2016
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The other day I was listening to a group of people in their late 20s/early thirties and heard one of them say “the problem with the older generation is that they had it good…they were able to buy houses, will have pensions…don’t have student loans  and are clogging up all the senior jobs.. And they have left the planet in a mess…don’t understand technology and expect our generation to sort it all out!” This coincided with  a different conversation I heard with an ‘older’ generation of people who were voicing their concerns at why they found it “challenging to work with younger generations who are too impatient to learn”.

A few days later I was alerted to an article by Joseph E. Stiglitz on ‘The New Generation Gap’ which discussed intergenerational fairness and the growing sense of social injustice.

In both our reports, Tomorrow’s Global Leaders, How to build a culture that ensures women reach the top and 21st Century Statesmanship Global Leaders Programme, Report by the Business and Finance panel we identified the importance of learning across generations. Many companies now have up to five generations working together. But encouraging this learning is hard. It requires an open mindedness on the part of all to respect differences and a desire to want to learn. There is much written about how Millennials want autonomy and do not have an automatic respect for hierarchy and want to learn by making  their own mistakes. That Generation X distrust authority and large institutions including corporations, religious institutions and the government…That the baby boomers feel that their dedication to an organisation and their experience are not valued  by the younger generations… and so on.

The concern is that these differences in motivation and values can become different examples of ageism…what has become known as ‘Generationism’! We risk entering a world of “four legs good two legs bad” based on age! I know people in their 70s who can code and are comfortable with social media. I also know people in their 20s and 30s who only use technology when they need to. Stereotyping of any kind is unhelpful.

Leading companies devote time and effort on inclusion to ensure that the culture enables everyone to thrive regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The challenge for organisations is that generational stereotyping can be much more subtle and difficult to recognise and deal with.

In the ever more complex business environment we need every ounce of know-how and experience to ensure success. No-one generation is better than another or has the ‘right answer’. Instead of focusing on differences we should be focusing on what all these different generations can bring to the table especially given the societal problems we face and that businesses have a key role in addressing… it is not possible to do business in a decaying society.

The common things we can focus on is that most people want to feel valued and want to learn even if learning styles may differ. Age is irrelevant. There is debate about whether the principles of a learning organisation are still relevant today because of speed and complexity. I suggest they are more important than ever.

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