In the last month I have had the opportunity to observe the learning capacity of three teams. What I observed reinforced a view that people who have learnt to learn are more productive and provide the capacity for their organisation to exceed their performance expectations.

The three teams were from two different organisations. Two were sales management teams from the same organisation and one was a team of administration assistants at a state regulator of safety.

The two sales leadership teams were from Perth and Brisbane, the third team was from Melbourne in Australia. I will refer to them as the Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne teams as the organisation they worked for and the capacity in which they worked is immaterial to the following discussion.

The differences between the teams which I think were pertinent were:

Leadership styles:

More transformational than transactional- the leader was open to change, self-reflection and assessment of his strengths and weaknesses by his team. He had evolved from a transactional leader in the last twelve months.

More transactional than transformational – the leader was less open to self-reflection, was uncomfortable with assessment by others and was driven by goals and outcomes. He was brought in as an outsider eighteen months ago and still operated much in that way in terms of relationships. He was very self-centred, which is not necessarily a bad trait.

Leadership? Most of these people did not have a leader they identified with. Best described as an aggregated Laissez Faire style.

Learning Experience

In the previous twelve months had experienced training in and had their DISC profile assessed; Coaching, which included a lot of self analysis; Leadership and a new enterprise system.

In the previous twelve months had experienced training in and had their DISC profile assessed; Coaching, which included a lot of self analysis; Leadership and a new enterprise system.

Most people had not been trained since joining the organisation before embarking on completing a Certificate IV in Government in the last twelve months.

Change Environment:

In all three cases, the change environment as described by one of the Perth participants was “Continual change punctuated by periods of stability”.

The differences in behaviour which I observed during training programmes on change, albeit with a difference in curriculum between the sales teams and the team of administration assistants, was thought provoking even though the sample sizes of ten to fifteen would not suffice to draw quantitative conclusions.

Behaviours during training

Questions: Most questions were self directed, however, a large minority were directed towards finding answers to team problems and quandaries. Reactions to answers: Most often with further clarifying and probing questions, a small minority were statements to defend a position the individual held about the issue pertaining to the question. Level of interaction: High across the board, even the “quiet” learners were engaged with good eye contact and high inquisitiveness. Each team member interacted well with others. There were a lot of laughs but few “jokes”. Commitment to act on what they learnt: High from the leader down.

Questions: Nearly all questions were self-directed until the last session of the day. The questions which were broader related to “my team” and not the whole sales team. Reactions to answers: Almost exclusively making a statement about a position that the person held about the issue. Participants either agreed or disagreed immediately without probing any further. Only in the last session did some broader level of thought emerge. Level of Interaction: The interaction was largely between friends. Half the team was interested in learning something new. Half the team was convinced from the time of entering the room that there was not much for them to learn about change management. Again, this changed by the last session, but it was hard work getting them there. Commitment to act on what they learnt: Very patchy from the top down. They spent so much time determined to state their positions rather than learn, that they would almost need a refresher to remember what learning was on offer.

Questions: A large majority of questions could be read as a statement of position of belief rather than a genuine question. Reactions to answers: A minority asked further probing questions. Most were acquiescent to the answer or reiterated their statement of position, irrespective of the answer. Level of interaction: Generally quite high with some notable exceptions of passive aggressive personalities. Commitment to act on what they learnt: Some are still suspicious of the reason why they are being trained and will not act on the training at all. Some are already embracing what they have learnt and trying hard to put it into practice.

Impact of a learning organisation on performance

The differences I found during and after training between the three teams has implications for the productivity and overall performance of the three teams.

A survey on the top 2000 organisations by revenue in Australia, by Mark Farrell published in the Australian Journal of Management (2000) titled Developing a Market Oriented Learning Organisation, showed that “a learning orientation has a stronger significant positive effect on business performance than does market orientation”.

Further, he found that “top management behaviour and leadership style significantly impact on a learning organisation”.

He found that a transformational style had a positive effect and that neither a transactional nor a laissez faire style had any impact on encouraging individuals to learn.


My qualitative observations and the research by Mark Farrell and others lead me to the following conclusions:

  1. For organisations to become true learning organisations, the individuals in it must be exposed to opportunities to learn and challenged about what they do not know as much as what they do know.
  2. The leader sets the tone, as is the case on all issues, for learning to become normal. They must show that they:
    • Understand that there are always opportunities to learn and, therefore, are able to say “I do not know” with conviction.
    • Are a transformational, not just transactional and certainly not a laissez faire leader.
  3. Individuals must be encouraged to experiment with what they have learnt. The higher the risk involved, the more support as a person and help in planning (contingencies) they must be given.
  4. Learning organisations are more adaptive to change and are more innovative in creating change that creates opportunities.
  5. Very few leaders have the natural ability to fulfil the first three requirements. Therefore, to create a learning organisation and reap the benefits, leaders must set out with an emphatic vision to create a learning organisation and they must start with themselves as the first opportunity for change.