Learning organisations: Key characteristics


The concept of a learning organisation has been developing in the last thirty years as attempts are made to identify the key characteristics of successful companies and organisations. These are companies that are successful over time, both in the public and private sector.

There are five principal features of a learning organisation (derived from Iles and Sutherland 2001):

Organisational structure

Learning organisations have managerial hierarchies that enhance opportunities for employee, carer and service user involvement in the organisation. All are empowered to make relevant decisions. Structures support teamwork and strong lateral relations (not just vertical). Networking is enabled across organisational and hierarchical boundaries both internally and externally.

Link: See 'knowledge about learning organisations' card 1, card 2, card 3

Organisational culture

Learning organisations have strong cultures that promote openness, creativity, and experimentation among members. They encourage members to acquire, process and share information, nurture innovation and provide the freedom to try new things, to risk failure and to learn from mistakes.

Link: See 'knowledge about learning organisations' card 4, card 5, card 6, card 7

Information systems

Learning organisations require information systems that improve and support practice and that move beyond those used in traditional organisations where information is generally used for control purposes. 'Transformational change’ requires more sophisticated information systems that facilitate rapid acquisition, processing and sharing of rich, complex information which enables effective knowledge management.

Link: See 'knowledge about learning organisations’ card 8, card 9

Human resource practices

People are recognised as the creators and users of organisational learning. Accordingly, human resource management focuses on provision and support of individual learning. Appraisal and reward systems are concerned to measure long-term performance and to promote the acquisition and sharing of new skills and knowledge.

Link: See 'knowledge about learning organisations’ card 10


Like most interventions aimed at securing significant organisational improvement, organisational learning depends heavily on effective leadership. Leaders model the openness, risk-taking and reflection necessary for learning, and communicate a compelling vision of the learning organisation, providing the empathy, support and personal advocacy needed to lead others towards it. They ensure that organisations and work groups have the capacity to learn, change and develop.

Link: See 'knowledge about learning organisations’ card 11, card 12

From these principal features we have developed 12 key characteristics of learning organisations in social care which are outlined on 'key characteristics’ card 2.

Link: See 'key characteristics’ card 2

Useful reference