Nick Richmond


I believe that organisational learning is a critical requirement of any organisation as it seeks to thrive in an increasingly complex and dynamic environment. I would go so far as to say you cannot be agile without it!

It won’t surprise you to know that organisational learning is not a new concept, in fact it really flourished in the 1990s with Peter Senge in “The Fifth Discipline”.

A meta study in 2019 looked at the impact of organisation design on organisational learning and found a number of predictors of high levels of organisational learning capability, including:

  • Flatter, organic organisational structures
  • Decentralised / distributed decision-making
  • High levels of employee autonomy
  • Managers as facilitators, rather than controllers
  • Low levels of formalised behaviour rules, processes and policies
  • Involvement in multidisciplinary teams
  • Higher levels of socialisation across boundaries

The study also found organisations which did the opposite led to a detrimental impact on organisational learning. If combined with other studies about organisational health and organisational agility the combined conclusions suggest a detrimental impact on organisational performance and even damage to your people’s health!

How to Design in organisational learning?

If that’s what the research says then how do you redesign your organisation for organisational learning? Here’s a few critical insights from my design practice which I shared at last year’s European Organisation Design Forum Conference:

  • Powerful images – use generative images to explore what’s common or different, while building engagement, understanding and agreement on how the future organisation will respond to changing customer needs. These may be stories, metaphors, or physical representations. In practice it may be people drawing on paper, describing the organisation like “air traffic control”, creating Lego models or even using theatre to act out the future customer journey.
  • Red lines – understand the boundaries and constraints. Charles Eames said, “Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem — the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible — his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints.”

Design criteria are a powerful way of translating a conceptual strategy into a practical set of capabilities which will be designed into the future organisation. Together with standard project scoping constraints they provide the edges to your sandbox within which creativity can flourish. In practice it is through discussion and dialogue with those affected by the change that these design criteria are described.

From a recent piece of work, we agreed 2 specific design criteria which describe part of the capabilities of a learning organisation, these are, that the organisation will…:

  • Observe, respond, and adapt to a changing environment and the changing needs of our audiences (this is what they meant by ‘agility’)
  • Employ processes and roles which ensure ongoing learning and development
  • It’s about the work! – often leaders jump from strategy to placing people into roles and drawing reporting lines. However how do they know if they are the right people unless they have mapped out the work and the value streams to be delivered so as to understand the skills, roles & staff numbers required first?

If design criteria are about translating the organisations strategy into the organisational capabilities, you then need to understand the work to bring these criteria and strategy to life. In practice this is a set of workshops with a cross section of people from different levels and parts of the organisation who understand how things are delivered day to day, considering the key activities, outputs and associated decisions.

Within these insights you’ll note the implied assumption that you need to engage people, we advocate going beyond just consulting them, to ensure people feel truly included and empowered while focussing on delivering the business needs, thereby building ownership and momentum. As Carr, Reece and Kellerman said, “Workers need to feel like they belong to something they value – and they have the power to bring about the change when it is needed.”

To learn more about these insights and a powerful approach to organisation design join the Adaptive Organisation Design Masterclass with Lego® Serious Play® jointly delivered by Tricordant and CocoonPro on 17th and 18th March.

PS look out for posts and tweets from @Tricordant over the next 7 weeks as we will share more organisation design insights from our practice.

Nick Richmond

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