There is more than one way for companies to grow by learning

A company can foster learning through encouraging employee participation in trade fairs or via employee exchange programmes in companies working across different locations

A company can foster learning through encouraging employee participation in trade fairs or via employee exchange programmes in companies working across different locations


In today’s fast-paced world, one of the key factors of success is the speed at which a company is able to foresee and respond to change. There is no shortage of literature on how to do so. What distinguishes companies is how fast they are able to incorporate this information in their working practices.

Being a fast learner is a competitive advantage in today’s business world. The question is how to learn fast. Managers have a vital role in fostering a fast learning culture inside their organisations, research I have conducted with colleagues has found. Here are three main takeaways:

- Managers need to recognise that learning takes place in different types of networks. These can be broken down into four group:

- Intraorganisational formal learning networks;

- Interorganisational formal learning networks;

- Interorganisational informal learning networks, and;

- Intraorganisational informal learning networks

Intraorganisational formal networks are established within an organisation (eg internal training courses). They are often long-term in duration and staff interact with them several times a year. Their objectives are to improve staff awareness of new procedures (such as health and safety procedures, HR procedures, etc), knowledge about new legislation like GDPR, etc.

Formal interorganisational networks on the other hand networks are formed between members of an organisation and external entities. These are often short-term in scope and are established with a pre-defined objective, such as example obtaining quality certification or acquiring knowledge on a particular topic. It can involve one-off training sessions or occasional interactions.

Turning to informal approaches, interorganisational learning is where organisations learn from one another, often without even recognising it. This can happen between offices or companies within the one group or between different groups – such as a competitor, a supplier or just companies operating in a different field.

Finally, intraorganisational informal learning networks can form through working groups and communities of practice established in a bottom-up way – ie informally, by employees (often middle managers) – with the aim of improving an aspect of the performance. This approach is definitely not defined by top management and the networks can even involve small groups of colleagues who rely on each other whenever they have a doubt on a specific aspect of their job.

2. For companies, learning depends not only on the quality of each network but on how they integrate with each other:

Formal intraorganisational networks are useful to transmit standardised knowledge across the entire organisation or department, or even to a specific group of staff. An organisation usually has only a few of these networks.

Developing such networks can entail making a department/unit responsible for organising the internal training courses, with clear structures for formally communicating new procedures within the organisation.

Maximising the potential for interorganisational formal networks often involves identifying outside agencies that can develop knowledge or skills in specific areas. In general, only a small number of staff is directly involved in these external formal networks. To capitalise on this learning it is important to spend time considering how it might best be transmitted to other relevant employees through formal and/or informal internal networks.

Although normally of short-term duration, they can be extended. For instance, if the learning link is with a university, you can get involved in research projects with the university or create summer placements for students.

Interorganisational informal learning networks are often spontaneous and of a short duration but they can offer valuable information to address a specific issue or generate ideas for new products or services.

A company can foster this learning through encouraging employee participation in trade fairs or via employee exchange programmes in companies working across different locations.

Informal learning networks within organisations are also generally a short-term exercise. Members use the network to learn about specific issues. Given that familiarity and a certain degree of trust between participants is required such intraorganisational informal learning networks require low staff turnover and a strong culture of collaboration between staff.

3. Learning needs to be a priority and be embedded in a company’s day to day culture and practices.

The way the organisation is structured needs to be conducive for learning. For example, an organisation with well-defined performance metrics and where performance appraisal depends on those metrics, will see staff focusing on achieving performance targets rather than focusing on developing their learning.

By contrast, an organisation without strict performance measurement systems and where staff feel valued by contributing to its long-term development encourages learning and engagement with innovation.

For a business, being a fast learner requires it to share its knowledge effectively across different departments or units. It needs to have high quality networks fostering learnings from outside entities and then transmitting these within the company. However, a company’s success in doing so will depend also on other HR procedures in place, such as performance management, as well as on what is important to the organisation. Is learning truly one of your priorities as a manager or a business owner?

Dr Sara Melo is a lecturer in management at Queen’s University Belfast

Previously published in The Irish Times.


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