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How to Become a Learning Organization - Lessons from the U.S. Military

A learning organization is an organization that can change quickly, adapting to the new rules that the market environment has created. Businesses that know how to learn and develop swiftly and efficiently will thrive; those that do not, will not survive. It is easy to think of newer companies like Apple and Google as being the best learning organizations. Some of the best examples of organizational learning practices are found in more mature organizations, such as the U.S. military.

General David Petraeus wrote "The Army/Marine Field Manual on Counterinsurgency." In this manual, he repeatedly refers to the importance of learning as the key to success in any operation. According to Petraeus, “Learning done before deployment results in fewer lives lost and less national treasure spent relearning past lessons in combat.” This statement certainly applies to all businesses as we “deploy” people to a project or job. General Petraeus also says that “The side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly—the better learning organization—usually wins. Counterinsurgencies have been called learning competitions.” One might say that all businesses are engaged in a learning competition.

Another critical aspect of any successful organization is the presence of well-developed leaders who consistently encourage learning. McKinsey and Company conducted a major study of leadership development processes in many successful organizations. They found that the U.S. Marine Corp—with over 200 years of experience in leadership development—has “the best leadership development process in the world.” One of the key aspects of their 10-week leadership development program is the emphasis on organizational learning.

General Petraeus writes that “As learning organizations, the Army and Marine Corps encourage Soldiers and Marines to pay attention to the rapidly changing situations that characterize counterinsurgencies…Sometimes [we] do not achieve the desired results. When that happens, successful leaders engage in a direct search for better ways to defeat the enemy. The side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly wins. Promoting learning is a fundamental responsibility of commanders at all levels.”

Petraeus continues with seven suggestions for becoming a learning organization: (1) establish training centers; (2) regularly challenge your assumptions, both formally and informally; (3) Learn about the broader world outside of the organization; (4) Promote suggestions from the field; (5) Foster open communication between senior officers and their subordinates; (6) establish rapid avenues of disseminating lessons learned; (7) Be open to soliciting and evaluating feedback from others.

The four-star general and Army Chief of Staff, General Peter Schoomaker, said of the current conflicts in the Middle East, “This is a game of wits and will. You’ve got to be learning and adapting constantly to survive.” The same thing could be said of all businesses.