14 steps toward a learning organization

It used to be all about who knew the most. Now, it’s up to those who can learn faster than the competition. Here’s why. 

Throughout history, the companies that ruled the playground were the ones who knew the most but if you look at the biggest companies today that’s no longer true.

Companies like Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Cisco, Tesla and Google are leading the way in how to change the world – by being able to learn quickly and effectively. 

“We need to think of our organization as a collective intelligence that quickly and effectively builds new competence. We are much more than just the sum of every individual’s knowledge.”

Olve Maudal, Knowledge Manager IT 

For this story, we’re going to focus on our learning principles and the reasoning behind them. You’ll find the principles a little further down, but first there’s a term that might need explaining: a knowledge worker.

Basically, someone who performs tasks that aren’t in the physical realm. Architects, lawyers, IT professionals and developers are all typical knowledge workers, but much of what we do in Equinor fits well into that category. 

“As a knowledge worker, there’s often no real difference between work and learning. When you really understand how to solve an issue, your real work is done. This is also becoming the case for more and more of the work we do in Equinor.”

Olve Maudal 

Olve Maudal works with software development in Equinor

Within a team, there might be a variety of competences and skills. What’s becoming more and more important is to develop secondary or tertiary skills. In a team, this could mean "allowing” someone else to handle the tasks you’re proficient in – and then take a role as a mentor. But this will also build a stronger foundation where your primary skill can advance even further. 

“Taking an approach like this may seem like it’s slower, but that’s not the case. In cases where a problem needs to be solved by a team, this collective approach speeds up problem-solving,” Olve explains.  

Software developers in Equinor during a sector gathering in 2019
Our learning principles are created to set a direction in how we learn together.
(Photo from our sector gathering in 2019)

Focusing on sharing and openness

Åshild Hanne Larsen, former Chief Information Officer in Equinor and current VP Subsurface Excellence and Digital, is clear that the pace of change and technology development drives the need for new capabilities. So - if we are to remain relevant as individuals and as organizations, we must prepare for life-long learning.

“From an IT perspective, we need to have the skill sets to help Equinor deliver today, but we must also build new capabilities in emerging tech that might take us further ahead. These learning principles and the IT competence strategy are important because they help us in setting a course for how to approach learning - both as individuals and teams.”

Åshild Hanne Larsen

Åshild Hanne Larsen, Chief Information Officer in Equinor, is a champion of diversity, inclusion and tech

As the energy transition shapes our future, and our portfolio and ways of working are changing, we must develop a new set of capabilities. 

“These are very exciting times, and we have to stay curious and be willing to build the competence we need,” Åshild says. 

These rapid changes also mean we must avoid that only one person knows how to perform a task, which would put Equinor at a disadvantage. Hence the focus on collective approach to learning.

“Through the learning principles, Olve has brought a new perspective on how to think about learning in our IT communities. It struck me how reasonable they are, almost familiar or something I could have read before,” Knut Erik Hollund, Chief Engineer IT, says. 

“I think the principles felt familiar due to the very Scandinavian approach, focusing on sharing and openness – and sharing what you know and not keeping knowledge as an asset to yourself."

Knut Erik Hollund, Chief Engineer IT

A team of three Equinor software developers working together in a workshop
(Photo from our sector gathering in 2019)

Backed by research

Torgeir Dingsøyr holds a doctoral thesis in Knowledge Management in Software companies from NTNU, worked as a Sintef researcher for 18 years on software process improvement and is currently a Professor at NTNU teaching software development.

He’s been a sparring partner in the work leading up to these learning principles and a resourceful connection with the world of academia.

NTNU professor Torgeir Dingsøyr

“Learning demands a more active approach and organizational learning is often defined as organizations which modify their behavior to reflect new knowledge and insight. As the world of software is constantly changing, you have to be active and flexible in your approach.”

Torgeir Dingsøyr, Professor, Department of Computer Science, NTNU

Torgeir tells us that as knowledge workers, software developers face different challenges than those working on an assembly line. In practical problem solving, developers often have a range of possible solutions. The key is to effectively combine knowledge of the “domain” - the business area a product is made for – with technical knowledge.

“This means that it might not be as beneficial to have a lot of knowledge “stored”. You have to be able to learn efficiently every time you encounter a new problem in order to best solve it,” Torgeir says.

Facilitating learning and sharing

Learning and knowledge are closely connected but still quite different. There are many schools within knowledge management, and many have traditionally viewed knowledge as something you build over time, something that’s documented and stored somewhere. More recently, the emphasis of knowledge management changed to connecting people.

“The new competence strategy very nicely summarizes discussions in the software development community on improvement trends such as agile and lean software development. I have not seen these ideas adapted into actual strategies on learning until now."

Torgeir Dingsøyr 

“There’s also a focus on how to facilitate learning and sharing knowledge collectively - instead of making sure it happens through managers, databases, documentation and routines,” he adds.

On June 1 of 2021, Equinor transitioned into a new organizational structure. For those working with software development, it will also mean a stronger emphasis on teams as the smallest unit. When learning together as a team, more critical voices to help discuss the team’s need and how new tech fits into the day-to-day work appear more frequently. 

“It’s also more likely that you have a discussion on how new learning fits into long term goals for the team, when you approach new learnings as a team,” Torgeir says.

Illustration of a team having a workshop

Part of a bigger picture

But why is it so important to learn? Ingvald Skaug, Ida B. Heggheim and Knut Ole Myrberg’s master thesis “What motivates distributed workers” (in Norwegian), looks at what motivates knowledge workers in distributed work. Contributing factors to that motivation includes the need for relatedness, the need for autonomy and the need for competence – all considered to be universal and innate. 

Research shows that filling this need for competence and learning increases motivation – which doesn’t just improve performance, but also people’s health and wellbeing. 

“Intrinsic or internal motivation is especially important for knowledge work. It facilitates a better workday for an individual, better problem solving in hard, complex challenges, as well as more creativity and better innovation,” Ingvald Skaug explains.

“Our research also showed that learning through everyday work was a particularly fulfilling way of learning, especially regarding the need for competence, but also regarding the need for autonomy and relatedness,” Ingvald adds.

Ingvald is a consultant from Bouvet, an Equinor IT partner consultancy, and says that learning should be viewed as a part of a bigger picture. 

“Improving knowledge workers’ intrinsic motivation improves the results, for example by more unusual and useful innovations. Skilled people enjoying their workday more saves a lot of money on reduced turnover. Looking at learning as a social activity is a win-win for the individual and the organization."

Ingvald Skaug

Ingvald Skaug works with software development in Equinor

Universal needs and motivations

A feeling of belonging to a team and contributing to something larger than yourself. Feeling supported, seen and trust in your team. Helping others or receiving help when needed.

A feeling of choice and acting based on your own free will. Opportunities to influence the organization or your own work, how or when to work etc.

A need to experience growth, meet everyday challenges and opportunities in an efficient way, to show that you’re “pulling your own weight” and to gain competence over time.

Work is learning – learning is work

Naturally, having to always learn and change isn’t something that’s just reserved for software developers - it applies to all knowledge workers. Among them we find Nina-Elise Breivik Jacobsen, who has worked with Corporate Sustainability in Equinor.

There, Nina-Elise led an initiative that seeks to improve ways of working in the Sustainability function. One of their focus areas was to help broaden their team’s competence, and they felt inspired once they saw the IT competence strategy. 

“The focus on how to integrate learning into your work, not just something you do on the side, really inspired me. I strongly believe that work is learning, and learning is work, so we wanted to see if we could work on our own strategy,” Nina-Elise tells us.

While nothing is signed, sealed or delivered yet, they saw many similarities between their work and the world of software. 

“Working with sustainability means we often work with a longer perspective than software, but we still have to prepare for rapid change and learning new things. The way I see it, this can be a way to bring organizational learning to life. It may not be the answer to everything, but an exciting step in the right direction.”

Nina-Elise Breivik Jacobsen

Nina-Elise Breivik Jacobsen in Equinor

“If you’re going to learn quickly you have to learn collectively, that’s when you can get an exponential learning curve in an organization. I believe being able to connect across disciplines or domains is how we’re going to create the new knowledge we need to adapt quickly to change  and to do some truly exciting work helping Equinor to be a leader in a just energy transition,” she adds.

Without further ado - it’s time to take a look at the learning principles ourselves. We hope they make you feel inspired to make some reflections around how you can learn in your own teams. 

14 principles for learning

1. Information, knowledge and learning are corporate assets

New insights, competence and learning capacity gained during working hours is supposed to be made available to the rest of the organization.  It shouldn’t be used to make yourself or your team a more indispensable resource.

When a team is building competence in some area, they should also start thinking about how they can make new insights and abilities available to the whole organization by offering to teach, lead, mentor and help other teams. Encouraging teaching just as much as learning is key for a thriving knowledge organization.

2. Advanced learners and experts should lead

It is imperative that a knowledge organization prioritizes advanced learners and experts when it comes to learning opportunities. In return the advanced learners and experts are supposed to invite and lead – this includes identifying, initiating, asking for, and often organizing both internal and external learning opportunities for others.

3. A critical mass of in-house knowledge is often enough

If individuals and teams actively make their knowledge, competence and learning capacity available, there is a limit to how much other teams and individuals actually need to invest into learning things up front before tackling hard problems. A team can often assume that they can learn required things quickly from other teams when needed. 

This enables an important discussion of what teams and individuals should not spend time learning more about, allowing them to focus their learning capacity towards something that is more useful for the organization.

4. Do intermediate and advanced training first

Do intermediate and advanced training first, later you may consider setting up introductory classes. Trying to build organizational competence by focusing on beginners does not work – advanced learners and experts will feel unprioritized and undervalued.

A very common reaction is that your strongest knowledge workers and teams ignore the competence building activities, or sometimes start to work directly or indirectly against the learning effort.

5. Focus learning on current needs

When work is learning, and learning is work, it is imperative to focus most of your capacity on learning things your current need. These days, especially within IT, there is a surplus of available, effective and efficient ways for a team to learn new things quickly when needed.

In addition, you should rely on other teams and experts in your organization to be eager to support your immediate learning needs. Teams working in fast-learning organizations should be confident enough to delay many learning activities until they are strictly needed.

6. Team up with learning buddies

Learning new stuff and carry knowledge into an established organization is usually too difficult for an individual to do alone. Taking a course? Reading a book? Going to a conference? Not alone – find some learning buddies! 

Learning activities should be coordinated among a collaborating group of knowledge workers with a common learning need, so that they learn approximately the same things at approximately the same time for approximately the same reason.

7. Engage with professional networks

Professional networks, also known as discipline networks and communities of practice, are very powerful and useful mechanisms for increasing the collective learning capacity of the organization

Everyone should be encouraged to actively engage, contribute or start their own network of learners. The more the better! However, it is important to keep the networks open and inclusive, so they make their expertise available to others.

8. Establish knowledge bridges

When switching focus from one problem and solution domain to another, it is important that the organization allow knowledge workers to build an effective path to bring their existing knowledge, enthusiasm, competence, and learning capacity from the old into the new.

Sometimes this requires extra investment in the old to enable a successful transition over to the new. Expecting advanced learners and experts within one domain to go back to “kindergarten” and relearn everything from scratch in a new domain is unnecessary, demotivating and counterproductive.

9. Share your expertise – invite others to follow

Sharing is caring – but it doesn’t have to be daring! You can share through lunch talks, teaching courses, or organize learning events. It can also be as simple as updating some documents, engaging in online discussions, replying to emails, or just give a nod of recognition to someone that’s trying to learn something.

However, some experts and advanced learners should be encouraged to do much more; give talks at conferences, publish articles, participate in external professional networks. For any organization that would like to learn fast, it is essential to take an active part in the industry dialogue.

10. Diversity is a key to fast learning

Diversity comes in many forms: gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, abilities, culture, education, background, mindset. Diversity is essential for building a healthy organization, but it also leads to better solutions as it brings different perspectives and counteracts monoculturalism. Collective learning benefits a lot by diversity – different perspectives and abilities accelerates the learning process.

11. Seek to build secondary and tertiary skills

A knowledge organization should encourage teams and professionals to build secondary and tertiary skills. Encouraging multiskilled knowledge workers and teams improves the communication lines inside the organization, and this will strengthen the collective intelligence significantly. To allow this to happen, advanced learners and experts must give space to others, and start to mentor, lead and teach with their primary skills.

12. Establish repeatable learning opportunities

If learning opportunities becomes a scarce resource, you may end up with the wrong people taking up the slots to learn the wrong things at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. To counter this, whenever organizing a potentially popular learning opportunity, make sure to repeat the same or similar opportunities later if it is a success. 

Once this is a well-established practice, knowledge workers and teams will attend to learn the right things at the right time – and for the right reasons. 

13. Prefer collective learning and team building

A team of knowledge workers that are used to learning things together are much better equipped to deal with upcoming challenges without requiring organized learning activities. When organizing a course like a team building event, students with different backgrounds and competence will start helping each other to achieve a collective result. 

Soon, the attitude switches from “what can I benefit from this?” to “how can we learn to learn things together as a team?”. 

14. Learn to unlearn

An organizations knowledge capacity is limited – so it must learn to unlearn. One fascinating definition of intelligence says that it’s “the ability to get rid of unnecessary information and knowledge”. Scaling this up suggests that merely collecting information and creating large databases with knowledge is not optimal for an organizations ability to learn new things – it will actually slow you down. Some even say that learning to unlearn is the highest form of learning.

These principles are also presented in the chapter "14 Steps Toward Lean Knowledge Management" of the "Learning in the Digital Era" book. This book constitutes the refereed proceedings of the 7th European Lean Educator Conference ELEC 2021, hosted in Trondheim, Norway, in October 2021 and sponsored by IFIP WG 5.7. The conference was held virtually.

The 42 full papers presented were carefully reviewed and selected from 82 submissions. They are organized in the following thematic sections: Learning Lean; Teaching Lean in the Digital Era; Lean and Digital; Lean 4.0; Lean Management; Lean Coaching and Mentoring; Skills and Knowledge Management; Productivity and Performance Improvement; New Perspectives of Lean.