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  • Writer's picturePeter Wollmann

Developing and Reinforcing a Learning Organization

Peter Wollmann, 2023



1. Introduction

It might have been never so important to foster individual and organizational learning but the barriers to develop and implement a Learning Organization are high. In this article some ideas will be developed how start a successful journey to design a tailored or tailorable respectively light Learning Organization concept, to install and regularly optimize it.

In the article it will be shown that the development and maintenance of a Learning Organization is mostly a mindset and leadership topic, not a methodical one. A leadership team has to be convinced of the necessity of a Learning Organization and strongly strive for its realization.

2. Some Framing and Definitions

In a lot of organizations people are convinced that they do not have enough time to run a Learning Organization, everywhere urgency beats importance. And if the regular time pressure was not enough, we all are in general in these days - as everybody will agree with – in disruptive times causing – I like the metaphor - journeys through new, unknown territories without precedence with significant impact on all types of organization and on needed leadership and with new requirements for ‘learning’ and the establishment of ‘Learning Organizations’.

So, it might be time to define “Learning Organization”, what exactly is it? It can be pragmatically defined as an “organization that has established continuous learning on all levels and in all work contexts in place, generating a collective stock of learnings easily accessible for all members of the organization (independently if in a data base, through communication in regular exchanges, hybrid forms etc.). In a Learning Organization, (implicit and explicit) learning is at the end as natural as breathing, part of the organization’s DNA. A Learning Organization continuously transforms itself to reach sustainably higher performance to cover all (new) requirements[1]. Thus, a Learning Organization is by definition able to also cope with disruptive times. We will stress this in the following in detail.

To approach the topic in detail, we will start with a brief introduction to knowledge management and learning obstacles, both topics especially linked to VUCA[2] World/ disruptive times. Some basic knowledge on these essentials are crucial to know. Then we will move to a meta-level thinking concept for organization and leadership in those disruptive times (the Three Pillar Model). This is important because Learning Organization has always thought and lived in the frame of a (simple) model of organization and leadership.

Based on these “preconditions”, the article will offer a high-level tailorable concept for a Learning Organization fitting to the readers’ organization, and a set of easy steps for its installation etc. To round out, some suitable use cases on Learning Organizations will be introduced which offer some animation and support. At the end the article will finish with a brief conclusion

[1] Basing on further developed results of work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues. [2] volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.

3. Brief Introduction to Knowledge Management

In knowledge management one has to differentiate between data, information, knowledge and wisdom – and what this differentiation means for real learning of individuals, teams and whole organizations.

  1. Data Pure data is without context – example: a number like 125

  2. Information Information is data in a concrete (technical) context which creates a first personal (abstract or theoretical) localization – example: the potential price for a trip to Brussels is 125 €.

  3. Knowledge Knowledge is information connected with personal experience from application. Knowledge always has an emotional component as it bases on some personal practice – example: I know how to book a train ticket from Cologne to Brussels on the Thalys website, which is stable and for me easily understandable, I know how long it takes and at which steps I have to be careful not to make a mistake. In other words: I have personal experiences in application and I could do it easily again.

  4. Wisdom Wisdom is the sovereignty to deal with knowledge responsibly and farsightedly – example: I know very well how to get to each time from Cologne to Brussels with different means of transport and I know prices, sustainability, reliability, risks etc. and can choose based on my values and budget. I normally choose Thalys, but if there are risks of train cancelations (weather, damaged tracks, strikes) I know what to take instead and how to make sure to be are canceled in any case on time in Brussels because of an important meeting.

The collection, understanding, digestion and adoption of data, information, knowledge and wisdom might be different between disruptive and steady contexts, simply because in unknown territories which appear in disruptive times there is often no experience and precedence so far (not enough data, information, knowledge).

To illustrate this with a metaphor: You might think of an expedition to explore Africa in the 19th century[3]. The exploration team was confronted on a regular base for example by new geographic settings, paths and rivers; new native tribes and their languages, habits, beliefs; new animals and plants etc.

This requires a special type of Learning Organization. You have to learn how to learn. You have to learn fast every moment in unknown territories, with a fresh view, carefully register and observe new things – all might be important -, analyze and understand them, exchange and discuss your observations with your colleagues and spread your insights in the team etc. In cases where there is no precedence, no (sufficient and comprehensive) learning material (like well documented historical data, information and knowledge) learning is demanding but manageable – and it is a great experience. The already used metaphor of an expedition through Africa in the 19th century is helpful to understand this

4. Obstacles for individual and organizational learning/knowledge creation in disruptive times

This paragraph will contrate on a selection of three key learning obstacles:

Missing time for learning

Especially knowledge and wisdom do need enough reflection time and trustful interaction which is difficult to reach in hectic times, especially as the relevant persons do not only have to understand but also to act differently afterwards. The needed time is rarely available in one piece. But it does maybe not need extensive large events but strong leadership, a convincing mindset and a creative organizational learning practice integrated into the normal proceedings of the organization (see below). If learning drives efficiency, the time consumed is over-compensated by the benefits.

Future and non-linear thinking – mission impossible in our evolutionary and social contexts?

The second obstacle bases on neurology. Our brain is formed by our experiences. We try to learn for the future and do it from the past[4]. And if we don't like past experiences or feel unable to cope with them, we create illusions: Most of us know that many projects fail to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, we continue as usual, agree on unrealistic goals and expect best-case fulfillment. And we feel good because we are socialized in a community of individual illusionists[5]. This perception bias – which is therefore also a learning bias – is supported by another feature of our brains: brains like structure and linear developments and tend to complement lacking chain links accordingly. Unfortunately, developments in the VUCA world and disruptive times are often strongly non-linear and don’t follow historical knowledge. So, we have to consciously focus on both, on learning (for the future) and on unlearning (no longer using now unimportant knowledge from the past): one has ‘to get lost’ to be able to explore something new effectively and without prejudices[6].

Cultural impact – the organization’s culture as a potential significant obstacle for sustainable learning

The third obstacle bases on cultural and organizational impacts. The system of an organization is a strong construction with a set of lot of conscious and unconscious beliefs, habits and behavioral patterns, like how and why things have to be done or even better: as they have always been done, what is possible and what impossible etc. This also impacts learning: for example, the willingness of people to share knowledge with others or to keep it as a competitive advantage against others.

There might be cultural differences within an organization (between professions, levels, generations etc.) and also at a societal level. To develop a Learning Organization, it is crucial to understand the respective setting and the belief systems in place very well. One has – so to say – to “read” the organization and the underlying system .and all obstacles for learning – or learning from lessons learnt[7].

By the way, system theory says that the system is normally stronger than the single person and that changes need a lot of time. But creative steps might start a positive development.

With basic know in knowledge management and learning obstacles, there is only the need to select a suitable model for organization and leadership for your organization with which the Learning Organization concept can be linked in order to have overall an easy, well understandable and communicable and consistent “architecture” is in place.

[4] Theory of adult learning: We build a scaffold of past experiences to be able to build new knowledge [5] See Nobel Prize winner Kahnemann, D., Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York 2011, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux [6] See Solnit, R. A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005, New York, Viking Penguin [7] More on:

5. The Three Pillar Model, its Application and its Connection to a Learning Organization

As already mentioned above it is important to have in disruptive times a new thinking for organization and leadership design in place. However, there are already many models existing, a new one only makes sense if:

  • it is a bit different than usual (new view at the new worlds),

  • it is quite comprehensive, (valid for the majority of cases)

  • it is easily understandable, intuitive (no need of 50 pages of description and guidelines) but not banal,

  • it is in general well applicable and tailorable (fast idea how it might work in general and in your context) and it is an open concept (existing methods etc. can be easily linked)

  • it is not mechanical or “One Size fits all” - and it respects the individual initial situations of the appliers

  • So, it is not a banal standardized operational recipe. In a complex and differentiated world such recipes often fail to work., one size fits all is over. An applier can easily tailor the model’s application according to your demands.

The new so called Three Pillar Model[8] to be presented here was developed by the author with a global community[9] . It was the ambition to find something enduring and stable for Organization and Leadership Design in VUCA times[10]. The community identified 3 key building blocks (pillars) defining the Three-Pillar Model, applied the model in various global use cases (>50) and published it (in so far 3 books)[11]. The use cases in the Public Sector cover UN Agencies, Universities, State Development Companies, Urban Planning and Architecture, Policy and Science Communication, Technical Museums, Welfare Foundations and local Social Services. In the Private Sector the use cases cover Financial Services, Payment Transactions, Pharmaceutical Industry, MedTech, Automotive Supply Industry, Chemistry, Agriculture, Angel Investing and Start-ups, Consultancy, Training & Development companies. So, the model is well documented and tested in both sectors.

Let’s go a bit into detail to describe the model and also describe its impact on learning and Learning Organizations:

(1) Sustainable purpose (the first pillar):

The raison d’être of an organization, bringing orientation and certainty to the people for their joint endeavor and success, important especially in crisis, transformations – and for learning!

Everybody in the organization, but also its key stakeholders in the entire ecosystem and organization environment, must know what the organization stands for and what value and societal contribution it creates. They all should perceive the purpose as reliable and consistent. The purpose aligns, convinces and inspires the people involved in the joint endeavour, makes them confident, proud to be part of it and to contribute to it. Especially in crises it proves its ability to provide orientation and energy, and to keep the organization together on its journey. Remark: It is important to explicitly formulate the sustainable purpose as it gives direction to learning and the Learning Organization – and it attracts the right talents.

(2) Travelling organization (the second pillar):

The mindset of an organization in a permanent state of flux and transformation, interacting with the external requirements on its journey with rapid learning and adaptivity.

Organizational consistency, strategic stability and structural continuity have long been an illusion. Now, we must understand that organizations are continuously on a journey, often through unknown territories, experiencing twists and turns, always looking for the best way between poles, alternatives and options. In unknown territories, traditional thinking and previous experiences are often no longer helpful, traditional concepts, systems, methods, tools and historical data quickly lose their value and new thinking on a meta-level becomes much more important. One has to consciously unlearn ‘old stuff’ and learn ‘new stuff’. If the teams do not know what to expect around the next bend, they must take smaller steps and explore the terrain. Even if they don’t know in advance what the best result will be they will find out, e.g. by trial and error. People in a travelling organization are curious, open to learn, courageous, keen to experiment, and they deal well with uncertainty, stress, unforeseen incidents in a totally new world. This picture is strongly supported by the already mentioned metaphor of the Africa expeditions in the 19th century[12].

Remark: This mindset of a Travelling Organization is the core of a Learning Organization as it makes very evident why continuous learning is crucial as the territory crossed on the journey is (partly) unknown and there are always new situations, explorations, insights upcoming. It is impossible in and for a Travelling Organization not to learn. It is a question of survival. If a member of an expedition team makes a new experience it is crucial to share this will the whole team.

(3) Connectivity (the third pillar):

Ability to interconnect with all needed parties and resources inside and outside the silos[13] creating high efficacy and consistency and creating in this context also shared learning networks.

The organization has to be aware that impact, value and efficiency, but also survival, need multiple connectivity: between humans, organizations and their ecosystems; between different political, social systems and cultures. This means managing connectivity with the whole environment, preventing unconnected structural silos and echo chambers, but inspiring and supporting multilateral behaviours and over-arching global and local professional communities, balancing the various, often contradictory interests between the stakeholders. On an Africa expedition in the 19th century one had to connect among each other in the team, with native tribes and their cultures, with animals, with flora and fauna, geography etc.

Remark: This also means that the learning as an organization has to be thought in a network perspective, including interfaces to adjacent organizations and across organizational borders. It might be impossible to learn in many cases without involving people from outside your silo.

[8] See: Wollmann, P.; Kühn, F.; Kempf, M. (Eds.): Three Pillars of Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times – Navigating Your Company Successfully through the 21st Century Business World. Cham: Springer Nature, © 2020 [9] more than 60 professionals from all over the world in the author community which is really very diverse: coming from 5 continents and more than 20 countries, representing knowledge from more than 20 large global institutions or global enterprises in different industries and more than 30 different public institutions or organizations or national companies

[10] volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity [11] The other two books are: Wollmann, P.: Püringer, R. (Eds.): Transforming Public and Private Sector Organizations – Implementing Sustainable Purpose, Travelling Organization and Connectivity for Resilience. Cham: Springer Nature, © 2022 Wollmann, P.; Kühn, F.; Kempf, M.: Püringer, R. (Eds.): Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times – Design and Implementation of the 3-P-Model. Cham: Springer Nature, © 2021

[12] Could be also Australia expeditions which were comparably spectacular [13] Silos are defined here as organizational units which wall themselves off

6. A Pragmatic Learning Organization Concept for Your Organization

A pragmatic Learning Organization Concept has in general

  • To focus on generating knowledge and wisdom (not so much on concrete data and information) and on the ability to learn that means on learning how to learn and on practical application

  • To be aware of existing personal and systemic learning obstacles (as mentioned above)

  • To connect with a suitable meta-level model for organization and leadership like the Three Pillar Model (as described above) especially using the metaphor of a Travelling Organization

  • To clarify the sustainable purpose of the respective organization, reflect on the organization’s continuous journey, also through unknown territories, with a reliable team, and to create cross-silo connectivity

  • To profile the role of leadership as a necessary strong driver and enabler for a Learning Organization

  • To ensure that (implicit) learnings are made explicit and available for the whole organization – not kept in private ownership

  • To follow the principle: start with small steps but start fast – and complete and calibrate on the journey! Changing direction is easier if you move.

A pragmatic Learning Organization Concept bases mainly on a leadership, mindset and organizational culture, not on sophisticated methodologies and technical tools. It builds on the strong belief that knowledge is on the one hand an obligation to provide by everybody (especially the directors and their leadership teams). On the other hand, it is an obligation for each person to pro-actively take and absorb.

Coming from this I would recommend some simple actions (conceptual tools):

(1) Initial Management Team Meeting

Onetime Measure by new Director (30-60 minutes)

  • Brief statement that organizational learning will be regularly stressed in the future (maybe using the Africa Expedition Metaphor to explain why)

  • Brief discussion on the requested mindset, its framing (e.g. Three Pillar Model), the light concept and how to reach it (see below)

  • Announcement on potentially supportive practices of formal regular information exchange (e.g. cc setting in emails etc.)

  • Announcement of enrichment of the regular leadership team meetings: new learnings (especially in new situations) to become a brief but regular agenda point of each management team meeting as well as upcoming unknown territories (5 minutes both).

  • Clarification of a learning points light documentation concept (how, who – best alternating in management team -, where, how accessible for everybody)

  • Declaring the first 3 or 6 months as a pilot phase with defined targets/milestones after which the proceeding can be calibrated/ modified (start light and fast, complete later based on experience)

(2) Regular Management Team Meetings Enrichment (10 minutes)
  • New regular topic: are we approaching (partly) unknown territory? How to cope with it? Which learnings should be strived for?

  • New regular topic: our new learnings and how we judge them? What are the impacts and consequences?

  • Remark: Same should be done in the teams of each manager reporting to the newly appointed director.

(3) Application of Action Learning Elements

(Learning by Doing) – This will take more time but also produce significant benefits:

  • Analyze need for action in your organization, design small internal projects[14] for the easily manageable change requests, appoint responsible project leads and small teams, give them mentors (from management team) and let them start.

  • Check progress every 6 – 8 weeks and decide potential calibration

  • Make the learning in these projects explicit and discuss it in your management team meetings and your annual/biannual workshops

With this concept, topics which anyway have to be worked on, will be realized, but in a slightly more structured way as learning will be an important checkpoint in the regular progress check loops. Action Learning is one of the most efficient types of learning as it generates the needed personal involvement (the emotional part of learning), the prototyping (a solution will not be only drafted but also directly tested that means applied) and the learnings made explicit. It connects learning to the concrete issue solving of an organization and it is a great way to test talents. And it has to be stressed that more and more of the value creation of an organization is generated by projects.

(4) Annual/biannual Management Team or Whole Team Workshop

A new extensive Lessons Learnt Session (2-4 hours) to be introduced:

  • What went well and why, where did we fail and why, which new insights do we have, how can we use them in the future.

  • What was the result of our action learning application, the treatment of the change measures portfolio

  • How did we perceive our journey in the last period, which were important occurrences and how did they influence us from a content and mental/emotional point of view (“River-of-Life-Method”)

  • Etc.

Important: it is crucial that each participant of the workshop is actively involved in it and delivers input. And that the workshop is ‘a safe space’!

(5) Incorporation of New Hires
  • General preparation: drafting an incorporation plan for each job group (which should include - besides basic information like org chart, roles & responsibilities, important contacts, processes and procedures, compliance rules, office organization, used IT platforms, archives etc. - already some explicit organizational knowledge). This set of information/knowledge has to be updated regularly.

  • Appointment of a personal mentor (a colleague) for the new hire

  • Regular meetings between mentor and new hire. Especially in the first weeks: document the (fresh external) view of the new hire on the organization, draft an ‘astonishment report’ etc.

  • Make sure that the key outcome from the incorporation of new hires is briefly reflected in the management team meetings

(6) Consistent Exploiting of (random) Occasions
  • Encourage leaders and staff members to make appointments with colleagues for the lunch and coffee breaks (virtual or in person) and exchange insights, experiences, judgements (not only exchanging complaints)

  • Extend this encouragement also on meeting people from other institutions etc. Show interest in outcomes (as director)

  • Note: creative organizations design the office buildings so that there is a big chance to meet other people and develop creative ideas

(7) Occasionally Introduce External Views

It is crucial to get from time to time an external view (from peers from other parts of your organization or from other organizations, from scientists, from coaches or mentors, …). (8) A Personal Comment from the Author

In my experience, the most successful organizational development measures and generators of learning were the implementation and efficient maintenance of project and project portfolio management combined with annual/biannual lessons learnt sessions and a vivid network community of actors in the context of projects, project portfolios and learning. This always took place under the leadership of a strong and convincing sponsor who explicitly wanted to go on this journey[15].

And one of the key enablers to make change happen is to find a critical mass (a core team which gives the momentum), to empower key persons to proactively act and to convince them that mistakes are allowed – if they are taken for improvement (corrected fast after recognition) – and to try to build trust in the whole team, especially with those people who are suspicious and resistant to change.

[14] One project would be the documentation of learnings [15] See also: Dignen, B.; Wollmann, P. (Eds.): Leading International Projects – Diverse Strategies for Project Success. London/Philadelphia/New Dehli, KoganPage © 2016

7. Some Use Cases

(a) The UN Case: UN Volunteers – an ideal setting

UNV is an UN agency which manages the volunteers especially needed in the case of catastrophes. The case was documented in the second Three Pillar Book[16] together with the former UNV head, Olivier Adams. He described how he organizes professional volunteer projects – e.g. after an earthquake, an Ebola outbreak etc. The teams are composed by him/his agency and started within 48 hours. The projects were evaluated on a regular base to collect learnings and insights for the next missions and their participants.

A first striking outcome: Even if the team members don’t know each other they cooperate well from the beginning on and intensively exchange about insights and learnings. Their integration in the on-site ecosystems works efficiently. How is this possible in a world where 70% of difficult transformations fail and one reason is the suboptimal cooperation of the program teams in many organizations?

One of the key insights from an intensive look at UNV is that a strong and convincing purpose (UN Charta) is in place. Together with the feeling of urgency and importance, and with the special mindset and personality of the volunteers, their openness for learning, their professional speed to learn and their experience with unknown territories make the difference. This setting has the strength to quickly form high-performing teams of people who have not necessarily met before. The crucial precondition is ‘only’ that the potential professional candidates have been carefully selected, registered and very well instructed before. The secret is the effort for preparation for recruiting – and on this base the speed of performance. Oliver told me that he has a high-level community of government and global institutions level and additionally regular recommendations of trusted professionals. And regular communication with all. This means that regular communication is key with the explicit exchange of insights and learnings and the resulting consequences for the next missions.

(b) already stressed: The Africa Expedition Case (analogy) (now also often visible in a start-up or scientific research environment)

This next case (also in second Three Pillar Book but also available as an article on the author’s website[17]) is about those famous expeditions in Africa in 19th century, e.g., to explore and map defined parts of it or to discover the source of a river. The initial situation often was that the available maps reliably showed the right silhouette of Africa and a small strip of the interior of the country, but the heartland was terra incognito, with only some information available from Arabian traders some hundred years previously, some maps that were more based on fantasy and anecdotal reports. Nevertheless, most of these expeditions were successful to a certain extend. How was this possible[18]? It was a question of mindset, leadership and the ability to learn quickly and sustainably.

As already stressed, those expeditions were or better had to be Learning Organizations par excellence.

(c) Central Saint Martin’s College in London

Another interesting example for travelling in the unknown or even the unknown unknown is Central Saint Martin’s College in London. This old and extremely successful institution has had to reinvent itself as a consequence of large societal changes, climate change, consumption criticism etc.

The dilemma can be summarized in some questions recently formulated: ‘But how does one nurture designers for a world that needs fewer, not more products? How does one prepare students for the cultural and ecological change that they should shape as Creative Directors, but which nobody yet knows what it will look like?’

In a nutshell the chosen journey of Central Saint Martin’s College can be summarized as follows:

  • Enrichment of the role profile of designer: in the future designers should understand their task not only as designing objects but as designing situations and systems

  • Involvement of the students in the journey to define their new role and the route how to get there

  • Cross-silo cooperation internally: the different ateliers were opened so as to be available for everybody

  • Cross-silo cooperation externally: student projects are directly realized together with companies and large brands in all industries

  • Increased cooperation with social, societal and political projects

  • Encouragement of citizens from the neighborhood to get involved in the college’s work

  • Involvement of scientists (e.g., biologists)

  • In general, opening the college to all possible environmental influences

  • Special focus on civil responsibility, ecology and climate change

  • So, an important public institution set off into an unknown future but is well prepared to design and shape the future on its way to this future.

  • Absolute high transparency and honesty and consistency of the communication during the journey is required.

  • Creative maps – even if they are incomplete – can be used as an important instrument to move forward and to show journey progress. If there are no official maps in place, own maps showing progress, position etc. have to be developed and maintained (tailored to the journey or its purpose and the connectivity of its internal and external resources)

  • Intensive efforts to foster explicit learning (learning is ‘unpreventable’ on the types of journeys)

  • Acceptance that the purposes of the journey might change during a journey (see examples from Africa expeditions and from fashion) and the team should not shy away from this debate

(d) Munich Re: Building up Digital Finance

Munich Re, the world’s leading reinsurance company, realized a strong need for faster and more data-driven analysis as a consequence of ever increasing internal and external requirements with highly complex interdependencies. The expectation was that the use of newly available data allows for more stable forward-looking predictions, true scenario analysis and simulations which, combined with modern artificial intelligence, support decision-making in uncertain conditions.

The idea was to build a Digital Finance Platform (DFP) as an open, virtual, data-driven analytics and reporting platform featuring fast, automated and consistent data traffic from any internal and external data source to enable truly integrated and consistent analytics in a user-friendly, simple and easy-to-use manner. Because of the urgency of described need and the impossibility to even very roughly design beforehand the solution strived for, an agile projects with an evolutionary approach was chosen starting fast with a minimum of a concept, co-creating with the first clients prototypes as minimum viable products, testing them in practice and optimizing them in analysis, learning & improvement loops, implementing them for the first clients, then add the next clients’ requirements and extend the product etc.

The pragmatic proceeding based on the following principles:

Offer a first vision to acquire the right sponsors

Based on the first ideas, a Digital Finance vision was developed by a small core team and presented to Group CFO and Head of Group Controlling. An explorative proceeding with a small budget was decided, this meant a co-creative pro-ceeding in a truly interdisciplinary project team with strong regular evaluation and learning steps in close connection with the stakeholders (clients).

Start small, think big but really start small

Choosing the “evolutionary approach” and not the waterfall concept” meant that quickly something concrete results to present were needed thus it is best to start with a convincing overarching vision and narrative but to plan for the first project phases reasonably portioned targets which should show that the ambition is promising, makeable in a reasonable timing and that the key persons on the project have the needed competencies and skills. In this case, the project team which covered the key expertise but also the client side reached very fast first tangible results for which the business content and the related IT-solution were developed in parallel in loops or short cycles, practicing so called rapid prototyping. This proceeding is very similar to a start-up acting.

Keep the project as small as possible

Based on promising client feedback, the team iteratively improved the technology stack and connected more and more data sources to enable the digitalization of more use case and to win new clients. It became therefore critical to increase speed and agility in order to be able to change direction very quickly. At the same time, the team grew as some of the first customers embarked on the Digital Finance journey and joined the team. It was crucial to prevent to become too big as a project in terms of targets, tasks, (unrealistic) expectations, number of team members and stakeholders etc. to keep the “internal administration and reporting” on a reasonable level and reserve enough time for learning. And it was important to keep the start-up mindset.

Go as fast as you can

Explorative approaches need a continuous flow of tangible outcome which already might be – preliminarily – used. On its way, the team therefore began marketing the concept and presented the idea and the solution inclusive the learnings on the journey so far to hundreds of people in Munich Re business units, central divisions and to domain experts as well as to subsidiaries. This increasing visibility brought about increasing requests and demands from existing and potential customers. To meet these requests the team again had to increase speed and to hire new team members, bringing in the new expertise and skills needed to meet additional customer demand.

The truly cross-functional (Business and IT) approach led to the creation of an island separate from existing processes, structures or organizational affiliations. This allowed the team not only to maintain its speed but to increase it. In addition, the customer focus could be intensified including strong exchange on learnings, and despite the different organizational affiliations, the interdisciplinary team worked in a common office space for quickly-executed feedback, learning and brainstorming sessions etc. Thus, the character of a start-up organization could be kept, the mindset of a truly Travelling Organization and a Learning Organization be strengthened.

Have sufficient power to avoid hierarchy in the team

Explorative and agile approaches are only possible if the team has a certain autonomy and if traditional hierarchies within the team are avoided. A strong belief and unreserved trust in each other and the whole formed in this case the basis of an autonomous and self-organizing team. The team organized itself along the use cases (in a customer centric manner) and created autonomous teams inside the team. The nano teams changed over time according to the skills needed for the use case, at the same time the team considered due process very carefully including the ever-important requirement of compliance gates, IT security and legal requirements. It was not methodology that makes teams agile – though it helps – it was the mindset that is key.

In addition to the free-thinking time the team decided to present and to demonstrate the DFP solution to the outside world to obtain external feedback for further improvements. The idea was mainly to ensure that the solution not only covers Munich Re’s needs but would also be able to address the challenges of a broad range of organizations across different sectors. This also – very successfully by the way - included entering awards in order to be challenged and to receive academic and expert feedback.

And today

Today the DFP team has achieved a really advanced solution: the data of the main internal and external data sources of Munich Re Finance are available as well as access to business domain expertise, and this logic is now available in modules. As a logical consequence the team started working on the orchestration of this functionality for more intelligent analysis: able to use artificial intelligence (AI) such as deep learning models and stronger digital and data-driven support in the decision-making process.

The Digital Finance Platform is already used by hundreds of people, part of more than hundred use cases and applied in countless individual analyses for faster and more-effective decision-making in order to create customer values and to drive digital transformation across the whole organization. Evolving technology combined with the continuous exchange between technical and business experts inspired creativity on both sides and created new digitalization ideas. Consequently, the team has already prototyped voice-driven user interaction for even greater user-friendliness and to increase the range of possible use cases. The first AI-based prototypes have also shown promising results and are being explored even further in order to manage the increasing complexity and to capture additional, perhaps unknown, insights. The Munich Re DFL case proves that even in large enterprises there are chances for a start-up-alike, agile and explorative approach to solve key issues is possible and that Traveling Organizations and respectively Learning Organizations can be built up – in the right setting.

(e) Take-aways from the four use cases

All use cases prompt the following important key take-aways

  • The importance of a strong, convincing sustainable purpose in which the people believe and that serves as key motivation.

  • The perfect composition of the travel team - to have the right shared mindset, the right diversity, the same culture and a well-balanced portfolio of capabilities and skills. And trust in the team.

  • And the connectivity capabilities to link to the surrounding ecosystems Abilities to read the environment and setting

  • A high focus on explicit learning: taking time to prepare people for the mission in the unknown territories, running in between small evaluation and learning loops and after the mission investing efforts to identify and document all learnings and insights. Explorative approaches are not possible without a focus on learning and a well-fitting error culture

  • The importance of significant leadership efforts, especially a convincing narrative for the journey’s purpose and in general high transparency and honesty and consistency of the communication and support autonomous action of travel team members

  • [16] Page 111 ff in: Wollmann, P.; Kühn, F.; Kempf, M.: Püringer, R. (Eds.): Organization and Leadership in Disruptive Times – Design and Implementation of the 3-P-Model. Cham: Springer Nature, © 2021 [17] See: [18] The challenges of such an expedition was e.g. to find and explore the source of a river (like the Zambezi or the Nile): · It was clear that the source had to be somewhere as the river existed and especially its mouth, was known - (There has to be an answer) · There was a rough idea where the source might be situated but the detailed geography of the area was neither known nor had been carefully explored before - (No concrete idea where to find it) · It was not improbable that the river was part of a drainage system so that there might be some tributary rivers –meaning it was not easy to decide which one was the main river and which one the tributary. (Even if you are near the answer, it can be difficult and ambiguous) · It was very probable that one had to face significant risks and surprises – and the expedition could be total failure - (Not sure that you survive)

8. Brief Conclusions of the Article's Main Statements

  • A Travelling Organization (mindset) is a guarantee for a Learning Organization: learning is in the DNA of such a type of organization

  • A Learning Organization needs the right mindset, a focus on leadership, open and transparent communication, pragmatism and creative proceeding – not sophisticated concepts, methods and tools

  • Best to connect learning with day-to-day work (small routine additions) and use in issue fixing (action learning)

  • As most learning in organizations is incidental on an individual and team base: make sure your staff members meet and talk


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