What is a Learning Organization?

Lisa R. Arcemont, Instructor

The world is changing faster and faster—technology, globalization, innovation, competition are all affected. The problems facing us seem to be growing ever more complex and serious. How do we navigate such change and address these problems—not only in our work lives but also in our families, communities, and schools? Many organizational change theorists believe that organizations—groups of people who come together to accomplish a purpose—hold an important key to these questions. When employees work together, learning and innovation are optimized. To be innovative, organizations are recruiting people with the ability to continuously learn new things. According to many theorists, the most important skill that college provides is the ability to continuously learn. The field of organizational learning explores ways to design organizations so that they fulfill their function effectively, encourage people to reach their full potential, and, at the same time, help the world to be a better place.

According to Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, an organization is learning when it can bring about the future it most desires. This is achieved when an organization is rooted in powerful principles, values, and discipline. Learning is much more than just a way to create the future you want. In today’s fast-paced, highly competitive work world, it may actually give your organization fulfilling purpose and thereby, the edge it needs to survive.

The learning organization learns to: 

  • Operate using the systems thinking principles as core disciplines – systems thinking, team learning, shared vision, mental models, and personal mastery.
  • Avoid making the same mistakes – employees learn from their mistakes and don’t repeat them because they share the knowledge of what went wrong and how to avoid such pitfalls. 
  • Make continuous performance improvements – constant improvements are made as a result of constant learning. These improvements are shared with others throughout the organization to encourage continued improvement. 
  • Share information – Hoarding knowledge is seen as a habit to break. Employees are rewarded for sharing their best practices and knowledge to help others improve performance through the whole organization (Lussier, 2010).

Before any organization can become a learning organization, planning the journey begins with knowing where you want to go. A vision for businesses as well as organizations will help define your destination. Once an organization has determined its vision and communicated it to its members, it is important to assess three key areas in the organization:

  • Knowledge Base – the strengths and weaknesses of your organization’s knowledge base including experience and practice
  • Learning Practices – the management and operating practices that foster or hinder learning
  • Learning Cultures – the work culture and its effect on learning which includes opportunities for innovation, recognition of conflict and errors, leadership, staff development, information and communication systems, team-based work and addressing incomplete learning cycles.

Once these three areas are assessed within an organization, the assessment can provide a great opportunity for staff development to train them in the areas that are lacking. Above all, it is most important to continue to measure and assess your organization’s learning capacity which can be measured against the baseline to evaluate progress. As an organization changes its learning practices, it will also need to change its vision and strategy. Continual realignment is the key to making an organization’s journey to become a learning organization valuable, progressive and successful. For more information on Peter Senge and The Learning Organization, click here or visit www.pegasuscom.com.

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