Make Learning Matter: Become a Learning Organization

What's a Learning Organization?

In a learning organization, managers take the lead and coworkers train each other.
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Organizations with the best chance to succeed and thrive in the future are learning organizations. In his landmark book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Compare Prices) , Peter Senge defined the learning organization.

He said they were “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

Senge frames our understanding of the learning organization with an ensemble of disciplines which he believes must converge to form a learning organization. I will briefly describe each of these dimensions so that we share a basic understanding of the components that create a learning organization.

Dimensions of a Learning Organization

My main focus, however, is to suggest some ways in which you can promote a learning organization environment in your organization. These ideas will help you get started; true transformation takes time, commitment, and resources.

  • Systems Thinking: The underlying structure and the interlinking components of each of our work systems, shape a great deal of the behavior of the individuals who work inside of the work system.

    Think about Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s admonition. When something goes wrong, rather than seeking someone to blame, ask, what about the work system caused that individual to fail?
  • Personal Mastery: States Senge, “Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.” (p. 7)

    He offers that an organization’s learning can only be as great as that of each of its individual members. Consequently, personal mastery and the desire for continuous learning integrated deeply in the belief system of each person is critical for competitive advantage in the future.
  • Mental Models: These are the deeply held pictures each of us holds in our mind about how the world, work, our families, and so on - work. Mental models influence our vision of how things happen at work, why things happen at work, and what we are able to do about them.
  • Building Shared Vision: By shared vision, Senge is referring to a process in which the original vision for an organization, probably determined by the leader, is translated into shared pictures around which the rest of the organization finds meaning, direction, and reasons for existing.
  • Team Learning: Senge finds that “teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations.” (p. 10) It is the dialogue among the members of the team which results in stretching the ability of the organization to grow and develop. 

Begin with the Role of the Leaders

While everyone in the organization must help create the learning organization, you will want to begin with the behavior and contribution of your leaders.

Your leaders make four critical contributions to the development of a learning organization. They must take responsibility to accomplish these.

Their expectations are verbal, but most importantly, actions that others can see. Leaders who want a learning organization continually learn themselves. They read books and articles and share the content with the rest of the organization. They attend training sessions and conferences.

They foster an environment in which people are empowered to make decisions about their work. They make intelligent risk-taking the norm. They assure that all information people need to make good decisions is communicated. They promote an organizational environment that supports learning and personal mastery.

Sound like the work environment you'd like to create in your company? Take a look at the 16 actions you need to take to encourage your staff to take on the task of becoming a learning organization.

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