Learning Organization

Definition of Learning Organization[1]

Below are three definitions of learning organizations from three influential thinkers:

  • Learning Organizations are 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 to see the whole together." - Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, page 3. Senge's definition of a learning organization (above) includes places where people "expand their capacity to create," but also organizations "where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured [and]...collective aspiration is set free," and "where people are continually learning to see the whole together." So Senge's definition involves the learning by people, the conditions at the organization in which people learn, and a hint at learning that allows everyone at work to see a "whole together." That final point is a reference to systems thinking, which Senge argued is very important and which will come up again.
  • "The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level. A Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself." - Pedler, M.; Burgoyne, J.; and Boydell, T. The Learning Company. A Strategy for Sustainable Development, page 1. Pedler, Burgoyne, and Boydell use the phrase learning company instead of learning organization, but we're essentially talking about the same thing. Notice that their definition points out that being a learning organization is more than just providing training. According to Pedler, Burgoyne, and Boydell, learning companies/organizations facilitate "the learning of all its members," learning occurs "at the whole organization level," and the learning of all organization members causes the organization to "continuously [transform] itself." It's interesting that their definition suggests all individuals learn but the learning affects the entire organization and also that the learning causes the organization to change continuously in response to that learning.
  • "Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles." - Watkins, K.; Marsick, V. Building the Learning Organization: A New Role for Human Resource Developers, Studies in Continuing Education, 14(2): pp 115-29. Watkins and Marsick's definition of a learning organization includes many of the same names: the involvement of employees in a collaborative effort that leads to change (they note the change is directed to shared values or principles).

How Learning Organizations Work[2]

Senge explains that the learning organization framework creates an environment 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.” Adopting this type of culture is not only beneficial to employees but fostering a genuine desire for growth can help significantly improve the bottom line — mainly because an innovative, successful business thrives off the solutions its workforce creates.

But all too often, employees feel their only role is to show up, complete their tasks without having any real say, and go home. When no one gives merit to their ideas or acknowledges their concerns about ineffectual policies, they don’t see a point in sharing them. Companies rarely achieve success without engaged employees asking questions, gaining knowledge, and challenging themselves and their peers. Companies and their employees need to focus on learning to learn: a process that involves pairing different individuals, departments, and management styles together. And while the first two will always have their idiosyncrasies, consolidating management styles catalyzes the transition from traditional corporation to pioneer. Rather than restricting (i.e. following the old way simply because “that’s how it’s always been done”), learning organizations cultivate an atmosphere of open communication and evaluation. Why is that so important? Employees are the most valuable resource of an organization. And helping them realize it leads to a whole new realm of benefits.

Dimensions of a Learning Organization[3]

According to Senge, the learning organization depends upon the mastery of five dimensions:

  • Systems thinking: The notion of treating the organization as a complex system composed of smaller (often complex) systems. This requires an understanding of the whole, as well as the components, not unlike the way a doctor should understand the human body. Some of the key elements here are recognizing the complexity of the organization and having a long-term focus. Senge advocates the use of system maps that show how systems connect.
  • Personal mastery: Senge describes this as a process where an individual strives to enhance his vision and focus his energy, and to be in a constant state of learning.
  • Mental models: "Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action" (Senge 1990). These must be recognized and challenged so as to allow for new ideas and changes.
  • Building shared vision: Shared vision is a powerful motivator. A leader's vision does not necessarily become shared by those below him. The key here is to pass on a picture of the future. To influence using dialogue, commitment, and enthusiasm, rather than to try to dictate. Storytelling is one possible tool that can be used here.
  • Team learning: The state where team members think together to achieve common goals. It builds on shared vision, adding the element of collaboration.

Five Dimensions of Learning Organizations
source: Get Smarter

What Learning Organizations Look Like[4]

So how are these disciplines actually reflected in a learning organization? Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell mirror Senge’s System Thinking discipline, stating that a learning organization (which they call a “learning company”) “is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself (The Learning Company. A Strategy for Sustainable Development, page 1). “Learning of all its members” means that learning organizations must embrace learning at all levels, which means that management and executive-level employees have to embrace learning and foster creative thinking from the corner office to the production floor.

Digital Learning Manager and Leadership Development Associate Tami Zacharias describes three key aspects of a learning organization: 1) Learning Environment, 2) Learning Process & Practices, and 3) Leadership. In a learning organization’s learning environment, she says, “People need to feel safe to express their opinions, take risks, examine failure and challenge dominant ideologies. Differences are appreciated, and there is an openness to new ideas because it disrupts inertia and encourages innovation.”

Learning organizations also have a deep commitment to learning processes and practices. Zacharias says, “They collect all kinds of information from a variety of sources, both internal and external, analyzing and interpreting it to solve problems and identify trends.” Learning organizations also share their knowledge through training using a variety of methods. And they also use assessments to foster continual improvement. “First and foremost,” says Zacharias, “leaders in a learning organization are learners themselves. They set the example for others and facilitate the learning environment, as well as learning processes and practices.” Another aspect of a learning organization is that learning is happening all the time; learning never stops. In an environment with a strong shared vision, employees and executives alike are curious and emboldened to learn what they need to be their best. Learning organizations also learn from their mistakes and actively engage in problem solving to quickly pivot to better solutions.

Principles of a Learning Organization[5]

The first step is to create a timeline to initiate the types of changes necessary to achieve the principles of a learning organization. Timeline: In Order of Appearance

  • Stage One is to create a communications system to facilitate the exchange of information, the basis on which any learning organization is built (Gephart 1996,40). The use of technology has and will continue to alter the workplace by enabling information to flow freely, and to "provide universal access to business and strategic information" (Gephart 1996,41). It is also important in clarifying the more complex concepts into more precise language that is understandable across departments (Kaplan 1996,24).
  • Stage Two is to organize a readiness questionnaire, a tool that assesses the distance between where an organization is and where it would like to be, in terms of the following seven dimensions. "Providing continuous learning, providing strategic leadership, promoting inquiry and dialogue, encouraging collaboration and team learning, creating embedded structures for capturing and sharing learning, empowering people toward a shared vision, and making systems connections" (Gephart 1996,43). The questionnaire is administered to all employees or a sample of them, and is used to develop an assessment profile to design the learning organization initiative (Gephart 1996,43).
  • Stage Three is to commit to developing, maintaining, and facilitating an atmosphere that garners learning.
  • Stage Four is to create a vision of the organization and write a mission statement with the help of all employees (Gephart 1996,44).
  • Stage Five is to use training and awareness programs to develop skills and understanding attitudes that are needed to reach the goals of the mission statement, including the ability to work well with others, become more verbal, and network with people across all departments within the organization (Navran 1993).
  • Stage Six is to "communicate a change in the company's culture by integrating human and technical systems" (Gephart 1996,44).
  • Stage Seven is to initiate the new practices by emphasizing team learning and contributions. As a result, employees will become more interested in self-regulation and management, and be more prepared to meet the challenges of an ever-changing workplace (Gephart 1996,44).
  • Stage Eight is to allow employees to question key business practices and assumptions.
  • Stage Nine is to develop workable expectations for future actions (Navran 1993).
  • Stage Ten is to remember that becoming a learning organization is a long process and that small setbacks should be expected. It is the journey that is the most important thing because it brings everyone together to work as one large team. In addition, it has inherent financial benefits by turning the workplace into a well-run and interesting place to work; a place which truly values its employees.

Examples of Learning Organizations[6]

Becoming and sustaining a true learning organization requires a lot of work and dedication, and it takes time, energy and resources. Many are thwarted in their attempts to become a learning organization by the press of daily work, inability to persevere, lack of support from the top or the unwillingness to fully commit to the idea. Yet, despite these obstacles, there are examples of organizations that have been true learning organizations for many years, if not decades. Their long-term success is testimony to the value of continuous learning. Examples include:

  • General Electric: Its Crotonville learning center drives continuous learning by managers and other leaders, as they return to Crotonville to learn and teach at critical transitions in their careers.
  • Goldman Sachs: Its Pine Street learning center provides essential learning to a large segment of its managerial population on an ongoing basis.
  • Pizza Hut: It constantly invents and implements new technology and by recognizing the lifetime value of their customers, it treats them as long-term assets.
  • Honeywell: By applying Six-Sigma approaches, quality is constantly improved, while costs are simultaneously decreased.
  • Microsoft: It successfully made the massive shift in mindset from desktop to Internet when its marketplace changed.
  • Johnson & Johnson: Driven by its famous credo, it constantly improves products and invents new ones, always with the user at the center of its focus.
  • Apple: It perceives unrecognized marketplace needs and creates new products to fill them.
  • Toyota Motor Co.: It uses lean manufacturing and continuous improvement to make small but never-ending improvements in products and processes.
  • USA Today: It invented and kept reinventing publishing technology to move information colorfully and electronically, as well as to manage distribution.

What is common to all these successful companies is their foundation of solid basic principles and values, as well as their continuous learning to keep them thinking and acting ahead of their competition. They constantly create markets, market approaches, products and greater customer value constantly, and they never squander the market advantage they have worked so hard to acquire by letting their competition think or act ahead of them or faster than they can.

Benefits and Barriers of Learning Organizations[7]

One of the main benefits being a learning organization offers is a competitive advantage. This competitive advantage can be founded on different strategies, which can be acquired by organizational learning. One way of gaining a competitive advantage is strategic flexibility. The continuous inflow of new experience and knowledge keeps the organization dynamic and prepared for change. In an ever-changing institutional environment this can be a key factor for an advantage. Better management of an organizations explorative investments and exploitative acting can be a benefit of a learning organization, too. Next, a competitive advantage of a company can be gained by lower prices and better quality of products. Through organizational learning both cost leadership and differentiation strategies are possible. The ability to reconfigure actions based on needs and environment avoids the tradeoff between the two. Overall the customer performance of learning organizations might be better, which is the direct and measurable channel, that establishes a competitive advantage. Another important aspect is innovation. Innovation and learning are closely related. While encouraging people to learn and develop, a more innovative environment is commonly generated, innovative ideas coming from e.g. communities of practice can result in greater overall organizational learning. Other benefits of a learning organization are:

  • Maintaining levels of innovation and remaining competitive
  • Having the knowledge to better link resources to customer needs
  • Improving quality of outputs at all levels
  • Improving corporate image by becoming more people oriented
  • Increasing the pace of change within the organization
  • Strengthening sense of community in the organization
  • Improving long term decision making
  • Improving knowledge sharing

Even within or without learning organization, problems can stall the process of learning or cause it to regress. Most of them arise from an organization not fully embracing all the necessary facets. Once these problems can be identified, work can begin on improving them.

  • Some organizations find it hard to embrace personal mastery because as a concept it is intangible and the benefits cannot be quantified; personal mastery can even be seen as a threat to the organization. This threat can be real, as Senge points out, that 'to empower people in an unaligned organization can be counterproductive'. In other words, if individuals do not engage with a shared vision, personal mastery could be used to advance their own personal visions. In some organizations a lack of a learning culture can be a barrier to learning. An environment must be created where individuals can share learning without it being devalued and ignored, so more people can benefit from their knowledge and the individuals becomes empowered. A learning organization needs to fully accept the removal of traditional hierarchical structures.
  • Resistance to learning can occur within a learning organization if there is not sufficient buy-in at an individual level. This is often encountered with people who feel threatened by change or believe that they have the most to lose. They are likely to have closed mind sets, and are not willing to engage with mental models. Unless implemented coherently across the organization, learning can be viewed as elitist and restricted to senior levels. In that case, learning will not be viewed as a shared vision. If training and development is compulsory, it can be viewed as a form of control, rather than as personal development. Learning and the pursuit of personal mastery needs to be an individual choice, therefore enforced take-up will not work.
  • In addition, organizational size may become the barrier to internal knowledge sharing. When the number of employees exceeds 150, internal knowledge sharing dramatically decreases because of higher complexity in the formal organizational structure, weaker inter-employee relationships, lower trust, reduced connective efficacy, and less effective communication. As such, as the size of an organizational unit increases, the effectiveness of internal knowledge flows dramatically diminishes and the degree of intra-organizational knowledge sharing decreases.
  • Problems with Senge's vision include a failure to fully appreciate and incorporate the imperatives that animate modern organizations; the relative sophistication of the thinking he requires of managers (and whether many in practice are up to it); and questions regarding his treatment of organizational politics. It is certainly difficult to find real-life examples of learning organizations (Kerka 1995). There has also been a lack of critical analysis of the theoretical framework.
  • Based on their study of attempts to reform the Swiss Postal Service, Matthias Finger and Silvia Bűrgin Brand (1999) provide a useful listing of more important shortcomings of the learning organization concept. They conclude that it is not possible to transform a bureaucratic organization by learning initiatives alone. They believe that by referring to the notion of the learning organization it was possible to make change less threatening and more acceptable to participants. 'However, individual and collective learning, which has undoubtedly taken place, has not really been connected to organizational change and transformation'. Part of the issue, they suggest, has to do with the concept of the learning organization itself. They argue that the concept of the learning organization:
    • Focuses mainly on the cultural dimension and does not adequately take into account the other dimensions of an organization. To transform an organization, it is necessary to attend to structures and the organization of work as well as the culture and processes. 'Focusing exclusively on training activities in order to foster learning... favors this purely cultural bias'.
    • Favors individual and collective learning processes at all levels of the organization, but does not connect them properly to the organization's strategic objectives. Popular models of organizational learning (such as Dixon 1994) assume such a link. It is, therefore, imperative 'that the link between individual and collective learning and the organization's strategic objectives is made'. This shortcoming, Finger and Brand argue, makes a case for some form of measurement of organizational learning – so that it is possible to assess the extent to which such learning contributes or not towards strategic objectives.

See Also


  1. Definitions of Learning Organization Vector Solutions
  2. How Does a Learning Organization Work? Bloomfire
  3. The Five Dimensions of Learning Organizations Knowlege-Management
  4. What does a learning organization look like? Elm
  5. How to Achieve the Principles of a Learning Organization Moyak
  6. Examples of Learning Organizations Chief Learning Officer
  7. Benefits and Barriers of Learning Organizations Wikipedia