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What is a learning organization?

December 16, 2019
By Brian Kreissl

Some readers may be familiar with Peter Senge and the concept of the learning organization. Senge popularized the idea in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline.

According to Senge, the learning organization can be facilitated through systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. Systems thinking is about thinking about learning from an organization-wide perspective and having effective information systems in place, while personal mastery is about selecting people with a personal commitment to lifelong learning, the organization and their own performance.

Mental models refer to assumptions and generalizations held by people that need to be identified, understood and questioned where applicable. Shared vision refers to an organizational vision and goals that are shared by everyone, while team learning refers to the need to support learning at the team level.

Without these five elements, Senge argues, it is difficult to establish a true learning organization.


All of this is particularly important given the focus on knowledge work in the modern economy, the ever-increasing rate of technological advancement, rapid social change and the disruption of so many functions, products, services and even entire industries. Organizations need to be nimble and agile in a VUCA world (one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

The idea behind the learning organization is that a company should continually strive to foster learning and development among employees in order to reinvent itself and adapt to changing demands and business requirements. While there is a major focus is on fostering individual learning among employees, proponents of the learning organization also recognize that learning and knowledge can be possessed by teams and at an organizational level.

That organizational knowledge and understanding includes the know-how possessed by employees and information on policies, processes, systems, methodologies and technologies. Yet it also includes an understanding of the “softer” side such as the company’s culture and values, who does what and how to get things done while navigating organizational realities and challenges.

Knowledge management and organizational learning

While people come and go, transfer to other departments and functions and get promoted elsewhere within the organization, it is important to be able to capture, document, access and disseminate organizational knowledge. In many ways, this is similar to the concept of knowledge management, which is really about capturing and leveraging organizational knowledge and understanding where to find important information about the organization.

However, the concepts of organizational learning and the learning organization are generally considered to be broader than knowledge management. For one thing, not every type of learning that happens in organizations involves what we would generally refer to as “knowledge.”

In the learning and development field, we recognize that individual learning happens in one or more of three domains: the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains. Cognitive learning relates to mental or intellectual skills and knowledge, while the affective domain refers to attitudes, opinions and beliefs and the psychomotor domain is about the performance of physical tasks.

It is generally difficult to transfer knowledge to others in the affective or psychomotor domains through documentation (as is the case with knowledge management) or through traditional training programs. It is also difficult to pass on tacit (as opposed to explicit) knowledge through training or simply telling someone what to do.

Action learning and organizational development

Something more is likely required to facilitate learning in an individual, team or organizational context. That is where techniques such as action learning come into play.

Action learning is a technique from organizational development (OD) that promotes learning by solving genuine organizational issues and challenges in teams through facilitated instruction, dialogue and decision-making. While action learning should be based on real-life problems or conundrums, the development of actual solutions is often of secondary importance since learning itself is the more important goal.

OD in general is an important tool to support organizational learning. Aside from concerns relating to organizational structure and design, OD practitioners can help support organizational learning by improving team and organizational effectiveness, leading, managing, championing and overcoming resistance to organizational change, and by facilitating dialogue and problem solving through techniques such as large group facilitation.

In my next post, I will discuss some specific tips and strategies for creating a learning organization. In other words, if you want to implement a learning organization, how would you go about doing it?

Brian Kreissl is a product development manager with Thomson Reuters in Toronto. He looks after HR, payroll, OH&S, records retention and Triform. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or (416) 609-5886. For more information, visit https://store.thomsonreuters.ca/en-ca/home.

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