Learning Organization.


Now most organizations have heeded to the fact that in order for them to remain on the leading edge and have competitive advantage over their counterparts, lies in their ability to learn faster and also be smarter. This sudden realization is pegged on the current state of heightened global competition as well as a diminishing potential for organizations to merely maintain comparative advantage by simply investing heavily and aggressively on technology or scale of economies.

From face value, organizational leaders may perceive that delivering their organizations to the idea of learning is basically a mix of articulating the vision well, huge pay days for employees and stock pile of training material and attending round the clock workshops. However such an assumption is not only fundamentally flawed but also a very dangerous path to frustration and misery given the highly competitive market conditions coupled with rapid changes in consumer preferences.

Organizations have to embrace the idea of learning now more than ever to remain a going concern. The concept of “learning organization” is not a new phenomenon and has been around for more than a decade. This concept is also completely different from organizational learning which is simply a three step process i.e. reflecting on current state, conceiving new ideas and acting on the new found knowledge.

The learning organization philosophy was championed and popularized by Peter Senge’s publication The Fifth Discipline in the 1990’s and he basically defined depicted that ’Learning organizations are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspirations are set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together’. Very powerful right?

Absolutely, Senge had envisioned that the impact of his insight would be an organization made up of employees skilled at conceptualizing, obtaining, and conveying knowledge. These people could help their firms cultivate tolerance, foster open discussion, and think holistically and systemically. The result: learning organizations would be able to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than their competitors could.

However, many more definitions on what a learning organization is have been adopted by various scholars such as Mayo and Lank whose version defines ‘A learning organization harnesses the full brainpower, knowledge and experience available to it, in order to evolve continually for the benefit of all its stakeholders’ and also Gaines who simply depicted a learning organization as ‘A lot of people learning’. The takeaway from all these variations is that the depictions move from philosophical to pragmatic and in reality has given rise to multiple difficulties in identification of a learning organization in reality.

From a continuum of the philosophical approach Peter Senge emphasizes the mastery of five aspects:

  1. Personal Mastery- Learning to expand our personal capacity to create the results we most desire, and creating an organizational environment which encourages all its members to develop themselves towards the goals and purposes they choose.
  2. Mental Models-Reflecting upon, continually clarifying and improving our internal pictures of the world, and seeing how they shape our actions and decisions.
  3. Shared Visions- Building a sense of commitment in a group, by developing shared images of the future we seek to create, and the principles and guiding practices by which we hope to get there.
  4. Team Learning-Transforming conversational and collective thinking skills, so that groups of people can reliably develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of the individual member’s talents.
  5. Systems Thinking- A way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems. This discipline helps us see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic world.

The Role of Leadership in a Learning Organization

Basically for a leader to disrupt the status quo and create an enabling environment for a learning organization to thrive he/she must assume the following roles:

  • Leader as a designer- A leader can be likened to a ship designer rather than the captain by assuming the following responsibilities: creating a common vision with shared values, guiding on policy and strategy development and creating an environment to improve the above.
  • Leader as a teacher- A leader is a tutor or coach with mental models in the organization. Therefore they must rise to the occasion see beyond the surface to determine the cause of problems.
    Leader as a steward: A leader needs to understand the calling to serve the organization in building it into a better shape and streamlining operations supersedes the ability and desire to lead.

Critical Success Factors

There is no single over the counter recipe containing an exact mix of factors to guarantee success in becoming the ultimate learning organization. The following factors however feature the prerequisites:

  • An increase in vision and communication of the vision to align individual and organization.
  • Active support and commitment from the top with bottom-up strategy implementation.
  • Ensuring that organizational systems support the desired changes, e.g. reward strategies.
  • Leadership reinforcement of new behaviors through modeling.
  • Devolving responsibility for performance outcomes and careers.

Change Management

According to Micheal Beer ‘Companies need a particular mindset for managing change: one that emphasizes process over specific contents, recognizes organizational change as a unit-by-unit learning process rather than a series of programs, and acknowledges the payoffs that result from persistence over a long period of time as opposed to quick fixes’
The three main elements that give synergy to an organization are: the structure and systems, culture, style and values and skills and resources.
Benefits of being a Learning Organization (using case studies)

  1. 3M’s learning culture has placed it in the top five of the Fortune 500’s most admired companies.
  2. In BT Group, the changed approach to planning, reviewing and learning has allowed savings in terms of time, sales and other costs which amount to several million pounds from an investment of about £200, 000.
  3. President of the Danish hearing aid company Oticon Holdings increased the value of his company ten times in four years by developing a self-driven organization.
  4. Oral-B have halved lead times twice over and achieved repeated unit cost reductions.

Unpredictability is still very much in place contrary to Peter Senge’s expectation as the ideal of learning organizations has not been achieved at a large scale. Nevertheless, it can be noted that for the organizations that have achieved success in applying the learning process are the ones whose leaders and managers spend time investigating the implications of their ratings from an in-depth perspective without simply issuing a harsh or a favorable score on performance. Further it is these leaders who have used this assessment to honestly point out their strength and weaknesses in their leadership and culture.
Ultimately, applying the learning organization philosophy should not be viewed as merely a report card but as diagnostic tool to foster the learning process.

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