How to become a learning organization

Milton Jack / Posted On: 23 February 2020 / Updated On: 28 September 2022 / Organisational Development / 927

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How to become a learning organization

The million-dollar question that comes to mind of most 21st century individuals in the business world is, why do organizations need to learn? Often one hears the term learning organization a lot these days and this leads one to wonder what exactly a learning organization is and how an organization does learn. In the quest to demystify this organizational trend one gets to see that learning organization is a metaphor. “The concept of the learning organization has metaphorical status because it is embedded in the multiple narratives of organizations in all their complexity, though it becomes taken for granted, reified, and treated as though it always existed” (Stewart, 2001). Thus the acknowledgement of this metaphorical status will help an individual in understanding how organizations are capable of “learning”, and having human qualities and characteristics. Learning organization is defined as being “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge, and at purposefully modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights” (Garvin, 2000).

The conceptual background of a learning organization

The leading proponent for learning organization was Peter Senge in 1990 who published a widely acclaimed book called The fifth discipline. The art & practice of the learning organization. This publication became such a powerful source of inspiration for the global business community and academia.

Senge considers the learning organization a social invention, similar to any engineering inventions. While an engineering invention is composed of tangible elements called technologies, a social invention is composed of intangible elements called disciplines. Discipline is essential “a body of theory and technique that must be studied and mastered to be put into practice. Discipline is a developmental path for acquiring certain skills or competencies. To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner” (Senge, 1999). These disciplines will not create necessarily the learning organization, but they will create the convergence of all the needed efforts the company to develop as a learning organization. In Senge’s view the five disciplines that contribute to the creation of the learning organization are the following: 1) personal mastery; 2) mental models; 3) shared vision; 4) team learning, and 5) systems thinking.

Personal mastery stimulates personal motivation for never stop learning and improving the professional competences (Bratianu, 2018). Mental models focus on the opportunity to see the world in a more complex and adequate way than the simple descriptions learned from schools. Shared vision means to focus on the team and organization future and to harmonize personal interests with that of the organization. Creating a shared vision means to have a commitment to the common future (Bratianu, 2018). Team learning means to look beyond the individual perspective of learning and to share the acquired knowledge with others. Finally, the systems thinking integrates all the other four disciplines and creates the framework for the learning organization. It stimulates the synergy of learning integration, underlying the fact that in nonlinear systems the final result is larger than the sum of all the component parts (Bratianu, 2018). 

Senge emphasizes that at the heart of the learning organization is a shift of mind of all employees, especially of all managers. “A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it” (Senge, 1999). The essence of becoming a learning organization is that quest for cognitive, emotional and spiritual learning able to produce that shift of mind or metanoia (meta – above or beyond, and noia – related to mind in Greek). It is the capacity of seeing the forest beyond the trees, like a new reality with new features we couldn’t see at the individual level. For Senge (1999), the learning organization is essential “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future. For such an organization it is not enough merely to survive. ‘Surviving learning’ or what is more often termed ‘adaptive learning’ is important – indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organization, ‘adaptive learning’ must be joined by ‘generative learning,’ learning that enhances our capacity to create”.

Adaptive learning is based on a process of extrapolation of the present into the future by small changes designed on a short-term perspective and predictable results (Bratianu, 2018). Generative learning is based on the exploration of the future and designing complex changes based on a long-term perspective and less anticipated results (Bratianu, 2018). Generative learning is able to overcome inertial forces and to create probable futures that enhance the company’s chances for achieving a competitive advantage. Generative learning is based on entropic, nonlinear, probabilistic and creative thinking models (Bratianu, 2007; Bratianu & Murakawa, 2004). The driving force of adaptive learning is the willingness to improve continuously in small and controllable steps of organizational change. However, nobody can guarantee that small changes built up into a large change in the right direction. The driving force for generative learning is the leadership vision of some better probable futures (Bratianu, 2018). In this case, the direction of change is first defined and only then changes are implemented. “Generative learning cannot be sustained in an organization where event thinking predominates. It requires a conceptual framework of ‘structural’ or systemic thinking, the ability to discover structural causes of behavior” (Senge, 1999).

The difference between the two paradigms of learning can be illustrated by the parable of the boiled frog (Senge, 1999). If one places a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to jump out. But, if put the frog in the pot containing water at room temperature, the frog will show no intention to jump out. If the pot is on a stove and one turns on the heating, and then increases gradually the temperature the frog will adapt to the new temperature of the water without any effort. When the temperature is at the saturation level, water begins to boil and the frog will be boiled. This paradoxical behavior is due to the fact that the frog’s system for sensing threats to survival is based on sudden changes in his environment, not to slow and gradual changes (Bratianu, 2018).

The learning organization is based on complex and nonlinear phenomena. That creates real problems for the decision-makers whose thinking models are based on linear and simple cause-effect relationships (Bratianu, 2018). Organizations, like living systems, can be understood as wholes with integrity. As Senge (1999) argues metaphorically, “Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants”. Unfortunately, many people cannot understand that issue and try to simplify problems by dividing them into parts. In this way, they are losing the interactions between the parts that create integrity and produce the synergy effect (Bratianu, 2018). Essentially, systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes, and within these wholes to see the interrelationships rather than things. System thinking operates with patterns of change and not with snapshots at a given moment. In conclusion of this line of argumentation, Senge (1999) states: “I call system thinking the fifth discipline because it is the conceptual cornerstone that underlines all of the five learning disciplines of this book. All are concerned with a shift of mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future”.


How to assess if an organization is a learning organization

In 2008 Garvin, Edmondson and Gino developed an assessment tool for learning organizations able to measure the depth of organizational learning. The authors suggest that there are three building blocks of the learning organization: 1) a supportive learning environment, 2) concrete learning processes and practices, and 3) leadership that reinforce learning.

Building block 1: A supportive learning environment. Such a supportive and stimulating environment should have four main characteristics. The first, and maybe the most important is to exist climate of psychological safety. Employees will assume their mistakes and will learn from them only if there is a culture to encourage them to do so. Also, employees should feel no threats when expressing their views that oppose the official ones (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino, 2008). Fear of punishment for having different views and for producing errors develops the double thinking standard, a situation well-known from the former socialist countries. Employees must feel comfortable in expressing their thoughts and feelings about any problem, even if they are divergent with those of the other employees (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino, 2008). That is related to the second characteristic of such an environment that is the appreciation of differences. Learning occurs when people become aware of opposing ideas and views about the same reality. Openness to new ideas is the third main characteristic of a supportive learning environment. That means also the opportunity of crafting new novel approaches in solving problems. Time for reflection is the fourth characteristic. Reflection is important to ponder different solutions and to look deeper into the essence of each problem (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino, 2008). Thus, a supportive learning environment should provide for people time for reflection by avoiding pressing deadlines and dense working times. 

Building block 2: Concrete learning processes and practices. These processes include “experimentation to develop and test new products and services; intelligence gathering to keep track of competitive, customer, and technological trends; disciplined analysis and interpretation to identify and solve problems; and education and training to develop both new and established employees” (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino, 2008). All of these activities involve knowledge sharing among individuals, groups, or whole organizations. We add that knowledge sharing should consider all fields of knowledge (i.e. cognitive, emotional, and spiritual) since learning is not an exclusive cognitive process. Also, it is important to develop intergenerational learning as a means of increasing knowledge retention in an organization.

Building block 3: Leadership that reinforces learning. Leaders should encourage organizational learning through all their thinking, decision making, and personal behavior. Leaders are responsible for creating and sustaining a supportive learning environment and stimulating concrete learning processes and practices (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino, 2008). Employees will look up to their leaders to see that their behavior is concordant with their expressed views, and they will open their minds only if the leaders encourage and support a psychological safety working climate. Leaders should be able to stimulate learning about learning, since “The ability to learn about learning and develop the learning process is the critical issue of the twenty-first century” (Garratt, 2001).


Why is it important for an organization to be a learning organization?

The importance of being a learning organization is shown by the various benefits that occur in organizations that develop a learning culture. Some of the benefits that can be experienced include the following:

  • Increased employee job satisfaction
  • Lower turnover rates
  • Increased productivity, profits, and efficiency
  • Developing leaders at all levels
  • Enhanced adaptability throughout the organization

We become more successful as companies commit time and energy to create a learning culture and incorporating organizational learning. This increased ability to react quickly to rapidly changing market conditions is only one of the reasons why a learning organization is significant. The organization that accepts the lessons learned from failure and reviews its own processes will be a company that has more understanding of best practices and will be able to adapt much more. By creating an environment in which all employees are teachers and students, there is an equitable exchange of information that helps each person to make a significant contribution.


Milton Jack is a Business Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a business management and human resources consulting firm.


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