What is a Learning Organization?

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Learning Organisation
A learning organisation may be more of a vision than tangible reality for most, but here are some thoughts that might help move your organisation a little closer to that reality.The major imperative is to start by working on your leader’s behaviour and contribution.

Organizational Development
We have all heard the term but what is OD about? Try asking a number of people and don’t be surprised if they come up with a wide range of answers or struggle to clarify or define what organisational development actually is. Before I give you my personal interpretation let’s look at a few definitions:

Defining Organizational Culture
If you want to change or transform an organization then set about defining organizational culture as according to the research you have about a 1 in 3 chance of being successful. Not brilliant odds you might think but you can stack the “Deck” more in your favour by adopting a systems perspective and thinking about how to influence and facilitate the organizational culture to a more future friendly state

The Learning Organization is becoming another business cliché term like change management but scratch the surface and what can it tell us about organisational learning?

A couple of definitions of the learning organisation:

Learning 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 1990)

The Learning organization 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. Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. (Pedler et. al. 1991: 1)

A learning organisation therefore is an organisation whose people are in a continuous search for new and better ways to adapt to change and enhance performance.

Free leadership Double Your Impact as a Leader Video Series Three great free leadership videos plus supporting information to download.

Inherent in a learning organization is an environment that values learning and where inquisitiveness and creativity are a way of organisational life.

There is an optimistic view of change and thinking about new possibilities is the norm.

They are also organizations where a degree of risk taking and experimentation is encouraged and some failure is expected.

See how instructional design. takes account of organisational learning theories here.

More on Peter Senge here

Read about how to evaluate organzational learning here

Benefits of being a Learning Organization

There are many benefits to improving learning capacity and knowledge sharing within an organization. The main benefits are;

• Adapting better than your competitors to external pressures
• Systemising innovation and new ideas
• Having the knowledge to better link resources to customer needs
• Improving quality of outputs at all levels
• Increasing the pace of change within the organization
• Improving company image by becoming more people-orientated

More about leadership and motivation here

Becoming a Learning Organization

According to Peter Senge the 5 dimensions that distinguishes learning from more traditional organisations is the mastery of certain basic disciplines or ‘component technologies’. Are:

Systems thinking

The ability to see the big picture and identify patterns and themes instead of individual events. Senge argues we tend to apply overly simplistic frameworks to complex systems; focusing on the parts instead of the whole. Classically we look to actions that produce improvements in a relatively short time span. However, when viewed in systems terms short-term improvements often involve very significant long-term costs. We may learn from experience but a simplistic short term view may mean we never learn. The argument runs, a better appreciation of systems will lead to more appropriate action.

See how instructional design. takes account of a systems approach to learning here.

Personal mastery.

Organisations only learn when individuals learn but individual learning does not guarantee organisational learning. People with personal mastery are continual learners and are aware of their short comings, development needs and ignorance yet they have the self confidence to be active learners.

Mental models.

This is about understanding that our assumptions and generalisations profoundly influence how we see the world and the decisions and actions we make. The process here is to uncover those assumptions or mental models and test them. It is also about balancing advocacy and inquiry and avoiding non-productive corporate games and politics. It is also about more distributed and local team ownership In other words it is about fostering a mental flexibility and openness.

Building shared vision.

The emphasis is on a “shared vision” which means collaborative development to foster genuine engagement and commitment rather than just compliance. This is the exact opposite of a CEO selling a vision. Visions spread because of a reinforcing process. Increased clarity, enthusiasm and commitment rub off on others in the organization. ‘As people talk, the vision grows clearer. As it gets clearer, enthusiasm for its benefits grow. Shared visioning build commitment for the future.

Team learning.

This is about discussion and team alignment; it is about creating the results that the team desires. It builds on vision and personal mastery but these are not enough. Teams have to learn to work and learn together. It is about team disciplines and the quality of the team’s discussions and insights. When teams learn together, Peter Senge suggests, not only can there be good results for the organization; members will grow more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise.

Check out a video on informal learning in organisations here

More on the learning organisation here

Organizational barriers to learning

Typical as organisations grow and mature they develop more rigid systems and processes and ways of thinking. This has a impact on the organizational learning.When problems arise in the company, the solutions that are proposed often turn out to be only short term

Find out how to get personal development planning working

single loop learning

While all people have the capacity to learn and all organizations are learning organizations to a degree, the structures in which many organisations have to function are often not conducive to reflection and engagement.

Furthermore, people may lack the tools and guiding ideas to make sense of the situations they face.

Personal mastery can be a difficult concept for some leaders and quite remote from the nuts and bolts of the business. It can also be dangerous to empower people if the organisation doesn’t know what it wants to do. In other words, if individuals do not engage with a shared vision, personal mastery could be used to advance their own vision

In some organizations a lack of a pro-learning culture can be a barrier to learning. It is important that an environment is created where individuals can share learning without it being devalued and ignored, so more people can benefit from their knowledge and the individual becomes empowered

Shared knowledge and vision can be undermined by overly hierarchical structures.

Individual barriers to learning

Resistance to learning can occur within a Learning Organization if there is not sufficient buy in at an individual level.

Learning and personal mastery is a question of individual choice and cannot be forced. Change fatigue and cynicism about change are not uncommon in our organizations. Those who feel threatened by change are more likely to have closed mindsets.

Unless implemented coherently across the whole organisation, learning can be viewed as elitist and restricted to more senior levels within the organisation.

If training and development is compulsory, it can be viewed as a form of control, rather than a form of personal development.

A critique of the Learning Organization

While there has been a lot of talk about learning organizations it is very difficult to identify real-life examples. This might be because the vision is ‘too ideal’ or because it isn’t relevant to the requirements and dynamics of organizations

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. ‘Focussing exclusively on training activities in order to foster learning… favours this purely cultural bias’ (ibid.: 146).

Favours individual and collective learning processes at all levels of the organization, but does not connect them properly to the organization’s strategic objectives. Finger and Brand argue this 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.

Remains rather vague. The exact functions of organizational learning need to be more clearly defined. In our view, organizational learning is just a means in order to achieve strategic objectives. But creating a learning organization is also a goal, since the ability permanently and collectively to learn is a necessary precondition for thriving in the future.

You can argue about the practicality of a learning organisation but it does represent something inspirational.

The emphases on building a shared vision, team working, personal mastery and the challenging of assumptions and “sacred cows” does have the potential of allowing workplaces to be more open, aligned engaging and creative.

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