The Learning Organization


The term 'Learning Organization' refers to an organization that constantly monitors its environment for changes, and learns from and adapts to these changes. The term was coined by Harvard's Chris Argyris, but it was Peter Senge, a highly acclaimed business strategist with a PhD in Management,  who popularized the term in his book, "The Fifth Discipline."  Senge defines a 'learning organization' as a dynamical system that is in a state of continuous adaptation and improvement. Learning organizations build feedback loops designed to maximize the effectiveness of their learning processes.


Organizational learning is becoming more and more important in the modern business world where things change rapidly and information get transmitted almost instantaneously. In such a constantly changing environment, only the truly flexible and adaptive companies will excel, i.e., learning from the past is vital to success in the future. 


According to Senge, companies should be a place 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 identified five (5) basic disciplines or components of a learning organization:  1) systems thinking; 2) personal mastery; 3) mental models; 4) shared vision; and 5) team learning. People need structures and systems that are conducive to learning, reflection, and engagement.  The 5 components of the learning organization were conceptualized to help people become active participants in understanding their reality at present and shaping it for the future.


Systems thinking, which is said to be the conceptual cornerstone of Senge's approach, is the discipline that recognizes the interconnection between parts that make up a whole. It acknowledges that organizations are complex systems composed of many inter-related components, and that it is very important to understand how the key components dynamically interact with each other to give life to the system that they comprise.  Managers within the organization must learn to think at the 'systems' level,  giving more importance to the long-term impact of system dynamics instead of the short-term problems encountered in each part of the system.


Personal mastery refers to the discipline of an individual being able to continuously clarify and deepen his personal vision, focus his energies, develop patience, and  openly and honestly see reality as it exists.  Personal learning does not ensure organizational learning, but the latter can not exist without the former.  Individuals must therefore strive to learn and live life from a creative rather then reactive perspective. Having a very clear personal vision of how things should be and a very objective recognition of what the reality is would help the individual determine the gap between his vision and the reality, motivating him to learn in active pursuit of continuous improvement.


Mental Models are, according to Senge, "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action." Mental models represent an individual's ability to compare new ideas with internal images of how the world works. These mental images, if in contrast with new ideas, can prevent the latter from being turned into reality.  It is therefore important for an organization to foster openness among its people while providing them with the right direction in order to prevent mental models from limiting the organization's ability to put new ideas into practice.


Shared vision refers to the ability of a group to form and hold a common picture of a desired future that its members seek to create.  According to Senge, a shared vision is "a vision that many people are truly committed to, because it reflects their own personal vision. Shared vision is vital for learning organizations because it provides the focus and energy for learning."  When there is a genuine commonly-held vision within the organization, people strive to learn and excel, not because they are told to, but because they want to.


Team learning, according to Senge, is "the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire."  Achieving personal mastery and having a shared vision are important to a learning organization, but not enough.  People need to be able to learn together, so they can act together.  Team learning starts with a 'dialogue', or the process of 'thinking together', wherein its members suspend personal assumptions and enter into a state of genuine group awareness and collective thinking.  


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See Also:   Learning OrganizationKnowledge Management;  Game TheoryTQM




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