What is a Learning Organization?

by Moya K. Mason


Learning organizations are not simply the most fashionable or current management trend, they can provide work environments that are open to creative thought, and embrace the concept that solutions to ongoing work-related problems are available inside each and every one of us. All we must do is tap into the knowledge base, which gives us the "ability to think critically and creatively, the ability to communicate ideas and concepts, and the ability to cooperate with other human beings in the process of inquiry and action (Navran Associates Newsletter 1993).

A learning organization is one that seeks to create its own future; that assumes learning is an ongoing and creative process for its members; and one that develops, adapts, and transforms itself in response to the needs and aspirations of people, both inside and outside itself (Navran Associates Newsletter 1993).

What learning organizations do is set us free. Employees no longer have to be passive players in the equation; they learn to express ideas and challenge themselves to contribute to an improved work environment by participating in a paradigm shift from the traditional authoritarian workplace philosophy to one where the hierarchy is broken down and human potential is heralded. Learning organizations foster an environment wherein people can "create the results they truly desire," and where they can learn to learn together for the betterment of the whole (Rheem 1995,10).

Peter Senge is a leading writer in the area of learning organizations. His seminal works, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization, describe five disciplines that must be mastered when introducing learning into an organization:

  1. Systems Thinking - the ability to see the big picture, and to distinguish patterns instead of conceptualizing change as isolated events. Systems thinking needs the other four disciplines to enable a learning organization to be realized. There must be a paradigm shift - from being unconnected to interconnected to the whole, and from blaming our problems on something external to a realization that how we operate, our actions, can create problems (Senge 1990,10).
  2. Personal Mastery - begins "by becoming committed to lifelong learning," and is the spiritual cornerstone of a learning organization. Personal Mastery involves being more realistic, focusing on becoming the best person possible, and striving for a sense of commitment and excitement in our careers to facilitate the realization of potential (Senge 1990,11).
  3. Mental Models - must be managed because they do prevent new powerful insights and organizational practices from becoming implemented. The process begins with self-reflection; unearthing deeply held belief structures and generalizations, and understanding how they dramatically influence the way we operate in our own lives. Until there is realization and a focus on openness, real change can never take place (Senge 1990,12).
  4. Building Shared Visions - visions cannot be dictated because they always begin with the personal visions of individual employees, who may not agree with the leader's vision. What is needed is a genuine vision that elicits commitment in good times and bad, and has the power to bind an organization together. As Peter Senge contends, "[b]uilding shared vision fosters a commitment to the long term" (Senge 1990,12).
  5. Team Learning - is important because modern organizations operate on the basis of teamwork, which means that organizations cannot learn if team members do not come together and learn. It is a process of developing the ability to create desired results; to have a goal in mind and work together to attain it (Senge 1990,13).

To summarize, a learning organization does away with the mindset that it is only senior management who can and do all the thinking for an entire corporation. Learning organizations challenge all employees to tap into their inner resources and potential, in hopes that they can build their own community based on principles of liberty, humanity, and a collective will to learn.

Why is it for Us? What Steps are Needed to Create a Culture that Supports a Learning Organization?

To compete in this information-saturated environment we are currently living in, it is necessary to remain dynamic, competitive, and to continue to look for ways to improve organizations. As David Garvin of Harvard University writes, "continuous improvement requires a commitment to learning" (Garvin 1994,19). Change is the only constant we should expect in the workplace, and therefore, we must rid ourselves of traditional, hierarchal organizational structures that are often change-averse, or undergo change only as a reaction to external events (Johnson 1993). Learning organizations embrace change and constantly create reference points to precipitate an ever-evolving structure that has a vision of the future built-in. According to Richard Karash, learning organizations are healthier places to work because they:

The very first thing needed to create a learning organization is effective leadership, which is not based on a traditional hierarchy, but rather, is a mix of different people from all levels of the system, who lead in different ways (Senge 1996). Secondly, there must be a realization that we all have inherent power to find solutions to the problems we are faced with, and that we can and will envision a future and forge ahead to create it. As Gephart and associates point out in Learning Organizations Come Alive, "the culture is the glue that holds an organization together;" a learning organization's culture is based on openness and trust, where employees are supported and rewarded for learning and innovating, and one that promotes experimentation, risk taking, and values the well-being of all employees (Gephart 1996,39).

To create a culture and environment that will act as the foundation for a learning organization begins with "a shift of mind - from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world" (Senge 1996,37); seeing ourselves as integral components in the workplace, rather than as separate and unimportant cogs in a wheel. Finally, one of the biggest challenges that must be overcome in any organization is to identify and breakdown the ways people reason defensively. Until then, change can never be anything but a passing phase (Argyris 1991,106). Everyone must learn that the steps they use to define and solve problems can be a source of additional problems for the organization (Argyris 1991,100).

How to Achieve the Principles of a Learning Organization

The first step is to create a timeline to initiate the types of changes necessary to achieve the principles of a learning organization.

Timeline: In Order of Appearance

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Argyris, Chris. May/June 1991. Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 69, No. 3, pp. 99-109.

Garvin, David. Jan. 1994. Building a Learning Organization. Business Credit, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 19-28.

Gephart, Martha A., Victoria J. Marsick, Mark E. Van Buren, and Michelle S. Spiro. Dec. 1996. Learning Organizations Come Alive. Training & Development, Vol. 50, No. 12, pp. 35-45.

Johnson, Kenneth W. 1993. The Learning Organization: What is It? Why Become One? Navran Associates' Newsletter.

Kaplan, Robert S., and David P. Norton. Sept./Oct. 1996. Strategic Planning and the Balanced Scorecard. Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 24, No. 5, pp. 18-24.

Karash, Richard. 1995. Why a Learning Organization?

Navran Associates Newsletter.

Rheem, Helen. Mar./Apr. 1995. The Learning Organization. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 73, No. 2, p. 10.

Senge, Peter. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

Senge, Peter. Dec. 1996. Leading Learning Organizations. Training & Development, Vol. 50, No. 12, pp. 36-4.

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