Organizational learning is ever more important in the workplace, especially as more and more renowned leaders of some of the world's top companies begin to recognize that a team of employees who continue to grow can help the entire company continue to grow. That's why starting a "learning organization" off the bat can lead to success.
But what exactly is a learning organization, what's involved in a learning organization and how do you create one?
What is a learning organization?
A learning organization is, simply put, any organization that continues to educate its members to help them achieve personal growth, which, ultimately, leads to organizational growth. It's an organization that helps employees grow by always monitoring the work culture for changes; the leaders of this organization learn from and adapts to these changes to create positive change.
The term "learning organization" was first coined by Harvard's Chris Argyris. But acclaimed business strategist, Pete Senge, who has a PhD in Management, popularized the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline. In the book, he defines a learning organization as a "dynamical system that is in a state of continuous adaptation and improvement." Learning organizations, he goes on, build feedback loops that ave been designed to maximize the overall effectiveness of the learning processes involved.
If you're wondering, what are the characteristics of a learning organization, Senge also describes the five elements of a learning organization.
What are the five elements of a learning organization?
So, what are the five disciplines of a learning organization?
- Systems Thinking
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Shared Vision
- Team Learning
Let's dive into each one in some depth.
1. Systems Thinking
"The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view," Senge writes. "That’s why delays and feedback loops are so important. In the short term, you can often ignore them; they’re inconsequential. They only come back to haunt you in the long term."
Senge encourages the use of "systems maps," which are essentially diagrams that show the fundamental elements of systems and how they each interconnect with one another.
2. Personal Mastery
"Organizations learn only through individuals who learn," Senge writes. "Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs."
He goes on to explain that people with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode.
"They never ‘arrive,'" he says. "Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward.'"
3. Mental Models
Senge writes that mental models are "‘deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action."
He says that mental models require some introspection.
"The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny," he explains in his book. "It also includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others."
4. Shared Vision
A shared vision is important, and this means that an organization needs to have more than just a mere vision statement.
"When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to," Senge writes in his book. "But many leaders have personal visions that never get translated into shared visions that galvanize an organization… What has been lacking is a discipline for translating vision into shared vision — not a ‘cookbook’ but a set of principles and guiding practices. The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance. In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt."
5. Team Learning
Senge writes that team learning refers to "the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire."
He explains in his book that the discipline of team learning starts with dialogue, which he calls "the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together.'"
"[Dialogue] also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning," he goes on.
What are some examples of learning organizations?
Learning organizations are cropping up more and more as leaders understand the importance of collective growth. Here are some examples of learning organizations:
- General Electric
- Goldman Sachs
- Pizza Hut
- Johnson & Johnson
- Toyota Motor Co.
- USA Today
- Southwest Airlines
- Cisco Systems
- Charles Schwab
How do you create a learning organization?
Creating a learning organization can lead to great success. Here are some tips for creating a company culture that boasts Senge's five disciplines.
1. Come up with (and communicate) a shared vision.
For a company to achieve success, everyone needs to be on the same page. Everyone needs to be motivated in working toward the same shared vision. That's why it's important to decide what the common goals are that inspire each member of the company. Of course, individuals within the company will (and hopefully do!) have their own personal goals, as well. But it's critical that each and every person is working toward the same future together.
2. Create an open company culture.
As Senge explains in his book, team learning is important — and it starts with dialogue. A company culture that boasts an open-door policy for questions, concerns, queries, advice, suggestions, etc. is a company culture that promotes team learning. That's because there is dialogue happening amongst everyone in the organization. And when there's such open communication, there's room for the company to work together to build in strengths and work on weaknesses.
3. Offer educational and career advancement services.
Many successful companies offer educational and career advancement services for their employees. It's important that employees continue to work on their own personal growth and keep learning so that they can do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, as well as advance into leadership roles and better train those beneath them. On-site programs and off-hour classes for employees to learn more and further develop their skills can significantly help the entire company move in a forward direction.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.