The learning organization is a concept describing organizations in which learning and work are integrated in an ongoing and systematic fashion to sustain continuous improvement of the organization at three levels: individuals, work groups or teams, and the organization. A learning organization has the capacity to continuously learn and develop toward a collective vision. Learning is viewed as a strategic process that is embedded in the organization’s system.
The concept of the learning organization has gained an increasing popularity since the early 1990s. There are many reasons explaining why it has attracted so much attention by both organizational scholars and practitioners. The first reason is the ever-changing environment faced by most organizations. Modern organizations operate in a world of growing technology, increased knowledge and skills, and global competition. They must continuously learn in order to survive and grow in this dynamic and competitive environment. Learning organization thus describes an organization that has the capability to develop and renew itself on the basis of learning.
The second reason for the popularity of the concept of the learning organization relates to a changing economy. It has been widely recognized that society has entered into a “knowledge economy” in which the most sustainable competitive advantage for organizations comes from learning-related assets such as innovation and intellectual capital. Organizations previously relied on tangible assets, such as land, machinery, and financial capital, to compete in the marketplace. Although these tangible assets remain necessary resources in a knowledge economy, intangible assets such as innovations and new technologies have become increasingly valuable. Organizations must effectively utilize and develop human resources and make them more valuable than the traditionally valued physical and financial resources. Organizations have realized that acquiring and generating knowledge is a major means of enhancing competitive capability, as important to organizational performance as acquiring physical and financial resources. Meanwhile, many societies have embraced the concept of the learning organization, seeing it as essential in the transformation from a traditional labor-intensive economy to one that is based more on knowledge work.
The third reason that the learning organization has gained popularity has to do with the changing view of organizations. At one time, organizations were viewed as machine-like entities, with few tangible and fixed goals. For example, it was once thought that the ultimate goal for a manufacturer was to maximize profit for the owners by producing quality commodities, with little attention paid to the interests of other stakeholders, including consumers, the local community, and the broader society. In today’s environment, organizations have multiple and even competing goals and interests and are properly viewed as organisms with different life cycles. Organizations with strong learning capabilities are more likely to survive in a fierce competitive environment and to fully develop themselves to meet their missions. Consequently, the concepts of learning and development become a key to better understanding organizations.
Closely related to the concept of learning organization is the notion of organizational learning. Although both of these concepts share the same terminology— learning and organization—they are used for different purposes and thus have different implications. Learning organization normally refers to specific characteristics for an ideal organization, while organizational learning describes the processes or activities that are part of organizational change. Organizational learning occurs in all organizations, and it indicates how individuals, teams, and organizations learn and transform. In a learning organization, there is an enhanced capacity to adapt, learn, and develop. The learning organization is effective in managing, analyzing, developing, and strategically aligning with the goals of improvement and innovation. In addition, these two concepts can also be differentiated by their perspectives of organizations. The learning organization tends to be prescriptive, as it focuses on building an ideal organization with certain characteristics, whereas organizational learning tends to be descriptive. While organizational learning may merely require individuals in an organization to engage in continuous-learning activities, the learning organization demands a conscious effort of the organization to facilitate learning activities and build the capabilities of adaptation and development.
Evolution of the Learning Organization
The concept of the learning organization evolved from the tradition of organizational learning. The latter concept can be traced back to the early 1900s, when modern management theory started to establish its foundation. Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management suggested that learning can be transferred to employees and subsequently improve the efficiency of the organization. Systematic research on organizational learning started as early as 1936, when researchers began studying organizational learning curves. The concept of a learning curve has demonstrated the value of learning for organizations.
In 1978, Chris Argyris, of Harvard University, and Donald Schdn, of MIT, published the seminal Organizational Learning, which marked a new era in this field of study. These authors argued that organizations are not simple collections of individuals. Organizations are best viewed as systems of collective agents. Argyris and Schdn suggested that learning involves the detection and correction of errors. When people face a situation in which something has gone wrong, their common initial reaction is to look for another strategy that can solve the problem. They tend to identify the solution within the governing framework. The problem-solving process can be characterized as discovering the error source, inventing new strategies and problem-solving methods, and generalizing the new approach to other situations. This problem-solving process is called single-loop learning, in which people work within given goals, values, plans, and rules, and their task is to operationalize within a given governing framework rather than challenge or change it. An alternative approach is to question the governing framework, to subject it to critical scrutiny. This approach is described as double-loop learning. Such learning may then change the organization’s existing culture, values, and norms and typically involves a transformative change of employees’ frame of reference for their daily work.
During the early 1980s, studies on organizational learning focused on the types of learning and the behavioral changes resulting from the learning. Various studies were conducted, and models were proposed to explain the outcomes of learning. It was recognized that the outcomes of learning are highly associated with both the content and level of learning. In the mid-1980s, a new concept of lower- and higher-level learning was proposed, similar to the concept of single- and double-loop learning. It was recognized that behavioral change can occur without any cognitive influence. Similarly, employees can gain knowledge without any behavioral changes occurring. Higher-level learning involves the changes of cultures, values, and social norms within the organization. It has been revealed that long-term changes can be brought about only by higher-level or double-loop learning.
The concept of the learning organization really began to flourish in the late 1980s. Peter Senge added to the momentum with a widely read book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, published in 1990. Senge defined the learning organization as one in which individuals’ capacities to create desired results continually expand, new patterns of thinking are nurtured, and people learn together. By applying systems theory to the learning process in organizations, Senge formulated the core disciplines of building a learning organization: (a) team learning: emphasis on the learning activities of the group rather than the development of team process; (2) shared visions: the skill of finding shared “pictures of the future” that foster genuine commitment and enrollment, rather than compliance; (c) mental models: the deeply held internal images of how the world works; (d) personal mastery: the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening personal vision, focusing energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively; and (e) system thinking: the ability to see interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains. The study of the learning organization has since received escalating attention in both business and academic fields.
The dawn of the twenty-first century has marked a new era in the study of the learning organization concept. A number of scientific studies have been conducted to operationalize, measure, and validate the concept; to examine its associations with other important organizational variables; and to incorporate this idea systematically into organizational change and development. Early on, many practitioners in organizations immediately grasped the idea of the learning organization and applied the concept in a pragmatic way. Such applications by and large tended to rely on intuitive approaches that lacked empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness. Over a decade later, a handful of empirical studies have suggested positive relationships between the learning organization and desirable outcomes, including financial performance, innovation, employees’ job satisfaction, motivation to transfer learning, and less likelihood of employee turnover.
The new century also witnessed a significant conceptual advancement in understanding learning in organizations. Learning is no longer viewed as some simple behavioral or cognitive change taking place in isolated domains. The literature on organizational learning and learning organization traditionally covered two distinct streams, cognitive learning and behavioral learning, but paid little attention to the role of affect and emotion in learning. More recent research has given attention to affect and spiritual aspects of learning. This more holistic perspective posits that learning involves three interrelated learning domains—affect, cognitive, and behavior—driven by three distinctive forces—liberty, rationality, and reality. Learning as one kind of human action serves as a function of maintaining equilibrium among these driving forces. A learning organization is a dynamic system that involves different domains of learning and diverse types of knowledge. This perspective views organizations not only as information-processing and decision-making systems but also as social and political entities. Organizations are established on certain values, and they strive for specific visions and aspirations. Holistic theory identifies three key dimensions for organizational knowledge: the critical dimension (as reflected in value and vision), the technical dimension (as indicated by formal system and strategy), and the practical dimension (as embedded in practice and process). It points out that it is more important to facilitate the dynamic interactions among the dimensions to foster a change in isolated domains. A learning organization is capable of integrating different domains of knowledge across the multiple of levels of the individual, the team, and the organization.
Building a Learning Organization
What does an organization have to do to become a learning organization? There are numerous writings on the process and strategies for building one. Research has identified seven distinct features of a learning organization at the individual, team, and organizational levels. These features and their implication are described in the following paragraphs.
First, a learning organization strives to create continuous learning opportunities for all members. Organizations wanting to embrace the learning organization ideals need to structure learning as part of the work so that employees can learn on the job. They also need to provide opportunities for ongoing education and growth. Learning organizations have a culture that values continuous learning and development and encourages people to discuss mistakes openly in order to learn from them. Employees not only help each other but also identify skills and knowledge needed for future work. In addition, the organization supports learning by providing time and rewards for it. Under a strong culture of learning, people view problems in their work as opportunities to learn, instead of as obstacles.
Second, a learning organization promotes inquiry and dialogue and thus creates a culture of questioning, feedback, and experimentation, in which people give open and honest feedback to each other. They listen to others’ views and different perspectives. They are encouraged to ask “why?” regardless of their rank in the organization. A culture of respect and trust is needed to build a learning organization.
Third, a learning organization encourages collaboration and team learning. To build a learning culture, organizations must design work using a team or group structure to access different models of thinking. Teams and groups are expected to learn and work together. A learning culture values and rewards collaboration and uses a team approach to problem solving. Teams and groups can revise their thinking as a result of group discussion or information collection. They also have the freedom to adapt their goals as needed.
Fourth, a learning organization empowers people toward a collective vision. The organization is strongly motivated to create and share a collective vision and to obtain feedback from its members about the gap between the current status and the new vision, and its members are involved in setting, owning, and implementing the common vision. The organization recognizes individuals for taking initiative and supports employees who take calculated risks. Employees have control over resources they need to accomplish their tasks, and they are willing to contribute to the organization’s vision.
Fifth, a learning organization establishes appropriate systems to capture and share learning and gather and share information. To nurture a learning culture, the organization must make the lessons it has learned available to all its members. It creates systems for measuring the gap between current and expected performance and transfers that gap into learning.
Sixth, a learning organization connects well to its internal and external environments. It works with the outside community to meet mutual needs and helps its members scan the environment and use information to adjust work practices. A learning organization encourages people to see the effects of the environment on the entire organization.
Last, a learning organization provides strategic leadership for learning. Leaders model, champion, and support a strong culture of learning. Leadership of the organization uses learning strategically to fulfill its mission.
To summarize, a learning organization has a strong capacity for integrating people and structures in order to move toward continuous learning and development for a shared vision.
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