Learning organizations are those that encourage adaptative and generative learning where employees are motivated to think outside the box to solve problems. While many definitions of a learning organization exist today, author Peter Senge first popularized the term in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation during the 1990s.
Understanding a learning organization
In the book, Senge defined a learning organization as one “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.”
In an increasingly innovative and transformative world, only those organizations that establish a culture of learning will remain competitive over the long term. This culture of learning is also important in improving relationships between employees from different backgrounds as workplaces become more globalized and culturally inclusive.
Senge’s five disciplines of a learning organization
The following five disciplines of a learning organization provide clues on how this process may be facilitated:
- Systems thinking – or the idea that an organization is comprised of many smaller, interrelated and interconnected parts. Each individual is recognized for their contribution with respect to the overall framework. For example, learning organizations must make the connection between compliance, workplace efficiency, and employee safety. Importantly, a collaborative learning culture must also be established where contradictory opinions are heard, respected, and celebrated as avenues for growth.
- Personal mastery – learning organizations must also recognize the importance of continuous improvement with a focus on acquiring skills useful in real-world scenarios. To achieve mastery of a skill, the employee must display a commitment to personal and organizational goals.
- Mental models – collectively, employees within a learning organization can challenge their beliefs or assumptions using critical thinking and self-reflection. This enables the organization to challenge the limiting beliefs that are hindering its progress. By extension, the organization must also be prepared to implement and test new ways of thinking and be comfortable with risk. This process helps the company learn from its mistakes and improve its processes.
- Knowledge sharing – as is the case in most organizations, collaboration is key. Team members must be aware of learning objectives and desired outcomes and be able to work collaboratively to achieve goals. Knowledge-sharing infrastructure helps each employee benefit from a wider and more holistic pool of skills and expertise.
- Shared vision – Senge also recognized that managers, supervisors, and trainers must be forward-thinking and committed to the learning process. Ideally, leadership should set a good example and display the characteristics of the four disciplines mentioned above. Subordinates should feel empowered to take risks and move toward a shared vision – regardless of the learning medium or approach.
- A learning organization is an organization where adaptative and generative learning is the norm. In these organizations, employees are motivated to think creatively and work collaboratively.
- Learning organizations tend to be more agile to fluctuating market conditions. They also tend to display a more inclusive company culture.
- A learning organization is typically characterized by five disciplines: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, knowledge sharing, and shared vision. Each helps foster continuous learning, improvement, and collaboration.
Connected Organizational Structure Frameworks
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