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Do You Know What Makes an Organization a Learning Organization?

Featured Best Practice on Learning Organization

26-slide PowerPoint presentation
Although organizations invest heavily in Learning and Talent Development, most CEOs complain about the shortage of learned managers and leaders. Research reveals that a number of managers consider employee performance to remain the same if their organization's Learning function is totally [read more]

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In this era of rapid change only organizations that are evolving and continuously learning can succeed.  Successful organizations discover how to tap their people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels.

A Learning Organization is a place where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new ideas and thinking are nurtured, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.  A Learning Organization is established on the principles of innovation, free flow of ideas, and a consistent focus on transforming the ways of doing business.

Learning Organizations adopt 5 distinct practices to succeed, which form the “building blocks” of such organizations:

  • Systematic Problem Solving
  • Experimentation
  • Learning from Experience
  • Learning from Others
  • Knowledge Transfer

Five key characteristics distinguish a Learning Organization from the rest.  These attributes serve as the guiding principles and practices that these organizations study and integrate into their DNA.  A blend of these core characteristics helps organizations adopt a more interconnected way of thinking:

  1. Systems Thinking
  2. Personal Mastery
  3. Mental Models
  4. Shared Vision
  5. Team Learning

By adopting and mastering these core characteristics organizations become communities that employees can commit to.  Let’s, now, discuss the first 3 characteristics in detail.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking allows people to study businesses as bounded objects.  Learning Organizations possess information systems to assess the performance of the organization and its components as a whole.  Systems thinking states that all the characteristics must be present together in an organization for it to be a Learning Organization.  However, some experts consider that the characteristics of a Learning Organization are gradually acquired, rather than developed simultaneously.

Personal Mastery

Personal mastery is an individual’s commitment to learning.  It is about becoming more productive by applying skills to work in the most constructive manner.  It involves clarification of focus, vision, and to interpret reality objectively.  Training, development, and continuous self-improvement are the sources of individual learning.

Mental Models

Mental models include assumptions and generalizations retained by individuals and organizations, which go undetected, as mental models limit peoples’ observations.  Learning Organizations need to identify and challenge these models.  For a learning environment it is important to replace confrontational attitudes with an open culture that promotes inquiry and trust, introduce mechanisms for uncovering and assessing organizational theories of action, and discard any unwanted values.

Role of Leadership

Productivity and competitiveness relies on knowledge generation and processing.  Therefore, organizations not only have to invest in new machinery and systems to improve production, but also focus on knowledge generation and learning of their people.  Learning Organizations require a new view of leadership.  Leaders in Learning Organizations create workplaces that help people keep building their capabilities to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared mental models.

Peter Senge describes the 3 key qualities of leaders to be critical in leading the Learning Organization:

  1. Designer
  2. Steward
  3. Teacher

Designer

The key roles of a leader as a designer in Learning Organizations is designing the policies, strategies, and systems.  The designer also outlines the governing ideas—the purpose, vision, and core values—for the people.  They plan and develop the learning processes whereby people throughout the organization can deal productively with the critical issues they face, and cultivate personal mastery of the team members in the desired learning disciplines.

Steward

According to Peter Senge, the notion of management in this modern age should be replaced by “stewardship”—whereby control and consistency should be swapped with partnership and choice.  The leader as a steward tells ‘purpose stories’ about their organization and relate those stories.  They explain the reasons of the tasks that are required to be performed, the need for the organization to evolve, and the purpose of evolution.  They learn to listen to other people, involve them, and develop vision—both individual and shared.

Interested in learning more about the key attributes of leaders and core characteristics of a Learning Organization?  You can download an editable PowerPoint on Learning Organization Primer here on the Flevy documents marketplace.

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37-slide PowerPoint presentation
Organizational theorists differ in defining a Learning Organization. Some suggest it as an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. Others define organizations as Learning Organizations when they [read more]

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About Mark Bridges

Mark Bridges is a Senior Director of Strategy at Flevy. Flevy is your go-to resource for best practices in business management, covering management topics from Strategic Planning to Operational Excellence to Digital Transformation (view full list here). Learn how the Fortune 100 and global consulting firms do it. Improve the growth and efficiency of your organization by leveraging Flevy's library of best practice methodologies and templates. Prior to Flevy, Mark worked as an Associate at McKinsey & Co. and holds an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn here.

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