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Being a Learning Organization, Past and Present

Bob Little 

September 4, 2015

In 1990, Nelson Mandela left gaol, the Berlin Wall came down – and Tim Berners-Lee created the first web server. This remarkable year also saw the publication of Peter Senge’s classic book, “The Fifth Discipline – the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.”

A senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and founding chairman of the Society for Organizational Learning, Senge defines a learning organization as a place “… 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.”

Let’s look at some more of his ideas and consider how well they’ve been adopted, 25 years later.

Senge says that the basic rationale for such organizations is that, in situations of rapid change, only those that are flexible, adaptive and productive will excel. For this to happen, organizations need to “discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels.”

His argument is that turning tacit knowledge (“what we know”) into explicit knowledge (“what everyone knows”) begins with socialization – learning through meeting and interacting with others. It moves to externalization (“where we make known to others the knowledge we have”) and combination (“where we combine the knowledge that others have with the knowledge that we have”) before ending in internalization (“where what starts as ‘information’ becomes useful and is applied”). In effect, this process can be summarized as: knowing how, knowing where, knowing why, and caring why.

Organizational learning is characterized by:

  • A shared vision.
  • A learning culture.
  • An “organizational memory.”
  • Systems thinking.

Senge explains that it’s important to create peer group learning and to have a system – an organizational memory – so that all those in the organization can learn the lessons that each individual is learning. You’ll need an open flow of communication, coaching programs carried out by line managers, and mentoring programs carried out by people other than line managers.

There must also be new processes, including:

  • Experimentation.
  • Learning to learn.
  • The evaluation of learning.
  • Making learning integral to work.
  • Empowering people to learn.
  • Aligning learners’ objectives with the organization’s strategies and objectives.

Values, such as trust and openness, commitment to one another’s learning, and acknowledgement that mistakes are part of the learning process, are important characteristics of a learning organization.

Since these thoughts were first expressed a quarter of a century ago, a great deal has happened in the corporate world. Technology has advanced – and our ability to deliver learning, and learning support, outside the classroom using these new technologies continues to improve.

However, even today, many middle managers have reached their position and status through old-style “control-based” management. The “new” values of the learning organization threaten this management style. After all, Senge says that a learning organization can only be achieved by fostering the ability of everyone to trust everyone else. He advocates establishing “change agents” – perhaps a “director without portfolio,” coaches, mentors and leaders – on the basis that you can manage systems but you have to lead people, even into learning!

International business coach and speaker Hugo Heij, who has senior management experience in both large corporates and small and medium-sized businesses, points out that the last 25 years have seen us move from an “industrial work rate” to a “knowledge work rate.” However, he says, “industrial, control-based management continues to survive. Managers at all levels continue operating the ‘carrot and stick’ approach.

“Yet today’s knowledge workers don’t want to be told. They want to be asked. The learning organization and ‘learning to learn’ is all about asking. When we’re merely told things, we choose either to do or not to do something as a result. When we’re asked questions, we have to think for ourselves.

“Old-style managers have a fear of being found out, so they don’t want their staff to be more knowledgeable or clever than them. At least today’s employees tend to be more verbal and active, rather than merely accepting of the situation as they might have been in the past.

“On the other hand, fast-growing companies, such as Zappos and Innocent, appear to have embraced the learning organization ethos. They give their workers flexibility and opportunities to be creative. This gives them greater opportunities to experiment and, thus, learn.”

Roger Mayo, director of MT&D Learning Solutions, is challenging in his assessment. “During tough times, do you, as MD of a previously successful SME or division of a larger business, maintain the drive to support the learning organization? Do you still provide the sponsorship and leadership for the approach, with its supporting time and budget demands and the values that underpin it? Or do you turn instead – or, possibly, revert – to the practices and competencies that got you to your position of power? And salve your conscience by pledging to return to the learning organization in economically ‘sunnier times?’

“Moreover, if you change your style and abandon the learning organization, can you cope once you’ve attained your one-off cost-saving hit? Can you cope with the slow erosion of trust that’ll seep into the organization’s fabric, the ‘presenteeism,’ the increased workload that’ll spread up the organization, and the raised labor turnover as your best talent heads for the door as they realize their career’s going nowhere fast with you?

“I’ve seen this happen and, just as I believe that those who’re commercially under threat should never give up marketing, so I believe that, once you allow the learning organization to wither, the best talent won’t stay – and your problems will multiply.”

L.P. Hartley began his novel, “The Go-Between,” with the words, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Could it be that, in the corporate world, things aren’t so different – yet?

Which aspect of Senge’s “learning organization” do you find most inspiring or challenging? And what will you change in your organization to ensure “collective aspiration is set free”? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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