The learning organization is an idea to which organizations have to evolve in order to be able to respond to the various pressures they face. This type of organization is characterized by recognition that individual and collective learning are key (Smith, 2001). Many of the concepts in organizational learning literature are rooted in metaphors about individual learning thus introducing some conceptual imprecision, tension, and even contradictions into the field, but also enriching it, and making it applicable to a wide range of phenomena (Schulz, 2001). In this paper we will take a closer look at what it means to say that an organization learns, the different levels of learning, how organizational learning is related to individual learning, planning, and organizational change, and finally we will address the the responsibilities leaders have for the learning of the organization and its individuals.
What does it mean to say that an organization learns?
According to Peter Senge (1990) learning organizations are:…organizations 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 (Smith, 2001). A learning organization is an organization – or a network of organizations – that is continually expanding its capacity to create the outcomes to which it aspires (Darling, 2011). Theories of organizational learning attempt to understand the processes which lead to (or prevent) changes in organizational knowledge, as well as the effects of learning and knowledge on behaviors and organizational outcomes (Schulz, 2001).
The concept of an organization that learns is not a new one. It started in the fifties and blossomed in the 1990’s, stimulated by Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline and countless other publications (Garvin, Edmondson et. al, 2008). The idea of a learning organization is that it is made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing them and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment (O’Keeffe 2002).
A learning organization is an adaptive organization. The people in these organizations help their organization cultivate tolerance, foster open discussion, and think holistically and systemically thus making learning organizations able to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than their competitors could (Garvin, Edmondson et. al, 2008). This concept of a learning organization encourages a shift to a more interconnected way of thinking.
What are the different levels of learning?
Several writers draw distinctions between different levels of learning. Peter Senge (1990) differentiates adaptive and generative learning, Argyris and Schön (1978) present the division between single-loop learning, double-loop learning and deutero-learning. Probably the most frequently used model to describe organizational learning levels is the one presented by Argyris and Schön (Cornelius, 2002).
Argyris and Schon (1996) identify three levels of learning, which may be present in the organization; single loop learning, double loop learning and deuterolearning (Frost, 2010). Single-loop learning” is correcting an action to solve or avoid a mistake, while “double-loop learning” is correcting the underlying causes behind the problematic action. Underlying causes may be an organization’s norms and policies, individuals’ motives and assumptions, and informal and ingrained practices that block inquiry on these causes (Talisayon, 2008).
Double-loop learning requires the skills of self-awareness and self-management, and the willingness to candidly inquire into why what went wrong did so, without sliding into defensiveness, blaming others, making excuses, trying to be “nice and positive” to each other, protecting each other’s egos, and other automatic or unconscious patterns of behavior that block honest feedback, inquiry and learning (Talisayon, 2008). Single-loop learning looks at technical or external causes; double-loop learning also looks at cultural, personal or internal causes (Talisayon, 2008). The third level of learning identified by Argrys and Schon is deuterolearning, which is learning about improving the learning system itself. This is composed of structural and behavioral components, which determine how learning takes place. Essentially deuterolearning is “learning how to learn” (Frost, 2010).
In essence, double loop learning and deuterolearning are concerned with the why and how to change an organization while single loop learning is concerned with accepting change without questioning underlying assumptions and core beliefs.
How is organizational learning related to individual learning, planning, and organizational change? Peter Senge (1990) says there are core disciplines in building the learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision, and systems thinking. Personal mastery applies to individual learning, and Senge says that organizations cannot learn until their members begin to learn. Personal Mastery has two components. First, one must define what one is trying to achieve (a goal). Second, one must have a true measure of how close one is to the goal (Larsen, McInerney, et.al, n.d.). Senge refers to the process of continual improvement as ‘generative learning.’ Generative learning, unlike adaptive learning, requires new ways of looking at the world.
Generative learning requires seeing the systems that control events (Larsen, McInerney, et.al, n.d.). Mental models, the second of Senge’s five disciplines for the learning organization is a framework for the cognitive processes of our mind. In other words, it determines how we think and act. It has its roots in the work of Chris Argyris. Argyris says that most people practice defensive reasoning, and because people make up organizations, those organizations also do the same thing. So at the same time the organization is avoiding embarrassment or threat, it is also avoiding learning. Learning only comes from seeing the world the way it really is (Larsen, McInerney, et.al, n.d.). Argyris believes that people can be taught to see the flaws in their mental models (Larsen, McInerney, et.al, n.d.).
The next of the core disciplines as outlined by Senge that relates individual learning, planning, and organizational change to organizational learning is shared vision. Building shared vision begins with the individual (Larsen, McInerney, et.al, n.d.). With shared vision, it no longer matters what leaders think but what thoughts and concepts they share with the team. In other words, shared vision is the point where together we actually harness the horses so that we can get the work done (Fitzgerald, 2003). Senge next discipline is team learning, which is viewed as ‘the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire’ (Smith, 2001 citing Senge 1990: 236). It builds on personal mastery and shared vision – but these are not enough.
People need to be able to act together. When teams learn together, Peter Senge suggests, not only can there be good results for the organization, members will grow more rapidly than could have occurred otherwise (Smith, 2001). “The discipline of team learning starts with ‘dialogue’, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’. To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing if meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually…. [It] also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning” (Smith 2001 citing Senge 1990: 10).
The final discipline that relates to individual learning, planning and organizational change is the cornerstone of the learning organization. Systems thinking is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice (Smith, 2001). Systems theory’s ability to comprehend and address the whole, and to examine the interrelationship between the parts. It is the means used to integrate the disciplines.
It is advantageous for any organization to use ‘systems maps’ diagrams that show the key elements of the systems and how they connect. However, people often have a problem ‘seeing’ systems, and” it takes work to acquire the basic building blocks of systems theory, and to apply them to your organization” (Smith, 2001). On the other hand, failure to understand system dynamics can lead to ‘cycles of blaming and self-defense: the enemy is always out there, and problems are always caused by someone else’ (Smith, 2001 citing Bolam and Deal 1997: 27)
What responsibility does the leader have for the learning of the organization and its individuals? Leaders must be committed to build a culture in their organization that gives people time to reflect, develop and share expertise, and learn from mistakes (Bersin, 2012). Leaders are responsible for developing and maintaining an environment that supports individual and organizational growth. Leadership teams can and do evolve new mindsets. Individuals, teams and entire organizations adapt, grow, and prepare for future challenges. They learn to change what they do and how they do it (McGovern, Palus, et. al., 2009).
According to Daft, “leaders can help ensure a successful change effort by following the eight stage model of planned change-establish a sense of urgency, create a powerful coalition, develop a compelling vision and strategy, communicate the vision, empower employees to act, generate short-term wins, keep up the energy and commitment to tackle bigger problems, and institutionalizing the change in the organizational culture” (Daft, 2008).
One “exciting” approach Daft discusses in change management is appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry engages individuals, teams or the entire organization in creating change by reinforcing positive messages and focusing on learning from success(Daft, 2008). This approach takes a positive affirming position and follows the stages of discovery, dream, design and destiny. This approach is powerful for leading both major and day to day change (Daft, 2008).
Another critical aspect of any change initiative is implementation (Daft, 2008). Leaders must endeavor to understand why people resist change (Daft, 2008). Leaders can use communication and training, participation and involvement, and even coercion to overcome resistance to change (Daft, 2008).
Leaders facilitate creativity and innovation and manage change. Change is inevitable, and the increased pace of change in today’s global environment has presented leaders with greater problems. Many leaders are struggling to help their organizations adapt. “A major factor in the failure of organizations to adapt to changes in the global environment is the lack of effective change leadership. Leaders who can successfully accomplish change typically define themselves as change leaders, describe a vision for the future in vivid terms, and articulate values that promote change and adaptability. Change leaders are courageous, are capable of managing complexity and uncertainty, believe in followers’ capacity to assume responsibility for change, and learn from their own mistakes” (Daft, 2008).
Leaders influence organizational culture and ethical values. The culture is the set of key values, norms, and assumptions that are shared by members of an organization and taught to new members as correct (Daft, 2008). Leaders shape ethical values through values-based leadership. Leaders also have to consider the external environment and the company’s vision and strategy in determining which values are important for the organization (Daft, 2008).
Organizations seeking to adapt during turbulent times cannot force change through purely technical approaches such as restructuring and reengineering. They need a new kind of leadership capability to reframe dilemmas, reinterpret options, and reform operations and to do so continuously (McGovern, Palus, et. al., 2009).
As stated at the beginning of this paper this paper took a closer look at what it means to say that an organization learns, the different levels of learning, how organizational learning is related to individual learning, planning, and organizational change, and finally addressed the responsibilities leaders have for the learning of the organization and its individuals. Throughout this course and this study is has become more apparent in today’s global business environment that it will take a mix of different people in different positions and various styles of leadership to meet the challenges facing us. Change are inevitable and it is becoming ever more pressing that systematic change in all arenas take place. What we used to do is insufficient. It is time to “Change or Perish” (Daft, 2008).
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