Organizations with the best chance to succeed and thrive in the future are learning organizations. In his landmark book, "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization," Peter Senge defined the learning organization.
He said they were “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 how to learn together.”
Senge frames your understanding of the learning organization with an ensemble of disciplines which he believes must converge to form a learning organization. Each of these dimensions is briefly described so that we share a basic understanding of the components that create a learning organization.
Dimensions of a Learning Organization
The main focus, however, is to suggest some ways in which you can promote a learning organization environment in your organization. These ideas will help you get started; true transformation takes time, commitment, and resources.
The underlying structure and the interlinking components of each of our work systems, shape a great deal of the behavior of the individuals who work inside of the work system. Yes, they also make choices, but even the options for choices are largely formed by the system.
Think about Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s admonition. When something goes wrong, rather than seeking someone to blame, ask, what about the work system caused that individual to fail?
States Senge, “Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.”
He offers that an organization’s learning can only be as great as that of each of its individual members. Consequently, personal mastery and the desire for continuous learning integrated deeply into the belief system of each person is critical for competitive advantage in the future.
These are the deeply held pictures each of us holds in our minds about how the world, work, our families, and so on—work. Mental models influence our vision of how things happen at work, why things happen at work, and what we are able to do about them.
Building Shared Vision
By shared vision, Senge is referring to a process in which the original vision for an organization, probably determined by the leader, is translated into shared pictures around which the rest of the organization finds meaning, direction, and reasons for existing.
Senge finds that “teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. It is the dialogue among the members of the team which results in stretching the ability of the organization to grow and develop.
Begin With the Role of the Leaders
While everyone in the organization must help create the learning organization, you will want to begin with the behavior and contribution of your leaders. Your leaders make four critical contributions to the development of a learning organization. They must take responsibility to accomplish these.
- Leaders provide the initial vision of why your organization exists and where you are going.
- They communicate this vision. They clearly communicate their belief that continuous growth, learning, and improvement will ensure the accomplishment of the vision.
- They build consensus and ownership around this vision and are influenced by the views of others in the organization. They are willing to use the ideas of employees as they flesh out the vision for the organization.
- They model the actions they want to develop in others. When leaders walk their talk, employees are more likely to take the plans seriously.
Their expectations are verbal, but most importantly, actions that others can see. Leaders who want a learning organization continually learn themselves. They read books and articles and share the content with the rest of the organization. They attend training sessions and conferences.
They foster an environment in which people are empowered to make decisions about their work. They make intelligent risk-taking the norm. They assure that all information people need to make good decisions are communicated. They promote an organizational environment that supports learning and personal mastery.