Learning Organizations

Simply put, a learning organization is one that is skilled at learning. However, since the concept rose to prominence during the 1990s, the precise nature of the learning and the characteristics of a learning organization have been the source of much debate. Many models have emerged, each describing different combinations of features that typify a learning organization and each assuming that these features lead to improved performance. The models vary in terms of their emphasis on who is learning (e.g., management as opposed to nonmanagement employees, individuals or groups as opposed to the organization as a whole); what is being learned (e.g., knowledge of competitors, new technologies, new job skills); how learning is taking place (e.g., activities for creating, sharing, storing, or applying new knowledge); and which factors influence learning (e.g., organizational structure, processes, culture, leadership).

Integrating the literature produces a more comprehensive definition: A learning organization is expert at generating, acquiring, transferring, and storing knowledge within and between individual, group, and organizational levels and applying new knowledge to change behavior. This concept has had enduring popularity among management communities. An overview of its key features will be provided, as well as a discussion of its criticisms—chiefly, its lack of theoretical coherence and generalizable empirical validation.

Common Features of Learning Organization Models

A review of the literature indicates that many models share a number of features that are proposed to characterize a learning organization:

  • Continual individual development—To utilize the full potential of individuals, the organization encourages all employees to regularly learn through a wide variety of methods, from traditional training courses to experiential work-based activities. Rewards and incentives, as well as resources, are provided to stimulate the development of employees and create a positive learning climate.
  • Teamwork—Teams are seen as a fundamental learning unit, based on the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Within the shared context of the team, individuals interact with each other to integrate information from different angles into a new collective perspective. This can be aided by team development activities.
  • Empowerment of leadership—As opposed to traditional command-and-control modes, the role of management is seen as one of encouragement, facilitation, and direction of learning processes. Through empowerment and participative decision making, frontline employees are much more active in deciding how and what work is done.
  • Systematic approaches to knowledge processing— Learning organizations are analytical and scientific in the way they deal with information and make decisions. For example, Chris Argyris proposes that managers should not only engage in single-loop learning (developing knowledge that helps to meet objectives) but also periodically engage in double-loop (questioning the setting of objectives) and deutero learning (questioning the organization’s fundamental role). Peter Senge advocates the development of systems thinking, whereby management becomes aware of the long-term causes and effects of its decision making. Alternatively, Ikujiro Nonaka describes how important tacit knowledge contained within employees can be turned into explicit, articulated forms to be shared, interpreted, and internalized by the rest of the company. Periodic dialogue and reflections on experience should also be incorporated.
  • Flexible structures—Rigid, bureaucratic organizational structures are thought to inhibit the flow of learning; therefore, flatter, less hierarchical forms with cross-functional links and decentralized decision making are considered preferable.
  • Awareness of the internal and external environment—Constant monitoring of internal processes and outcomes is undertaken through activities such as employee opinion surveys and functional performance reviews. Furthermore, the organization needs to understand major external players such as customers, suppliers, and competitors. Initiatives such as conducting customer focus groups, undertaking benchmarking visits, and forming alliances with partner organizations can help in this respect.
  • Effective internal knowledge-sharing mechanisms—Knowledge flows easily throughout different parts of the organization so that best use can be made of it when needed. This can be enabled by having efficient and comprehensive communication networks, personnel rotation, and boundary-spanning roles. In addition to ensuring horizontal flows of knowledge across different sections of the organization, effective vertical sharing of information between management and employees is also necessary.
  • Strategic alignment—To make the best use of learning for organizational value, learning organizations should ensure that strategies are both internally and externally aligned. External alignment refers to the fit between the overall strategy and current or anticipated market conditions, whereas internal alignment means that functional strategies (e.g., human resource management, marketing, production) are integrated and synergistically combine to help the organization achieve its overarching goals.
  • Change orientation—A key feature of the learning organization is its willingness and ability to put knowledge into practice by modifying its strategy, policies, structure, and functional environment.
  • Shared vision—To provide a sense of purpose and direct the multilevel learning efforts for optimal organizational benefit, a shared vision needs to be built among all members. The role of top management, therefore, is to create a genuine strategic and inspirational vision that will motivate all employees toward a common set of goals.

Issues in Learning Organizations

A learning organization is thought to be expert at generating, acquiring, transferring, storing, and applying knowledge at all levels. Much has been written about this concept, and it is worth contrasting it with the longstanding organizational learning domain from which it emerged. The field of organizational learning studies the processes by which organizations learn and tends to be academically driven, multidisciplinary, analytical, rigorous in methodology, and descriptive (portraying how things are). In contrast, the learning organization field is concerned with the form the organization should take. It is driven by practitioners, based on informal research methods, idealistic, action oriented, and prescriptive (portraying how things should be).

Although its concepts are useful, the learning organization field has been criticized for its lack of conceptual and theoretical coherence, difficulty of applicability, and relative paucity of generalizable empirical research. However, a growing body of research is now systematically developing measures to test the robustness of these models in terms of their construct reliability, validity, and link to organizational performance.

References:

  1. Bapuji, H., & Crossan, M. (2004). From questions to answers: Reviewing organizational learning research. Management Learning, 35, 397-417.
  2. Dierkes, M., Berthoin-Antal, A., Child, C., & Nonaka, I.(Eds.). (2001). Handbook of organizational learning and knowledge. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  3. Friedman, V. J., Lipshitz, R., & Popper, M. (2005). The mystification of organizational learning. Journal of Management Inquiry, 14, 19-30.
  4. Ortenblad, A. (2004). The learning organization: Towards an integrated model. The Learning Organization, 11, 129-144.
  5. Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.

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