Lifestyle Articles for Self-Improvement
The Learning Organization
By Sandra Kerka
At least since the 1990 publication of Senge's The Fifth Discipline,
the concept of the learning organization (LO) has been promoted as a
way to restructure organizations to meet the challenges of the coming
century.What are learning organizations in theory and in practice?Are
they a real solution or the latest in a series of reform fads?The myths
and realities are explored in this publication.
Getting a Grip on the Learning Organization
Of course, there is not yet a consensus on the definition of a learning
organization.Any type of organization can be a learning organization
businesses, educational institutions, nonprofits, community groups.Some
authors agree that LOs start with the assumptions that learning is valuable,
continuous, and most effective when shared and that every experience
is an opportunity to learn.LOs have the following characteristics (Calvert
et al. 1994; Watkins and Marsick 1993):
- They provide continuous learning opportunities.
- They use learning to reach their goals.
- They link individual performance with organizational performance.
- They foster inquiry and dialogue, making it safe for people to share
openly and take risks.
- They embrace creative tension as a source of energy and renewal.
- They are continuously aware of and interact with their environment.
Senge's "five disciplines" are the keys to achieving this
type of organization:personal mastery, mental models, shared vision,
team learning, and systems thinking.According to Senge, the fifth, systems
thinking, is the most important and underlies the rest.
Of course, in a sense "organizations" do not learn, the people
in them do, and individual learning may go on all the time.What is different
about a learning organization is that it promotes a culture of learning,
a community of learners, and it ensures that individual learning enriches
and enhances the organization as a whole.There can be no organizational
learning without individual learning, but individual learning must be
shared and used by the organization (P. West 1994).The familiar litany
of challenges and changes global competition, technological advances,
quality improvement, knowledge work, demographic diversity, changing
social structures is driving organizations to adapt and change."The
ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable
competitive advantage" (Murrell and Walsh 1993, p. 295).
The LO:Is Anybody Out There?
In theory, the learning organization concept is appealing.However,
according to Watkins and Marsick (1993), "everyone is talking about
[it] but few are living it" (p. 3).We "know a lot about learning-organization
theory, but far less about how to apply it" (Calvert et al. 1994,
p. 40).Nevertheless, examples can be found of LO principles in practice
in the workplace and in schools.Johnsonville Foods in Sheboygan, Wisconsin,
appears to have been an LO long before the label was coined.In the early
1980s, the sausage manufacturer implemented several programs based on
the notion of using the business to build great people; that way, the
organization cannot help but succeed (Watkins and Marsick 1993).These
programs included (1) personnel development fund each employee is given
$100 per year for any learning activity; (2) member interaction program
employees (members) spend time "shadowing" other workers to
learn how their jobs and those of others fit into the whole; (3) resource
center; (4) Personal Responsibility in Developing Excellence (PRIDE)
teams investigate quality of work life issues; and (5) company performance
share profit sharing is based on evaluation of individual and team performance
as well as personal growth and development.According to Honold (1991),
profits and productivity are up, absenteeism and turnover down, and morale
Several businesses are mentioned often in the literature as practicing
LO principles (Solomon 1994; Watkins and Marsick 1993), such as Harley-Davidson,
Motorola, Corning, AT&T, and Fed Ex.Ford's Lincoln Continental division
broke product development records, lowered quality defects, and saved
millions.At Chaparral Steel, 80% of the work force is in some form of
educational enhancement at any time.They now produce a ton of steel
in 1.5 employee hours, compared to the national average of 6.
It should be a given that schools are "learning organizations." Duden
(1993) describes how Sullivan elementary school in Tallahassee applied
LO quality principles and a vision statement to transform itself.The
school's core values include the following:individuals are valued, teachers
are professionals, parents are partners, decision making is shared.(These
values apply equally to the workplace by substituting worker, manager,
customer for individual, teacher, parent.)Due to the transformation
at Sullivan, teacher approval ratings are up 20%, test scores remain
high, and parents are more involved.
The LO concept is not confined to established, permanent institutions.Smith
and Stodden (1994) show how it can applied to an ad hoc organization.The
Restructuring through Interdisciplinary Team Effort Project involved
schools in improving outcomes for vocational special needs students.School
teams consisting of regular, special, and vocational teachers; support
staff; parents; and other stakeholders attended a summer institute to
learn how to build a team-driven learning organization in their schools.The
focus was on collaborative procedures "powerful enough to transform
a loosely bound group of interdisciplinary stakeholders into a dynamic
team of learning organizers" (p. 19) who are continually discovering
how to create and improve upon the systems in their schools.
A Blurred Vision
Theoretical support and some real-life examples notwithstanding, some
critics claim this emperor has no clothes.Despite Ford's success with
LO principles (cited earlier), the director Fred Simon "was asked
to take early retirement some say forced out by managers uncomfortable
with the learning organization" (Dumaine 1994, p. 148).Apparently,
the benefits were not explained well enough to top management, who were
unprepared for the initial chaos of building an LO; people were not willing
to discuss problems openly, toppling a pillar of the LO structure.GS
Technologies (ibid.) used Senge's dialogue technique to get labor and
management to listen to each other, but not spreading its use fast enough
through the company caused fear and suspicion among excluded workers.
Jacobs (1995) and W. West (1994) cite a lack of critical analysis of
the theoretical framework of the learning organization.They suggest
that, apart from anecdotes, few studies support the relationship between
individual and organizational learning and there is little discussion
of how the individual benefits.West calls for research that details
conditions under which the concept is successful, types of organizations
that cannot use the model, and what happens when it is imposed on the
unwilling.Kuchinke (1995) thinks "the concept is being oversold
as a near-universal remedy for a wide variety of organizational problems" (p.
307). He states that the primary purpose of most organizations is not
to acquire knowledge/learning but to produce goods and services. He suggests
that LO advocates have not taken advantage of the findings of organizational
On the school front, there is also a gap between myth and reality.Shields
and Newton (1994) analyzed schools participating in the Saskatchewan
School Improvement Program (SSIP) using Senge's five disciplines:(1)
personal mastery SSIP focused on action, not learning, and staff development
activities were few; (2) mental models little discussion of concepts
such as school climate or leadership; (3) shared vision some schools
had a mission statement but goals were not identified and impact on students
was unclear; (4) team learning teachers paid lip service, but were not
team players; and (5) systems thinking there was more compartmentalization, "them
vs. us" attitude. Isaacson and Bamburg (1992) also sized up schools
along the disciplines, concluding that "it is a stinging experience
to read about LOs and realize how few schools and districts fit the definition" (p.
Secretarial support staff in a Canadian university (May 1994) felt their
learning opportunities were restricted and learning efforts undervalued.They
had fewer opportunities, less funding, and limited time off work for
learning.Managers viewed only secretary-related courses as appropriate
professional development.This despite the strategic plan declaring that
the university is dedicated to enabling, developing, and empowering learning
for all.May concludes:"It is a sad paradox that the institutions
most clearly dedicated to helping adult learners to learn are such slow
learners themselves" (p. 47).
Even Senge himself has some discouraging words.Asked by O'Neil (1995)
whether schools are LOs, he answered:"Definitely not" (p.
20).He finds that most teachers are oppressed by trying to conform to
rules, goals, and objectives.Schools are build on the model of passive
ingestion of information, and the educational enterprise is fragmented
and stratified.Although cooperative learning is often advocated for
students, "the idea that teachers and administrators ought to learn
together really hasn't gone too far" (ibid.).
Bridging the Gap
What barriers prevent the learning organization from becoming a reality?"One
of the barriers to the successful creation of generative learning organizations
is the lack of effective leaders" (Murrell and Walsh 1993, p. 295).The
learning organization requires a fundamental rethinking of leadership.Leaders
become designers, teachers, and stewards of the collective vision (Senge
1990).Managers must change the belief that only they can make decisions,
and employees must change the belief that they don't have to think on
the job (Honold 1991).Leadership in an LO is the ability to coach and
teach; it is not exclusive, authoritative, or assumed, but learned and
earned."Effective leadership may emerge anywhere true learning
is taking place" (Gratton 1993, p. 100). Inquiry and dialogue can
be threatening; people are typically not rewarded for asking tough questions
or identifying complex problems (Gratton 1993).Other barriers cited
by Watkins and Marsick (1993) include the inability to recognize and
change existing mental models, learned helplessness, tunnel vision, truncated
learning (incomplete transfer of past learning), individualism, and a
culture of disrespect and fear.They assert that a learning organization
cannot be created in an atmosphere of layoffs, downsizing, "retirement
on the job," and a part-time, overtaxed, temporary work force.
The LO in Sight
It seems that the concept of the learning organization is clear enough
to some to be putting it into practice; to others, it is fuzzy and amorphous
and needs critical attention.However, useful insights can still be drawn
from theory and practice.The learning organization is best thought of
as a journey, not a destination (P. West 1994), a philosophy, not a program
(Solomon 1994).Few would argue that bureaucracy, Taylorism, or passive
learning are the best ways to work and learn in the world today. The
LO has a lot to offer to the reform and restructuring of organizations,
but building one is clearly an enormous task. However, one can begin
with the attitude that learning is "a sustainable resource, not
a limited commodity" (May 1994, p. 53) and work on developing the
mindset of a culture of learning.It must be recognized that the visioning
process is ongoing, not a one-time event (O'Neil 1995).
The learning organization myth or reality?"There is no such thing
as a learning organization. . . .It's a vision that sees the world as
interdependent and changing.A learning organization is always evolving" (Solomon
1994, p. 59)."You never arrive. . . .You can never say `We are
a learning organization'" (Hammond and Wille 1994).
- Calvert, G.; Mobley, S.; and Marshall, L."Grasping the Learning
Organization." Training 48, no. 6 (June 1994):38-43.(ERIC No.
EJ 484 475)
- Duden, N."A Move from Effective to Quality."School Administrator
50, no.6 (June 1993):18-21.(ERIC No. EJ 465 273)
- Dumaine, B."Mr. Learning Organization."Fortune 130, no.
8 (October 17, 1994):147-157.(ERIC No. EJ 490 452)
- Gratton, M."Leadership in the Learning Organization."New
Directions for Community Colleges 21, no. 4 (Winter 1993):93-103.(ERIC
No. EJ 479 918)
- Hammond, V., and Wille, E."The Learning Organization."In
Gower Handbook of Training and Development, 2d ed., edited by J. Prior.Brookfield,
- Honold, L."The Power of Learning at Johnsonville Foods."Training
28, no. 4 (April 1991):55-58.
- Isaacson, N., and Bamburg, J."Can Schools Become Learning Organizations?" Educational
Leadership 50, no. 3 (November 1992):42-44.(ERIC No. EJ 454 329)
- Jacobs, R. L."Impressions about the Learning Organization."Human
Resource Development Quarterly 6, no. 2 (Summer 1995):119-122.
- Kuchinke, K. P."Managing Learning for Performance."Human
Resource Development Quarterly 6, no. 3 (Fall 1995):307-317.
- May, S."BeyondSuper Secretary' Courses."Canadian Journal
of University Continuing Education 20, no. 2 (Fall 1994):45-54.(ERIC
No. EJ 495 823)
- Murrell, P. H., and Walsh, J. P."Leadership Development at Federal
Express Corporation."Human Resource Development Quarterly 4,
no. 3 (Fall 1993): 295-302. (ERIC No. EJ 473 917)
- O'Neil, J."On Schools as Learning Organizations."Educational
Leadership 52, no. 7 (April 1995):20-23.(ERIC No. EJ 502 905)
- Senge, P.The Fifth Discipline.New York:Doubleday, 1990.
- Shields, C., and Newton, E."Empowered Leadership."Journal
of School Leadership 4, no. 2 (March 1994):171-196.(ERIC No. EJ 483
- Smith, G. J., and Stodden, R. A."Restructuring Vocational Special
Needs Education through Interdisciplinary Team Effort."Journal
for Vocational Special Needs Education 16, no. 3 (Spring 1994):16-23.(ERIC
No. EJ 482 768)
- Solomon, C. M."HR Facilitates the Learning Organization Concept." Personnel
Journal 73, no. 11 (November 1994):56-66.
- Watkins, K. E., and Marsick, V. J.Sculpting the Learning Organization.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
- West, P."The Learning Organization:Losing the Luggage in Transit?" Journal
of European Industrial Training 18, no. 11 (1994):30-38.(ERIC No.
EJ 497 198)
- West, W."Learning Organizations:A Critical Review."In
Proceedings of the Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference, edited
by L. Martin.Madison:University of Wisconsin, 1994.(ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 378 359)
Developed with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement,
U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RR93002001.ERIC Clearinghouse
on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education http://ericacve.org.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position or policies
of OERI or the Department.
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