In the current day and age organizations are operating in an increasingly difficult environment that is characterized by tight competition, ever-changing technology, increasing diversity, and globalization. To respond effectively to continuous change and thrive in dynamic environments, organizations need to be intelligent and adaptive. They need to unite a diverse workforce around a shared vision. They need to access the rich and diverse pool of knowledge that is their employee base. To do this, many businesses have been transforming themselves into what Peter Senge coined as the Learning Organization.
The Learning Organization
Learning Organizations facilitate the learning and development of their members and focus on continuous transformation (e.g., Continuous Process Improvement). Specifically, Senge described the five characteristics of learning organizations as:
- Personal Mastery. Learning Organizations are committed to the process of learning. Rather than simply training new employees and letting them lose on the job, they promote on-the-job learning, personal development, feedback, and reflection. See Giving Effective Feedback and On-the-Job Development
- Systems Thinking. Rather than putting out fires or looking for short term fixes, Learning Organizations focus on the context of organizational processes and how internal systems interact. They understand that problems often have multiple causes and use tools such as causal maps, fishbone diagrams, or root-cause-analyses when addressing issues. See Systems Thinking: Leading in Complex Environments.
- Team Learning. Learning Organizations understand the importance of team dynamics. They promote open dialogue, accountability, collaboration (both within and between teams/departments), and a high amount of information sharing. They encourage teams to be genuine, open, and honest so they can bring their real selves to bear. See Adult Learning Theoryand Conditions for Effective Teams
- Shared Vision. In Learning Organizations the vision is bottom-up (i.e., employees at all levels participate in establishing and promoting the desired vision and culture). Rather than forcing dissenting employees to comply with their vision, these organizations might use dissent as an opportunity to critically examine their vision.
- Challenge their Mental Models. Mental models are simply shared assumptions about why things are done (e.g., Culture). Learning Organizations promote open and honest evaluation, debate, and revision of their mental models. They grow and develop the culture they want by mapping out their assumptions (i.e., why we do what we do; how we make sense of our work; how we take action).
Organizational change is difficult and requires a great deal of time, energy, guidance, and commitment. So while it is beyond the scope of this article to describe how to become a Learning Organization, it is still worth mentioning the outcomes. Organizations that adopt the five characteristics described above can expect the following outcomes (Senge, 1990; Weick & Quinn, 1999):
- Improved organizational performance (across all levels, from employee performance to organizational effectiveness)
- Improved quality of product/service
- Greater innovation
- More responsive to customer needs
- Increased ability to respond to changes in the environment
- Increased employee engagement
- More likely to adopt continuous process improvements
Assess Your Organization
Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino (2008) at Harvard Business Review developed a free and reliable online survey for organizations to assess their performance on the key characteristics of Learning Organizations. To see how your organization measures up, you can take the survey yourself by going to los.hbs.edu (or click here). The survey takes about 15 minutes to complete and once you’re finished, you are immediately provided with your results, a scoring guide, and even normative data. Seriously – take this survey! It is rare to see such a valuable, insightful instrument with normative data for free. They don’t even ask for your email. Promise!
Do you have a learning organization?