February 5, 2019 4 min read

What Is a Learning Organization?


AECEngineering & DesignFacilities ManagementIndustrial


InnovationLearning & Development

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In today’s economy, it’s important for organizations to support learning. Without doing so, they risk losing market share or even going out of business due to increased competition or by being disrupted in the way that streaming video services such as Netflix disrupted the brick-and-mortar videotape rental business model of companies like Blockbuster.

While all or most organizations try to learn and use the results of that learning to adapt, some organizations do this better than others. Those at the “good” end of the spectrum, who use learning well, may be known as learning organizations.

In this article, we’ll talk more about learning organization theory, learning organizations, and the characteristics of a learning organization. Once you’ve finished this one up, you might also want to check out our interview with Michelle Ockers on Becoming a Learning Organization.

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What Is a Learning Organization?

Let’s start with three definitions of learning organizations from three influential thinkers:

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.

Peter Senge

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, page 3

Senge’s definition of a learning organization (above) includes places where people “expand their capacity to create,” but also organizations “where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured [and]…collective aspiration is set free,” and “where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” So Senge’s definition involves the learning by people, the conditions at the organization in which people learn, and a hint at learning that allows everyone at work to see a “whole together.” That final point is a reference to systems thinking, which Senge argued is very important and which will come up again.

The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level. A Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself.

Pedler, M.

Burgoyne, J.; and Boydell, T. The Learning Company. A Strategy for Sustainable Development, page 1.

Pedler, Burgoyne, and Boydell use the phrase learning company instead of learning organization, but we’re essentially talking about the same thing. Notice that their definition points out that being a learning organization is more than just providing training. According to Pedler, Burgoyne, and Boydell, learning companies/organizations facilitate “the learning of all its members,” learning occurs “at the whole organization level,” and the learning of all organization members causes the organization to “continuously [transform] itself.” It’s interesting that their definition suggests all individuals learn but the learning affects the entire organization and also that the learning causes the organization to change continuously in response to that learning.

Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles.

Watkins, K.

Marsick, V. Building the Learning Organization: A New Role for Human Resource Developers, Studies in Continuing Education, 14(2): pp 115-29

Watkins and Marsick’s definition of a learning organization includes many of the same names: the involvement of employees in a collaborative effort that leads to change (they note the change is directed to shared values or principles).

What Do Learning Organizations Do?

So if we now have a pretty good idea of what a learning organization is, we might also wonder what exactly do these organizations do to become and continue being learning organizations.

Again, let’s take a look at what some of the experts have to say.

  • Provide continuous learning opportunities.
  • Use learning to reach their goals.
  • Link individual performance with organizational performance.
  • Foster inquiry and dialogue, making it safe for people to share openly and take risks.
  • Embrace creative tension as a source of energy and renewal.
  • Are continuously aware of and interact with their environment.

Kerka S.

The Learning Organization: Myths and Realities

Kerka says learning is continuous; that it’s linked to organizational goals; that it links individual performance to organizational performance; that it creates inquiry and dialogue, which makes it safe for people to share ideas and take risks (watch for more articles on psychological safety here soon; that it embraces creative tensions; and that people within the organization are always aware of and interact with their environment (this seems similar to systems thinking to me).

  • Personal mastery (see how personal mastery, along with autonomy and purpose, are critical to employee motivation)
  • Team learning
  • Shared vision
  • Mental models
  • Systems thinking

Peter Senge

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization

Senge points out the importance of personal mastery as well as team learning; a shared vision (we’ve heard this earlier as well); mental models (read more about mental models here); and systems thinking, which we’ve heard earlier as well. For more about Senge, check out this recording of Senge discussing systems thinking.

Another model of learning organizations comes from Garvin, Edmonson, and Gino and includes three primary sets of characteristics:

  • Supportive learning environment, including psychological safety; an appreciation of differences; an openness to new ideas; and time for reflection
  • Concrete learning practices and processes, including experimentation to develop and test new products; keeping track of trends with competitors, customers, and technology; analysis and interpretation to identify and solve problems; and education and training for new and established employees
  • Leadership that encourages and reinforces learning, including ask questions of and listening to workers; stressing the importance of and spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflection; and considering alternative points of view

Garvin, D.,Edmonson, A., Gino, F.

Is Yours a Learning Organization?

Garvin, Edmonson, and Gino stress psychological safety and an appreciation of different perspectives; creating time for reflection; analysis of trends; and leadership support.

Is Your Work a Learning Organization?

If you’re curious if you currently work at a learning organization, you can ask yourself how closely the definitions and characteristics above match your organization.

To dig a little deeper, you may also want to try this Learning Organization Benchmark Self-Assessment, which is based on the criteria from the Garvin/Edmonson/Gino article Is Yours a Learning Organization?

You might also want to read this article to learn even more about learning organizations.

Conclusion: What Is a Learning Organization?

We hope you enjoyed this introduction to learning organizations and learning organization theory. Let us know what your company is doing to become a learning organization and good luck in your efforts.

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