Learning Organizations Come Alive

Article excerpt

Here's how to give life to the concept of the learning organization - plus a look inside some actual learning organizations to see how they thrive.

Since the publication of Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline and The Learning Company by Mike Pedler, Tom Burgoyne, and Tom Boydell in the early 1990s, there has been a proliferation of advice on the learning organization.

Almost every day, new approaches and tools appear, promising to help companies become learning organizations. The present level of interest in learning organizations in the United States and worldwide is unparalleled.

For instance, in the 1995 National HRD Executive Survey, conducted by the American Society for Training and Development, 94 percent of respondents said that it is important to build a learning organization. A 1996 survey of almost 200 German companies, conducted by DEKRA Akademie with the Maisberger and Partner consulting firm, found that 90 percent consider themselves to be a learning organization, or in the process of becoming one.

Last year, ASTD began reviewing the state of knowledge and practice regarding learning organizations. To assess and compare current approaches to becoming a learning organization, ASTD's research department developed an assessment tool, The Learning Organization Assessment Framework. (See The Learning Organization Assessment Framework on page 41.)

The framework identifies three levels or orientations of learning: individual, team or group, and organizational. It also identifies organizational systems that facilitate learning. The framework was used to collect data from international experts on the characteristics and behaviors that might be found in a learning organization, for each level of learning and organizational system.

Not all aspects of learning organizations are new; some are things that companies have been doing for years. This article relies particularly on examples from The Global Learning Organization by Michael Marquardt and Angus Reynolds (Irwin, 1994); Sculpting the Learning Organization by Karen E. Watkins and Victoria J. Marsick (Jossey-Bass, 1993); and In Action: Creating the Learning Organization, edited by Watkins and Marsick (ASTD, 1996).

A definition

All organizations learn, but not always for the better. A learning organization is an organization that has an enhanced capacity to learn, adapt, and change. It's an organization in which learning processes are analyzed, monitored, developed, managed, and aligned with improvement and innovation goals. Its vision, strategy, leaders, values, structures, systems, processes, and practices all work to foster people's learning and development and to accelerate systems-level learning. (See the box, The Essence of a Learning Organization.)

Systems-level learning. In any organization, learning occurs at multiple levels: individual, group, and organizational. Although individuals and teams or groups are the agents through which organizational learning occurs, learning organizations focus primarily on systems-level organizational learning.

Systems-level learning is more than the sum of employees' intellectual capital and learning. It occurs when organizations synthesize and then institutionalize people's intellectual capital and learning that are housed in their memories - their cultures, knowledge systems, and routines - and in their core competencies.

Employees may come and go, and leadership may change. But an organization's memories preserve behaviors, norms, values, and "mental maps" over time. As an organization addresses and solves problems of survival, it builds a culture that becomes the repository for lessons learned. And it creates core competencies that represent the collective learning of its employees, past and present. As members of the organization leave and new ones join and are socialized, knowledge and competence are transferred across generations of learning. …