Learning Organization Update: Safety and Health Pros Must Prepare for Careers as Knowledge Workers

By Birkner, Lawrence R.; Birkner, Ruth K. | Occupational Hazards, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Learning Organization Update: Safety and Health Pros Must Prepare for Careers as Knowledge Workers


Birkner, Lawrence R., Birkner, Ruth K., Occupational Hazards


In 1996, we were first introduced to Peter Senge's Learning Organization concepts in our MBA graduate studies and immediately began sharing them with you in this column that August - just two years ago. It is our belief that the five concepts developed by Senge and others in the early 1990s have the potential to take us to the next level of health and safety performance. They can help create added economic value, competitive advantage and sustainable growth for our respective organizations.

To review, a learning organization is one that seeks to create its own future. The five disciplines within the learning organization model include:

1) Mental models - the personal biases and assumptions we use to make decisions that drive our behavior.

2) Personal mastery - clarifying what is important and striving to see reality more clearly.

3) Shared vision - building a common sense of purpose and commitment by developing shared images of the future we seek to create.

4) Team learning - reflecting on action as a team and transforming collective thinking skills so that the team can develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of individual members' talents; and

5) Systems thinking - the language of interrelationships that shape the behavior of the systems in which we exist.

What distinguishes a learning organization from the more traditional bureaucratic, linear, top-down hierarchy is the application of these five disciplines to the corporate culture.

These concepts are a process, not a quick fix. The five disciplines must be integrated into the fabric of an organization, just as we'd like to see SH&E integrated into the fabric of an organization. Who is using these concepts? Are they just theory, without practical application?

Since 1996, we have given two professional development courses on the topic at the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) conventions in Dallas and Atlanta. More than 75 senior-level industrial hygienists attended these sessions. The primary theme of the 1997 national AIHA convention was applying learning organization concepts in industrial hygiene.

At the Dallas conference, Shawna Sowell, SH&E manager with Texas Instruments, spoke of her experiences with these principles put into practice, with exceptional results. TI has focused on integrating SH&E into the corporate structure and used a systems approach to focus on continuous improvement.

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Learning Organization Update: Safety and Health Pros Must Prepare for Careers as Knowledge Workers
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