«Learning Organization» - Free Essay Paper

Learning Organization

The iconic definition of a learning organization postulated by Peter Senge (1990) identifies it as a working environment “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” (p. 3). The concept emerged against the background of the unprecedented sophistication and spread of the information technology triggering massive changes in all spheres of human life. The global market integration opened vast opportunities for international business advancements, while the politico-economical problems revealed potential growth of a substantial level of risk. These developments in the external environment of modern organizations were accompanied by an aggravating internal deficit of high-quality human resources (Laiken, 2003).

The speed, the frequency, the scale, and the inevitability of strategic organizational change became pressing. The companies were able to meet the challenge only by discarding the adaptive and survival-oriented learning techniques of the past and incorporating the principles of pro-active “generative learning” (Senge, 1990, p. 14). Historically, accumulating knowledge was an essential part of all business processes. However, very few market players decided to start supervising the execution of knowledge management and creating a culture of learning. As a result, bits of valuable information and skills remained scattered, overlooked, and unapplied. To claim the title of a learning organization, companies had to incorporate a coherent system of the learning patterns governing the development and application of knowledge at the individual, team, and corporate level. This approach implied that knowledge accumulation and transfer became part of the long-term business strategy. At the same time, the organizational culture started to involve the continuous human resources development, innovation, and knowledge sharing, which generated a new sustainable competitive advantage (Laiken, 2003). A significant contribution to this culture made Peter Senge with his disciplines.

Learning organizations are endowed with such characteristics as the inherent capacity for growth and cost-efficient evolution, unique self-identification, self-adjustment, memory, and propensity to learn. Within this framework, the learning process is interpreted as the ability to realize beneficial opportunities and overcome challenges in the external and internal environments with the application of synthesized knowledge and experience. It also implies the accumulation and implementation of strategic, i.e., growth- and innovation-oriented, knowledge in the most cost-efficient way (De Geus, 2002).

Senge (1990) emphasized five disciplines that have to be cultivated by traditional organizations aimed at advancing by means of innovation, i.e., “systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning” (p. 15).

The first discipline prioritizes a systemic viewpoint on the organizational governance of strategies, processes, and human resources in the long-run. Traditional companies tended to attribute different priority to their business elements and focus on those parts that generated perceived value or required attention due to failure. The principle of systems thinking requires identifying, understanding and addressing the implicit correlations and interdependency between the organizational parts, which determine the cause-and-effect regularities of strategic interventions and business plans. Managerial teams should take into account that none of the seemingly minor and isolated reforms is truly autonomous. Each shift entails a chain reaction, which has to be predicted and monitored to achieve the desired change effect. For example, even a modest retrenchment of the R&D budget leading to the downsizing in this department may produce a desired short-term cost-efficiency. However, the loss of IT experts to the rival companies and the consequent failure to match the competitor’s speed of innovation supply to the market may lead to the gradual organizational downfall. To keep track of the connected elements and relevant changes, Senge (1990) suggested the application of “systems maps”, i.e., diagrams or graphs that helped to visualize the whole picture of the principal systemic factors and the logic behind their interaction (p. 32). Additionally, Senge (1990) explored eight systemic “archetypes”, i.e., “fixes that fail”, “shifting the burden”, “limits to success”, “drifting goals”, “growth and underinvestment”, “success to the successful”, “escalation” and “tragedy of the commons”, and identified the conventional mistakes plaguing each of these distinctive behavioral patterns (p. 92). He advised that the archetype method should be used to diagnose the underlying reasons for protracted failures and plan recovery interventions that could break the vicious circle of self-destructive practices (Bolam & Deal, 1997, p. 27).

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The second discipline is concerned with individual learning, without which any organizational learning is virtually impossible (Senge, 1990, p. 139). Personal mastery defines a willingness to pursue personal development that meets and exceeds professional requirements for competencies and skills. It implies a commitment to critically assess personal strengths and weaknesses on a continuous basis and unleashing an internal drive for perfection. Companies can motivate their employees to aim for personal mastery by cultivating loyalty, boosting self-esteem, instituting creative competition, empowering, delegating, appealing to human sub-consciousness, and rewarding independence and trust (Senge, 1990, pp. 146-163). The application of this discipline through training and coaching programs produces highly-qualified, reliable, and committed personnel capable of generating and assimilating innovation, empowered to take charge of decision-making, and manage the speed and accuracy of strategic changes. It nurtures leaders that absorb and transmit an organizational mission, vision, and values in the course of interactions with their team members (Laiken, 2003).

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The third discipline implies the modeling the human worldview that might be challenged during the process of change. It features an abstract environment for personal reflection and assessment of events. Non-flexible mental models are a threat to change because they represent the source of reaction and resistance as people tend to maintain their status quo while facing uncertainty. By providing their employees with opportunities to enrich personal skills and competencies, organizations foster the expansion of mental models. This approach creates a marked sense of stability and control within the company regardless of the severity of a change (Senge, 1990, pp. 274-282).

The fourth discipline is connected with securing a mutual understanding of the organizational purpose and values. Building a shared vision facilitates the realisation of the above-mentioned disciplines and turns the employees into loyal allies sharing responsibility for learning, decision-making, and success orientation. An organizational vision should be clear, positive and consistent enough to appeal to different mental models and evoke enthusiasm to pursue common goals (Senge, 1990, p. 227).

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The fifth discipline is best represented in the brainstorming activity, where individuals use dialogue and cooperative thinking to merge their experiences and knowledge and achieve improved efficiency. Team learning is closely connected with constructive communication, conflict management, delegation, collaboration, and learning-oriented competition. Empowered teams share responsibility for their functional contribution to the process of creating innovation. Smooth top-down and bottom-up communication generates a sense of satisfaction, involvement, belongingness, and honored career growth. This approach nurtures visionary leaders capable of addressing the needs of their subordinates while pursuing organizational strategic goals (Senge, 1990, p. 236).

To conclude, traditional businesses should evolve in learning organizations to realize the emerging opportunities and cope with the challenges of the global environment. Companies should strive to develop strategic advantages by pursuing the fundamental disciplines of the systemic theory. By doing so, they can gain the necessary flexibility to cultivate dormant talent to produce innovation. By empowering and educating human recourses, organizations can exceed compliance and secure loyalty, initiative, informed knowledge sharing, as well as an internal desire to develop as professionals and personalities. Organizational learning is the key to establishing and strengthening the culture of transformation and growth.

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