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ideas ∙ thinkers ∙ practice

the learning organization

Just what constitutes a ‘learning organization is a matter of some debate.
We explore some of the themes that have emerged in the literature and the
contributions of key thinkers like Donald Schon and Peter Senge. Is it
anything more than rhetoric? Can it be realized?

contents: introduction | the learning society and the knowledge economy | the learning organization |
systems theory and the learning organization | dialogue and the learning organization | some problems
and issues | conclusion | further reading and references | links

associated pages: donald schön and the learning society | peter senge and the learning organization |
dialogue | social capital

Many consultants and organizations have recognized the commercial

significance of organizational learning – and the notion of the ‘learning
organization’ has been a central orienting point in this. Writers have sought
to identify templates, or ideal forms, ‘which real organizations could attempt
to emulate’ (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 2). In this sense the learning
organization is an ideal, ‘towards which organizations have to evolve in
order to be able to respond to the various pressures [they face] (Finger and
Brand 1999: 136). It is characterized by a recognition that ‘individual and
collective learning are key’ (op. cit.).

Two important things result from this. First, while there has been a lot of talk
about learning organizations it is very difficult to identify real-life examples.
This might be because the vision is ‘too ideal’ or because it isn’t relevant to
the requirements and dynamics of organizations. Second, the focus on
creating a template and upon the need to present it in a form that is
commercially attractive to the consultants and writers has led to a
significant under-powering of the theoretical framework for the learning
organization. Here there is a distinct contrast with the study of
organizational learning.

Although theorists of learning organizations have often drawn on ideas from

organizational learning, there has been little traffic in the reverse direction.
Moreover, since the central concerns have been somewhat different, the two
literatures have developed along divergent tracks. The literature on
organizational learning has concentrated on the detached collection and
analysis of the processes involved in individual and collective learning inside
organizations; whereas the learning organizations literature has an action
orientation, and is geared toward using specific diagnostic and evaluative
methodological tools which can help to identify, promote and evaluate the
quality of learning processes inside organizations. (Easterby-Smith and
Araujo 1999: 2; see also Tsang 1997).

We could argue that organizational learning is the ‘activity and the process
by which organizations eventually reach th[e] ideal of a learning
organization’ (Finger and Brand 1999: 136).

On this page we examine the path-breaking work of Donald Schon on firms

as learning systems and then go on to explore Peter Senge’s deeply
influential treatment of the learning organization (and it’s focus on systemic
thinking and dialogue). We finish with a brief exploration of the contribution
of social capital to the functioning of organizations.

The learning society and the knowledge economy

The emergence of the idea of the ‘learning organization’ is wrapped up with

notions such as ‘the learning society’. Perhaps the defining contribution here
was made by Donald Schon. He provided a theoretical framework linking the
experience of living in a situation of an increasing change with the need for

The loss of the stable state means that our society and all of its institutions
are in continuous processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable
states that will endure for our own lifetimes.
We must learn to understand, guide, influence and manage these
transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral
to ourselves and to our institutions.

We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able

not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and
requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning
systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own
continuing transformation. (Schon 1973: 28)

One of Schon’s great innovations was to explore the extent to which

companies, social movements and governments were learning systems –
and how those systems could be enhanced. He suggests that the movement
toward learning systems is, of necessity, ‘a groping and inductive process
for which there is no adequate theoretical basis’ (ibid.: 57). The business
firm, Donald Schon argued, was a striking example of a learning system. He
charted how firms moved from being organized around products toward
integration around ‘business systems’ (ibid.: 64). He made the case that
many companies no longer have a stable base in the technologies of
particular products or the systems build around them. Crucially Donald
Schon then went on with Chris Argyris to develop a number of important
concepts with regard to organizational learning. Of particular importance for
later developments was their interest in feedback and single- and double-
loop learning.

Subsequently, we have seen very significant changes in the nature and

organization of production and services. Companies, organizations and
governments have to operate in a global environment that has altered its
character in significant ways.

Productivity and competitiveness are, by and large, a function

of knowledge generation and information processing: firms and
territories are organized in networks of production,
management and distribution; the core economic activities are
global – that is they have the capacity to work as a unit in real
time, or chosen time, on a planetary scale. (Castells 2001: 52)

A failure to attend to the learning of groups and individuals in the

organization spells disaster in this context. As Leadbeater (2000: 70) has
argued, companies need to invest not just in new machinery to make
production more efficient, but in the flow of know-how that will sustain their
business. Organizations need to be good at knowledge generation,
appropriation and exploitation.

The learning organization

It was in this context that Peter Senge (1990) began to explore ‘The art and
practice of the learning organization’. Over 750,000 copies of The Fifth
Discipline (1990) were sold in the decade following its publication – and it is
probably this book that has been the most significant factor in popularising
the notion of the learning organization. However, as Sandra Kerka remarked
in 1995 ‘there is not… a consensus on the definition of a learning
organization’. Indeed, little has changed since. Garvin (2000: 9) recently
observed that a clear definition of the learning organization has proved to
be elusive.

Exhibit 1: Three definitions of a learning organization

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. (Senge 1990: 3)

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 et. al. 1991: 1)

Learning organizations are characterized by total employee

involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted,
collectively accountable change directed towards shared
values or principles. (Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118)
We can see much that is shared in these definitions – and some contrasts. To
start with the last first: some writers (such as Pedler et. al.) appear to
approach learning organizations as something that are initiated and
developed by senior management – they involve a top-down, managerial
imposed, vision (Hughes and Tight 1998: 183). This can be contrasted with
more ‘bottom-up’ or democratic approaches such as that hinted at by
Watkins and Marsick (1992; 1993). Some writers have looked to the learning
company, but most have proceeded on the assumption that any type of
organization can be a learning organization. A further crucial distinction has
been reproduced from the use of theories from organizational learning. This
is the distinction made between technical and social variants (Easterby-
Smith and Araujo 1999: 8). The technical variant has looked to interventions
based on measure such as the ‘learning curve’ (in which historical data on
production costs is plotted against the cumulative output of a particular
product) (op. cit.). There is a tendency in such approaches to focus on
outcomes rather than the processes of learning. The social view of the
learning organization looks to interaction and process – and it is this
orientation that has come to dominate the popular literature.

According to Sandra Kerka (1995) most conceptualizations of the learning

organizations seem to work on the assumption that ‘learning is valuable,
continuous, and most effective when shared and that every experience is an
opportunity to learn’ (Kerka 1995). The following characteristics appear in
some form in the more popular conceptions. Learning organizations:

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 1995)

As Kerka (1995) goes onto comment, the five disciplines that Peter Senge
goes on to identify (personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team
learning and systems thinking) are the keys to achieving this sort of
organization. Here, rather than focus too strongly on the five disciplines
(these can be followed up in our review of Senge and the learning
organization) we want to comment briefly on his use of systemic thinking
and his interest in ‘dialogue’ (and the virtues it exhibits). These two
elements in many respects mark out his contribution.

Systems theory and the learning organization

Systemic thinking is the conceptual cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of

Peter Senge’s approach. It is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing
them into a coherent body of theory and practice (1990: 12). Systems
theory’s ability to comprehend and address the whole, and to examine the
interrelationship between the parts provides, for Peter Senge, both the
incentive and the means to integrate the disciplines. Three things need
noting here. First, systems theory looks to connections and to the whole. In
this respect it allows people to look beyond the immediate context and to
appreciate the impact of their actions upon others (and vice versa). To this
extent it holds the possibility of achieving a more holistic understanding.
Second, while the building blocks of systems theory are relatively simple,
they can build into a rather more sophisticated model than are current in
many organizations. Senge argues that one of the key problems with much
that is written about, and done in the name of management, is that rather
simplistic frameworks are applied to what are complex systems. When we
add these two points together it is possible to move beyond a focus on the
parts, to begin to see the whole, and to appreciate organization as a
dynamic process. Thus, the argument runs, a better appreciation of systems
will lead to more appropriate action. Third, systemic thinking, according to
Senge, allows us to realize the significance of feedback mechanisms in
organizations. He concludes:

The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-

term view. That’s why delays and feedback loops are so
important. In the short term, you can often ignore them;
they’re inconsequential. They only come back to haunt you in
the long term. (Senge1990: 92)
While other writers may lay stress on systems theory, in Senge's hands it
sharpens the model - and does provide some integration of the 'disciplines'
he identifies.

Dialogue and the learning organization

Peter Senge also places an emphasis on dialogue in organizations –

especially with regard to the discipline of team learning. Dialogue (or
conversation) as Gadamer has argued is is a process of two people
understanding each other. As such it is inherently risky and involves
questioning our beliefs and assumptions.

Thus it is a characteristic of every true conversation that each opens himself

to the other person, truly accepts his point of view as worthy of
consideration and gets inside the other to such an extent that he
understands not a particular individual, but what he says. The thing that has
to be grasped is the objective rightness or otherwise of his opinion, so that
they can agree with each other on a subject. (Gadamer 1979: 347)

The concern is not to 'win the argument', but to advance understanding and
human well being. Agreement cannot be imposed, but rests on common
conviction (Habermas 1984: 285-287). As a social relationship it entails
certain virtues and emotions.

It is easy to see why proponents of the learning organization would place a

strong emphasis upon dialogue. As Peter Senge has argued, for example,
team learning entails the capacity of members of a team to suspend
assumptions and enter into a genuine “thinking together”’ (1990: 10).
Dialogue is also necessary to other disciplines e.g. building a shared vision
and developing mental models. However, there are significant risks in
dialogue to the organization. One factor in the appeal of Senge's view of
dialogue (which was based upon the work of David Bohm and associates)
was the promise that it could increase and enrich corporate activity. It could
do this, in part, through the exploration and questioning of ‘inherent,
predetermined purposes and goals’ (Bohm et. al. 1991). There is a clear
parallel here with Argyris and Schön’s work on double-loop learning, but
interestingly one of Bohm's associates has subsequently suggested that
their view was too optimistic: ‘dialogue is very subversive’ (Factor 1994).
Some problems and issues

In our discussion of Senge and the learning organization we point to some

particular problems associated with his conceptualization. These include a
failure to fully appreciate and incorporate the imperatives that animate
modern organizations; the relative sophistication of the thinking he requires
of managers (and whether many in practice they are up to it); and questions
around his treatment of organizational politics. It is certainly difficult to find
real-life examples of learning organizations (Kerka 1995). There has also
been a lack of critical analysis of the theoretical framework.

Based on their study of attempts to reform the Swiss Postal Service,

Matthias Finger and Silvia Bűrgin Brand (1999) provide us with a useful
listing of more important shortcomings of the learning organization concept.
They conclude that it is not possible to transform a bureaucratic
organization by learning initiatives alone. They believe that by referring to
the notion of the learning organization it was possible to make change less
threatening and more acceptable to participants. ‘However, individual and
collective learning which has undoubtedly taken place has not really been
connected to organizational change and transformation’ (ibid.: 146). Part of
the issue, they suggest, is to do with the concept of the learning
organization itself. They argue the following points. The concept of the
learning organization:

Focuses mainly on the cultural dimension, and does not adequately

take into account the other dimensions of an organization. To transform an
organization it is necessary to attend to structures and the organization of
work as well as the culture and processes. ‘Focussing exclusively on training
activities in order to foster learning… favours this purely cultural bias’ (ibid.:

Favours individual and collective learning processes at all levels of

the organization, but does not connect them properly to the organization’s
strategic objectives. Popular models of organizational learning (such as
Dixon 1994) assume such a link. It is, therefore, imperative, ‘that the link
between individual and collective learning and the organization’s strategic
objectives is made’ (ibid.: 147). This shortcoming, Finger and Brand argue,
makes a case for some form of measurement of organizational learning – so
that it is possible to assess the extent to which such learning contributes or
not towards strategic objectives.

Remains rather vague. The exact functions of organizational learning

need to be more clearly defined.

In our view, organizational learning is just a means in order to achieve

strategic objectives. But creating a learning organization is also a goal, since
the ability permanently and collectively to learn is a necessary precondition
for thriving in the new context. Therefore, the capacity of an organization to
learn, that is, to function like a learning organization, needs to be made
more concrete and institutionalized, so that the management of such
learning can be made more effective. (ibid.: 147)

Finally, Finger and Brand conclude, that there is a need to develop ‘a true
management system of an organization’s evolving learning capacity’ (op.
cit.). This, they suggest, can be achieved through defining indicators of
learning (individual and collective) and by connecting them to other


It could be argued that the notion of the learning organization provides

managers and others with a picture of how things could be within an
organization. Along the way, writers like Peter Senge introduce a number of
interesting dimensions that could be personally developmental, and that
could increase organizational effectiveness – especially where the enterprise
is firmly rooted in the ‘knowledge economy. However, as we have seen,
there are a number of shortcomings to the model – it is theoretically
underpowered and there is some question as to whether the vision can be
realized within the sorts of dynamics that exist within and between
organizations in a globalized capitalist economy. It might well be that ‘the
concept is being oversold as a near-universal remedy for a wide variety of
organizational problems’ (Kuchinke 1995 quoted in Kerka 1995).

There have been various attempts by writers to move ‘beyond’ the learning
organization. (The cynics among us might conclude that there is a great
deal of money in it for the writers who can popularise the next ‘big thing’ in
management and organizational development). Thus, we find guides and
texts on ‘the developing organization’ (Gilley and Maybunich 2000), ‘the
accelerating organization (Maira and Scott-Morgan 1996), and ‘the ever-
changing organization’ (Pieters and Young 1999). Peter Senge, with various
associates, has continued to produce workbooks and extensions of his
analysis to particular fields such as schooling (1994; 1999; 2000).

In one of the more interesting developments there has been an attempt to

take the already substantial literature on trust in organizations (Edmondson
and Moingeon 1999: 173) and to link it to developments in thinking around
social capital (especially via the work of political theorists like Robert
Putnam) (see Cohen and Prusak 2001). We could also link this with
discussions within informal education and lifelong learning concerning the
educative power of organizations and groups (and hence the link to
organizational learning) (see the material on association elsewhere on these
pages). Here the argument is that social capital makes an organization more
than a collection of individuals. (Social capital can be seen as consisting of
‘the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual
understanding, and shared values and behaviours that bind the members of
human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible’,
Cohen and Prusak 2001: 4). Social capital draws people into groups.

This kind of connection supports collaboration, commitment, ready access to

knowledge and talent, and coherent organizational behaviour. This
description of social capital suggests appropriate organizational investments
– namely, giving people space and time to connect, demonstrating trust,
effectively communicating aims and beliefs, and offering equitable
opportunities and rewards that invite genuine participation, not mere
presence. (Cohen and Prusak 2001: 4)

In this formulation we can see many of the themes that run through the
approach to the learning organization that writers like Watkins and Marsick
(1993) take. The significant thing about the use of the notion of social
capital is the extent to which it then becomes possible to tap into some
interesting research methodologies and some helpful theoretical

Quite where we go from here is a matter for some debate. It could be that
the notion of the ‘learning organization’ has had its ‘fifteen minutes of
fame’. However, there does seem to be life in the notion yet. It offers an
alternative to a more technicist framework, and holds within it a number of
important possibilities for organizations seeking to sustain themselves and
to grow.

Further reading and references

Easterby-Smith, M., Burgoyne, J. and Araujo, L. (eds.) (1999)

Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.
247 + viii pages. A collection with a good overview and some very
helpful individual papers. The opening section provides reviews and
critiques, the second, a series of evaluations of practice.

Schön, D. A. (1973) Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a
changing society, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 236 pages. A very influential
book (following Schön’s 1970 Reith Lectures) arguing that ‘change’ is a
fundamental feature of modern life and that it is necessary to develop social
systems that can learn and adapt. Schön develops many of the themes that
were to be such a significant part of his collaboration with Chris Argyris and
his exploration of reflective practice.

Senge, P. M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning
organization, London: Random House. 424 + viii pages. A seminal and
highly readable book in which Senge sets out the five ‘competent
technologies’ that build and sustain learning organizations. His emphasis on
systems thinking as the fifth, and cornerstone discipline allows him to
develop a more holistic appreciation of organization (and the lives of people
associated with them).


Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organisational learning: A theory of action

perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organisational learning II: Theory, method

and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Bohm, D., Factor, D. and Garrett, P. (1991) ‘Dialogue – a proposal’, the

informal education archives.
Bolman, L. G. and Deal, T. E. (1997) Reframing Organizations. Artistry,
choice and leadership 2e, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 450 pages.

Castells, M. (2001) ‘Information technology and global capitalism’ in W.

Hutton and A. Giddens (eds.) On the Edge. Living with global capitalism,
London: Vintage.

Cohen, D. and Prusak, L. (2001) In Good Company. How social capital makes
organizations work, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Dixon, N. (1994) The Organizational Learning Cycle. How we can learn

collectively, London: McGraw-Hill.

Easterby-Smith, M. and Araujo, L. ‘Current debates and opportunities’

in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational
Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Edmondson, A. and Moingeon, B. (1999) ‘Learning, trust and

organizational change’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J.
Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning
Organization, London: Sage.

Factor, D. (1994) On Facilitation and Purpose,

Finger, M. and Brand, S. B. (1999) ‘The concept of the “learning

organization” applied to the transformation of the public sector’ in M.
Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational
Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Gadamer, H-G. (1979) Truth and Method, London: Sheed and Ward.

Garvin, D. A. (2000) Learning in Action. A guide to putting the

learning organization to work, Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School

Gilley, J. W. and Maybunich, A. (2000) Beyond the Learning

Organization. Creating a culture of continuous growth and
development through state-of-the-art human resource practices,
Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.
Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1,
Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hayes, R. H., Wheelwright, S. and Clark, K. B. (1988) Dynamic

Manufacturing: Creating the learning organization, New York: Free Press. 429

Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (1998) The myth of the learning society’ in S.

Ranson (ed.) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell.

Kerka, S. (1995) ‘The learning organization: myths and realities’ Eric


Leadbeater, C, (2000) Living on Thin Air, London: Penguin.

Malhotra, Y. (1996) ’Organizational Learning and Learning

Organizations: An Overview’

Maira, A. and Scott-Morgan, P. B. (1996) The Accelerating Organization:

Embracing the human face of change, McGraw-Hill.

Marquandt, M. and Reynolds, A. (1993) The Global Learning Organization,

Irwin Professional Publishing.

Marquardt, M. J. (1996) Building the Learning Organization, New York:


Van Maurik, J. (2001) Writers on Leadership, London: Penguin.

Pedler, M., Burgoyne, J. and Boydell, T. (1991, 1996) The Learning Company.
A strategy for sustainable development, London: McGraw-Hill.

Pieters, G. W. and Young, D. W. (1999) The Ever-Changing Organization:

Creating the capacity for continuous change, learning and improvement, St

Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools
for Building a Learning Organization

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G. and Smith, B. (1999) The
Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning
Organizations, New York: Doubleday/Currency).
Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N. Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J. and Kleiner, A.
(2000) Schools That Learn. A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators,
Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education, New York:

Sugarman, B. (1996) ‘Learning, Working, Managing, Sharing: The New

Paradigm of the "Learning Organization"’, Lesley College,

Sugarman, B. (1996) ‘The learning organization and organizational learning:

New Roles for Workers, Managers, Trainers and Consultants’, Lesley College,

Tsang, E. (1997) ‘Organizational learning and the learning organization: a

dichotomy between descriptive and prescriptive research’, Human
Relations, 50(1): 57-70.

Watkins, K. and Marsick, V. (eds.) (1993) Sculpting the Learning

Organization. Lessons in the art and science of systematic change, San
Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Watkins, K. and Marsick, V. (1992) ‘Building the learning organization: a new

role for human resource developers’, Studies in Continuing Education 14(2):


Analyze an organization’s learning climate – set of tools concerning cultural

aspects of organizational development.

The Business Researcher's Interests: Organizational Learning & Knowledge

Management - Lots of links.

Index of links to learning organization websites: some ideas for getting

started in learning about learning organizations.

Learning Org -- A Discussion of Learning Organizations. Contains current

messages and archives of the Learning-org mailing list.

Learning organization profile – checklist produced by ASTD (American

Society For Training and Development)
The Learning Organizations Homepage: articles on the nature of the learning
organization plus articles and links.

The Learning Organization: journal.

The Learning Organization: Transformational Change: article

Organizational fitness Website

Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations: An Overview Excellent

collection of links and papers @ Brint.comAn overview of key concepts
related to Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations covering
questions such as: What is Organizational Learning? What is a Learning
Organization? What is Adaptive Learning vs. Generative Learning? What's
the Managers' Role in the Learning Organization? What's the Relationship
between Strategy and Organizational Learning? What is the Role of
Information Systems in the Learning Organization? Does Information
Technology Impose Any Constraints on Organizational Learning?

QuaSyLaTic Model / Thinking - Learning Organizations inspired homepage

The Society for Organizational Learning

Stanford Learning Organization Web (SLOW): The Stanford Learning

Organization Web (SLOW) is an informal network of Stanford researchers,
staff, and students along with colleagues and friends from the corporate
world interested in the nature and development of learning organizations.

To cite this page: Smith, M. K. (2001) 'The learning organization', the

encyclopedia of informal education,

organization.htm. Last update:

© Mark K. Smith 2001.

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