Posted by: healingtheworkplace | April 5, 2008

The Learning Organization 101

Shortly after I started writing this blog Virginia Langdon, Executive Director of the Workplace Council,  sent me an email. One of her comments relates to the need for organizations to support continuous learning:

“Being able to support an individual or team when there have been mistakes made and creating time for new learning to take place is crucial in developing a healthy workplace.”

I touched on the need to drive fear out of the workplace in a previous post.

Today I want to focus on the idea of creating learning organizatons as a way  to foster continuous quality improvement and innovation.

In 1990, Peter Senge, popularized the concept of the Learning Organization in his landmark book, The Fifth Disciple: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.

The learning organization, as envisioned by Senge, has the following characteristics:

  • leadership is shared and occurs at many levels in the organization
  • learning occurs when people are able to reflect on their work
  • learning is not always easy especially when assumptions are challenged
  • work is done in and by teams
  • the vision and purpose are consciously shared
  • the organization is a complex, organic system

In the decade following the release of the Fifth Discipline numerous books and articles were written about the learning organization.

The learning organization was also a “hot” topic at conferences and on list-serves (in the days before blogs) and we were optimistic that “things would change”.

But the learning organization was easier to talk about than it was to implement. In 1999 Peter Senge was featured in an article, “Why Organizations Still Aren’t Learning”.

In that article Senge made the distinction between an IDEA and a CAPABILITY.

He pointed out that although we may have an idea about what a learning organization is we don’t necessarily have the capability to create one.

This has been the challenge for the past 17 years.

Fast forward to March 2008 and you’ll find another article about learning organizations. This one is in the Harvard Business Review. The authors, Garvin, Edmondson and Gino share a learning organization tool that you can use.

This tool will help you to determine what you need to do to “foster knowledge sharing, idea development, learning from mistakes (here we go again) and holistic thinking”.

So, here we are 17 years after the launch of the Fifth Discipline– still grappling with “how” to develop the capabilities required to create learning organizations.

The good news…we are still trying…and as the saying goes…Rome wasn’t built in a day!



  1. Very much apprecaited.

    When I thought of learning, I assume, one, it’s personal, second, it’s reading books or taking training classes. Actually, it’s much more than that. Knowledge sharing is another way for learning. The way to make organization to learn is a way bigger scope.

    Thanks for sharing the idea!

  2. It is now January 2012, and we still have this prolem: stress leading to burnout, especially among non-profit human service practicioners in NJ. What am I missing?

    • Hi, I’m not sure about New Jersey but I know from experience that a lot of money has been spent on trying to deal with stress leading to burnout in health care. In British Columbia where I live non-profit organizations tend to be smaller and have fewer staff and even fewer resources. Health care, on the other hand, is a big industry and most workers are unionized so there is some pressure from unions to force organizations to help workers deal with stress. The health care industry is also aware of the negative effect of stress and burnout on the bottom line, e g productivity and finances. You can find out more information from Dr. Pat Fisher.
      Pat Fisher is a psychologist who specializes in trauma, burnout and stress for human service workers, health care workers and others. If I come across anything else on burnout in the non-profit sector I will let you know. Cheers, L

      • Thanx, L. I welcome any feedback on this issue, it is apart of my project due in 2013, not to mention I also a human service worker. Cassandra

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