Building A Learning Organisation

A learning organisation is an organisation that learns and encourages learning among its people. It promotes exchange of information between employees, hence creating a more knowledgeable workforce. This produces a very flexible organisation where people will accept and adapt to new ideas and change through shared vision.It is said that the only constant in life is change and organisations are not spared. Change brings about not only uncertainty and risks but also opportunities for growth. Those organisations that can manipulate the information available have a bigger chance to succeed. It is therefore important for everyone to be more knowledgeable about the work environment they are in. Building a learning organisation is a means to a business goal. It is not a new theory but a concept that has become an increasingly widespread philosophy in modern companies, from the largest multinationals to the smallest enterprises. It is to be applied according to the circumstances of each business, which has to cater for it at strategic and operational levels.

‘Systems Thinking’ takes a holistic approach to learning whereby not only does the organisation learn but so do all its employees, irrespective of their role within the organisation. Information has to be disseminated to all levels and does not stop at top management, thus, facilitating learning through flexibility and open communication by removing barriers to communication and adopting flatter organisational structure and design.

Therefore the message is clear: any organisation that is committed to future success must become a learning organisation in order to compete and survive. Today continuous improvement is a must. “Any organisation is only as good as its people and continuous improvement in business is about the development of people and therefore creating a learning culture.” (Sheppard)

Systems Thinking

The idea behind the concept coined ‘Systems Thinking’ in the 1950’s was that enterprises need to be aware of both the company as a whole as well as the individuals within the company – taking a holistic approach to managing. Gould-Kreutzer Associates Inc. defined it as “a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things; to see the forest and the trees.” System Thinking therefore tries to change the managerial view so that it includes the ambitions of the individual workers, not just the business goals.

However, it was only during the 1990’s that this concept started to be taken seriously by organisations. Systems Thinking nowadays is synonymous with Peter Senge, one of the modern day gurus, who in his book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organisation” popularised the concept of the learning organisation, and referred to ‘Systems Thinking’ as the Fifth Discipline. Since its publication in 1990, more than a million copies of this book have been sold and in 1997, Harvard Business Review identified his book as one of the seminal management books of the past 75 years.

According to Senge, learning organisations are “organisations 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 posits that the dimension that distinguishes learning from more traditional organisations is the mastery of certain basic disciplines, which he regards as a series of principles and practices that we study, master and integrate into our lives. The five disciplines that he identifies are said to be common to all learning organisations.

They are:

1. PERSONAL MASTERY. This is the discipline of ‘continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode, continually clarifying and deepening their personal vision. This takes place by assessing the gap between their current knowledge and the desired knowledge, and by practising and refining skills. This develops self-esteem and creates the confidence to tackle new challenges.

2. MENTAL MODELS. These are ‘deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. ‘

The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. Every individual has his own perception of the things around him. This happens consciously and unconsciously and therefore, if team members can, through positive, constructive criticism, challenge each others’ ideas and assumptions, they can begin to perceive their mental models, and to change these to create a shared mental model for the team. This is important as the individual’s mental model will control what can or cannot be done.

3. BUILDING SHARED VISION. Senge sees this as ‘the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create. ‘When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn. To create a shared vision, large numbers of people within the organisation must draft it, empowering them to create a single image of the future. With a shared vision, people will do things because they want to, not because they have to.

4. TEAM LEARNING. Such learning is viewed as ‘the process of aligning and developing the capacities of a team to create the results its members truly desire. ‘

It builds on personal mastery and shared vision, but these are not enough. People need to be able to act together, as virtually all important decisions occur in groups. Adults learn best from each other and with team learning, the learning ability of the group becomes greater than the learning ability of any individual in the group.

5. SYSTEMS THINKING. The cornerstone of any learning organisation is this fifth discipline. This is the ability to see the bigger picture, to look at the interrelationships of a system as opposed to simple cause-effect chains.

Systems thinking shows us that the essential properties of a system are not determined by the sum of its parts but by the process of interactions between those parts. This is the discipline used to implement the other disciplines. Without it each of the disciplines would be isolated and would fail to achieve its objective.

How to build a learning organisation

The challenges facing managers in applying these five disciplines at the workplace are the following:

. Building a sound base

. Apply the Golden Rules


Before a Learning Organisation can be achieved, a solid foundation has to be in place. This can be implemented by taking into account the following points.

~ Awareness. Awareness of the benefits of a learning organisation must permeate to all levels not just the management level. A learning culture must be fostered among the employees that survival of the fittest depends on having a knowledgeable workforce. Change should start and be supported from top management and this ‘new’ culture should be manifested in the commitment to learning, personal development of the individual as well as valuing people and their divergent views.

~ The Environment. The right environment must be in place so that learning can take place. Centralised, mechanistic structures do not create a good environment. Organisations having organic structures are well positioned to develop
into a learning organisation. An organic structure places less emphasis on giving and taking orders and more on encouraging managers and subordinates to work together in teams and to communicate openly with each other. Authority, responsibility and accountability flow to employees with the expertise required to solve problems. In a nutshell, a flat organisation, whereby communication can flow in all directions and foster innovation amongst its employees.

~ Leadership. Managers must adopt open communication management styles so that employees will be able to question and come forward with ideas. Understand that mistakes and errors are part of this process and therefore employees should not be in fear of reprimands. Managers must also provide commitment for long-term learning in the form of resources (money, personnel and time). The amount of these resources determines the quantity and quality of learning.

~ Empowerment. Employees should be empowered to take decisions and actions. Let them own the process whilst monitoring all that is happening. Only through motivation and innovation will the employees grow and learn, equal participation should be encouraged so that employees can learn from each other simultaneously. The benefits are for themselves and the organisation.

~ Learning. Company-wide training is to be made available. This may take the form of simulation case studies where brainstorming sessions will be beneficial to all participants.


The following practices and approaches can be used while managing the learning process.

1. Thrive on change. Management must not be afraid of change. There should be commitment to and focus on the things that matter most. Change is necessary and therefore clear objectives and plans must be in place. Change will translate itself into a learning opportunity.

2. Encourage experimentation. Change will bring along uncertainty and risks. Experimentation is a necessary risk. Accept mistakes as a normal process and encourage employees to come forward with ideas. Learning from mistakes is often more powerful than learning from success. The most important thing is to ‘fail intelligently’ to learn something from mistakes. Apply reviews of the whole change process and reward individual effort.

3. Communicate success and failure. Let there be a communication system of disseminating information and knowledge that reaches everyone efficiently, for example, through company journals, website, job rotation programs etc.

4. Facilitate learning from the surrounding environment. Learn from internal factors such as processes and procedures at work and find ways of how to improve learning from competitors. Avoid their mistakes and copy their well-achieved results. Can also form alliances to have a cross fertilisation of ideas. Build a relationship with customers. Apply an outside-in policy to strategies. Customers provide free advice through their complaints, suggestions and surveys. After all, the organisation survives through satisfying customers. Theirs might be the best advice.

5. Facilitate learning from employees. Offer continuous learning and multi-skilling opportunities. Remove hierarchies and empower people to experiment and take decisions. The people at the lower ranks in an organisation are the ones who know most of the problems within the business. This means that more often than not, the employees themselves know what needs to be done to improve the business.

6. Reward learning. Have a proper performance appraisal system to reward those employees who are embracing the learning culture to boost morale. Remember that everybody wants their work to be appreciated. Make sure therefore that individual performance is linked with organisational performance.

7. Intentionally retrieve and retain company memory. It is important to keep a record of processes and achievements so that learning will not be lost; it can be passed on to those coming later on into the company and also the company can refer back to information held. The learning process must be planned and objectives for it set. It must be monitored and reviewed all the time.

Through the learning organisation process people will develop, the brains of all employees are switched on, not just those of the few, and a feel good factor is created through greater motivation. A more flexible workforce evolves by building organisations fit for human beings. People will become more creative and social interaction will improve. Teams and groups will work better through knowledge sharing, becoming more interdependent, increasing responsibility at all levels and developing an entrepreneurial spirit. The company will benefit from better customer relations, the breaking down of traditional communication barriers, and from the increased creativity and innovation of its people that should give it a competitive edge.

By Sandro Azzopardi