Learning Organizations (With Sri Lankan Perspective)

Knowledge Sharing

  1. Introduction

Jack Welch, a world renowned business practitioner and the former chairman and CEO of General Electric’s once had said that an organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage. It is accurate to say that most of successful business organizations all over the world have realized the fact that learning is not a destination but an ongoing process that they should be committed if they are to be ahead in their fierce competition in their chosen industries.

The concept of ‘Learning Organizations’ is not new and it has been around for more than two decades. It flourished in the 1990s, stimulated by Peter M. Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and countless other publications, workshops, and websites (Garvin A et el, 2008).    This has resulted in a compelling vision of an organization made up of employees skilled at crafting, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. The whole idea of learning organization is that the employees of such organizations can help their organizations to cultivate tolerance, foster open discussions and think holistically and systematically. Such comprehensive approach would make an organization enable to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than their competitors could. The concept of learning organization is sometimes confused with the concept of organizational learning. Even though it is assumed that they are synonymous, they are not as they are unique and different concepts in their own rights.

Organizational learning is defined by Easterby –Smith and Araujo (1990) as an ‘efficient procedure to process, interpret and respond to both internal and external information of a predominantly explicit nature (Cited by Armstrong, M 2006).  Rosemary Harrison, an authority in the subject of learning organizations and organizational learning had emphasized that organizational learning is not simply the sum of the learning of individuals and groups across the organization. According to her many studies have confirmed that without effective processes and systems linking individual and organizational learning, the one has no necessary counterpart with the other.

The philosophy underpinning the learning organization concept, as expressed by Garvin (1993), is that learning is an essential ingredient if organizations are to survive; that learning at operational, policy and strategic levels needs to be conscious, continuous and integrated; and that management is responsible for creating an emotional climate in which all staff can learn continuously. (As cited by Armstrong, M 2006)

1.1 Learning Organization defined

Peter M. Senge (1990) who coined the term ‘Learning Organization’ describes a learning organization as one 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 how to learn together. Subsequent Senge’s efforts in actualizing the concept of learning organization, there have been many attempts to define what a learning organization is about. Pedler et al (1991) state that a learning organization is one which facilitates the learning of all its members and continually transforms itself. According to Wick and Leon (1995) a learning organization is one that continually improves by rapidly creating and refining its capabilities required for future success. Garvin (1993) defines a learning organization as one which is skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.

2.  Theoretical Aspects of the learning organization

2.1 The Fifth Discipline

The fifth discipline is the first ever structured framework that was introduced by Peter M Senge (1990) in his bestselling book ‘The Fifth Discipline’ which has assisted a number of practitioners to create a learning organization in whatever they do. The five disciplines represents approaches for developing three core learning capabilities of an organization namely fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity.  Working teams being the fundamental learning units in an organization, these are also referred to as core learning capabilities of teams. The five disciplines are categorized under the core learning capabilities as illustrated below.

Figure 2.1: Core Learning Capabilities of Teams – Three Legged Stool

All three core capabilities are important in creating a learning organization as the stool would not stand if any of the three were missing (Senge, M, 1990)

The table given below outlines the three core capabilities of a team and the five disciplines respectively under each core capability.

Table 2.1: Core Capabilities and five disciplines

Core Capability Five Discipline Description
Understanding Complexity System Thinking Whatever happens around us it is not just once incident or event. It is as a result something that has already happened and each event, activity has an influence on the rest, an influence usually hidden from view. You can only understand the system of a rainstorm by contemplating the whole, not any individual part of the pattern. In business we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system to get solved. System thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.
Reflective Conversation Mental Models Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take actions. Very often, we are not aware of our mental models. It is essential as an organization; the management changes their shared mental models of the company, their markets, and their competitors. This discipline of working with 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.
Dialog/Team learning It is generally accepted that the sum total of individuals should be equal or greater than when it comes to synergy. But this has been the reality in most of organizations. In business the intelligence of teams should exceed the intelligence of individuals and then they develop extraordinary capabilities. When this happens even the individual members grow and develop more rapidly than it could have occurred otherwise.
Aspiration Personal Mastery Mastery means a special level of proficiency. People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.

Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our personal energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively. This emphasizes the fact that an organization’s commitment and capacity for learning can be no greater than that of its members.

Shared Vision This is the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future an organization seeks to create. It is not easy to think of any organization that has sustained some measure of greatness in the absence of goals, values and missions that become deeply shared throughout the organization.

The practice of shared vision involves the skills of creating a shared picture of the future that fosters genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliances. In carrying this discipline out, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt.

Source: Fifth Discipline

2.2 Building Blocks of the Learning Organization

This was made popular by an article published in Harvard Business Review in March, 2008 by the title of ‘Is yours a learning organization’ by David A. Garvin, Amy C. Edmondson, and Francesca Gino. Though this has not yet gained the recognition as a model of the concept of learning organizations this has been used as a tool to assess the depth of learning in an organization and its units all over the world. According to the authors a learning organization is a place where employees excel at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and there are three building blocks in such organizations as mentioned below.

  1. Supportive Learning Environment
  2. Concrete Learning Processes and practices
  3. Leadership behavior that reinforce learning

Table 2.2 : Building Blocks of a Learning Organization

Building Block Characteristics Description
Supportive Learning Environment – An environment that supports learning Psychological Safety Employees must be comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand
Appreciation of difference Learning occurs when people become aware of opposing ideas
Openness to new ideas Learning is not simply about correcting mistakes and solving problems. It is also about crafting novel approaches.
Time for reflections Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause in the action and encourage thoughtful review of the organization’s processes.
Concrete Learning processes and practices Experimentation Frequent experiments with new ways of working, new products and service offerings. There is a formal process of conducting and evaluating experiments or new ideas.
Information collection Systematic collection of information on competitors, customers, economic and social trends, customers and best in class organizations.
Analysis Engaging in productive conflict and debate during discussions and seeking dissenting views during discussions. Frequent identification of underlying assumptions that might affect key decisions. Pay attention to different views during discussions.
Education and Training Newly hired employees receive adequate training while experienced employees receiving periodic training and updates, training when switching to a new position, training when new initiatives are launched.
Information Transfer There are forums and meeting with and learning from experts from other departments, teams and divisions, experts from the outside the organization, customers and clients, and suppliers. Regular sharing of information with networks of experts within the organization and quickly and accurately communicates new knowledge to key decision makers. Conducts post audits and after action reviews.
Leadership behavior that reinforce learning

Managers invite input from others in discussions; acknowledge their own limitations with respect to knowledge, information and expertise. Managers ask probing questions, listen attentively, and encourage multiple points of view. Managers provide time, resources, venues for reflecting and improving on past performance.

Source: Adopted from HBR – March, 2008

2.3 Model for learning organizations (MLO) – Author’s concept

MLO is a primary concept of the author which focuses on key main dimensions of learning organizations namely individual learning and organizational learning. The author is in the view that high level of both individual and organizational learning would result in a learning organization which is the preferred status of any organization as far as learning is concerned. The primary concept is illustrated in the figure 2.2 given below.

Figure 2.2: Model for Learning Organizations (MLO)

Personal Mastery Learning organization

  • Autonomy and Purpose
  • System thinking and shares mental models
Knee-jerk reaction Fire-fighting

Source: Author

This model has been developed based on three hypotheses as stated below.

  1. High level or individual learning where low level of organizational learning is facilitated develop personal mastery among individual employee making them experts and subject matter experts in their own areas
  2. High level of individual learning and high level of organizational learning would create a sense of shared purpose and mental models among employees and that will lead them to achieve a sense of autonomy (Empowerment) and system thinking (which goes beyond cause and effect thinking). The availability of these factors essentially creates a learning organization.
  3. High level of organizational learning alone would not result in an effective learning unless it is supported by a strong commitment of individuals in terms of their learning. In such situations organizations would have short term approaches to competition, new product development and customer relationship management on a fire fighting basis without adapting a sustainable approach to managing them.

The commitment of individuals to learning is affected by three factors as mentioned below.

  • Self-awareness – Knowing what one wants in his/her life and what approaches to be adapted in making them a reality
  • Need for achievement (N Ach) – Desire to achieve
  • Need for power (N Pow) – desire to being in control

Similarly, there are three factors that can affect creating effective organizational learning as given below.

  • Supportive Learning Environment
  • Concrete Learning Processes and Procedures
  • Leadership behavior that reinforce learning

3. Key Principles of the learning organization

Miller and Stewart (1999) have proposed six key principles of the learning organization as mentioned below.

  1. Learning and business strategy are closely linked
  2. The organization  consciously learns from business opportunities and threats;
  3. Individuals, groups and the whole organization are not only learning but also learning how to learn;
  4. Information systems and technology serve to support learning rather than control it;
  5. There are well-defined processes for defining, creating and capturing, sharing and acting on knowledge;
  6. These various systems and dimensions are balanced and managed as a whole.


4. The Learning organization and Knowledge Management

The whole concept of learning organization is about developing and sharing knowledge that matters to the organization its long term survival and success. Therefore, having a comprehensive knowledge management system that can capture both tacit and implicit is crucial in creating intelligence and technical know-how which competitors cannot replicate. However, it has been noticed by a number of researches done the subject of learning organization that most of organizations have paid unnecessary attention to knowledge management system instead of creating a holistic learning culture.

5. Learning Organizations in the Sri Lankan Context

The author has carried out a research based on the questionnaire developed by Harvard Business School in assessing the prevailing learning culture of an organization. The questioner has been developed based on the three building blocks of a learning organization in the article of ‘Is yours a learning organization’ published in HBR March, 2008.  The research was done based on a sample of 30 individuals from top performing organizations selected randomly. The participation of HR practitioners has been restricted purposefully in order to ensure the partiality.

Given below is a summary of the findings.

Figure 5.1 : Is yours a learning Organization? Research Findings

Building Blocks and their sub components Scaled Scores
Bottom Quartile Second quartile Third quartile Top quartile
Supportive Learning Environment 20 5 3 2
Concrete Learning process and practices 7 10 8 5
Leadership that reinforces learning 23 3 2 2

Source: Author

Based on the above observations, it is evident that the majority of participants agree on the fact that their organizations have a concrete learning processes and practices in place. Perhaps the physical availability of certain policy documents and web based tools must have helped them to recall the availability of such mechanisms. However, the rest of the two building blocks of learning organizations are not positively perceived by the participants. More than 66% participants do not perceive there is a supportive learning environment within their organizations and 76% of participants do not see that they have a leadership culture that reinforces learning within their organizations.

6. Conclusion

This paper attempted to study and critically review the concept of ‘Learning Organization’ by having a detailed emphasis on both theoretical and pragmatic approaches. There is still a great level of confusion between the concepts of learning organizations and organizational learning as they seem synonymous and yet they are not. Two theoretical approaches were discussed in trying to understand underpinning reasons behind creating a learning organization namely the fifth discipline and the building blocks of a learning organization. The author based on his understanding and the interest of the subject matter has come up with a primary model called ‘Model for learning organizations’ based on three hypotheses. Knowledge management has become a key component of learning organizations and it has been found that an unnecessary amount of attention has been given to knowledge management systems within organizations instead of focusing creating a holistic approach towards creating a learning organization.  A research among thirty participants who are working in the private sector in Sri Lanka was carried out in order to understand the prevailing learning cultures of Sri Lanka and the findings of the same is presented in tabular format.

7. List of reference

  1. Armstrong M (2006), Human Resource Management Practice, Kogan Page Limited; 10th Edition.
  2. Garvin, D A (1993) Building a learning organization, Harvard Business Review, July-August, pp 78-91
  3. Harrison, R (2000) Employee Development, 2nd Edition, IPM, London
  4. Miller, R and Stewart J (1999) Opened University, People Management, pp 42-46
  5. Pedler, M, Burgoyne,  J and Boydell, T (1991) The learning company: A strategy for sustainable development, McGraw-Hill, London
  6. Senge, M (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Random House UK Ltd,
  7. Wick, C W and Leon L S (1995) Creating learning organization: from ideas to action, Human Resource Management Journal