Managing the Learning Organization Essay

Pages: 6 (2015 words)  ·  Style: APA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 15  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Business - Management

Learning Organizations: Dynamism and Flexibility

What constitutes a learning organization?

One definition of learning organizations is that they 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, cited by Smith 2001). "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, cited by Smith 2001). Learning organizations are not static because they draw upon the creative, collective pooled resources of all of the involved participants. The organization 'learns' from its members, and members teach one another. The learning model of the organization mirrors the human body. The body must strive to remain in a state of balance, and all of its unique must parts strive to communicate with one another for the body to function. Communication and a shared purpose is why a learning organization is able to be dynamic and flexible in the context of the global environment.

Senge's identifying attributes of a learning organization

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Essay on Managing the Learning Organization Assignment

Peter Senge defined five critical concepts that are integral to a learning organization: systems thinking; personal mastery; mental models; building shared vision, and team learning. When an organization learns from itself, there is dialogue between different parts of the system. Senge viewed an organization almost as an organic thing, like the parts of the human body that strive to keep one another in a state of homeostasis. "When viewed in systems terms short-term improvements often involve very significant long-term costs. For example, cutting back on research and design can bring very quick cost savings, but can severely damage the long-term viability of an organization" (Smith, 2001, Peter Senge). If the financial team is in dialogue with the IT department, such negative organizational changes are less likely to occur. Different parts of the body must 'communicate' for processes to be effective -- swallowing, digestion, and excretion, for example, may be accomplished by different organs, but are fundamentally part of the same system of generating nutritional fuel for the body.

An excellent example of 'systems thinking' can be seen at the Apple organization, where cutting edge technology is designed so it looks sleek and desirable in the eyes of the consumer. Form follows function, function follows form. "From computers to smartphones, Apple products are known for being stylish, powerful and pleasing to use. They are edited products that cut through complexity, by consciously leaving things out -- not cramming every feature that came into an engineer's head" (Steve Jobs, 2011, New York Times). Designers of the exterior of the products are not separated from the designers of the interior technology of the products.

Personal mastery

However, although 'systems thinking' refers to the organization as a whole, it is also essential that the human components of the organization have a desire for excellence. "Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs' (Senge 1990: 139, cited by Smith 2001). The need for employees to learn for the organization to progress is perhaps most notably manifested at Google. At Google, engineers are allowed to pursue personal 'pet projects' on the company's time, with the assumption that such efforts will eventually translate into value for the company. All Google employees are encouraged to learn by taking on-site classes, including fitness classes, as well as enjoy tuition reimbursement for university courses they take while employed at the organization. Self-improvement is linked to improved employee performance. Google offers these amenities with the intention of attracting creative people to the organization, as well as to continually stimulate employees and encourage them to be productive. Individual parts of the organizational body must be happy and healthy for the organization to function in an optimal fashion.

Mental models

Google and Apple are both 'barrier-breaking' organizations that challenge conventional assumptions and norms about how the world works. They are self-conscious about the mental models used at the organization. Mental models are "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action" (Smith 2001). If mental models become too entrenched, they hamper flexibility.

Learning organizations are fundamentally process-oriented, rather than strive to achieve fixed goals. Learning organizations are capable of flexible, strategic thinking and can change with a dynamic market environment. When old ways of doing things do not work, they are discarded. When the consumer demographic which the business originally tried to satisfy no longer exists, a new demographic must be targeted. Strategic thinking requires strategizing activities to the immediate and future needs of the company, internally and externally, and if mental models grow calcified and obsolete, this is impossible. A body that does not move, and does not receive a variety of new types of stimulation to feed it will quickly atrophy and grow unhealthy -- this is also true of the 'body' of the learning organization.

Shared vision

Learning systems theory denies the 'great man' theory of leadership. The 'great man (or woman) theory of leadership suggests that a single vision is enough to propel an organization to success. But organizations cannot function, particularly in the modern, complex global environment, unless people believe in the organization's values and have a truly shared vision. "When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar 'vision statement'), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to. But many leaders have personal visions that never get translated into shared visions that galvanize an organization" (Smith 2001). Quite often, the greatest leaders are not the most obviously charismatic. Employees must believe they are contributing to a higher purpose to want to fulfill their functions. Inspiring leaders honor employee contribution by soliciting information and using that information. Inspiring leaders must also treat employees with respect, which includes respecting employee's needs for decent wages and benefits.

The mega-corporation Wal-Mart angered its employees because of its attempts to use as many part-time employees as possible to keep the costs of providing benefits low; by extending only expensive health insurance to low-wage workers, and because of its refusal to pay above the minimum wage in most areas. Wal-Mart's slogans about positive thinking and team leadership meant little, because its supposed vision of warmth and generosity did not trickle down to ordinary employees. Employees must have a reason to believe in the organization vision and contribute to its growth, only then will they be able to 'teach' one another to create a learning organization. Vision must be 'shared.' "Moving toward the same goal, individuals work together rather than as disconnected people brought together because of having been hired coincidentally by the same organization. It can turn the stereotypical corporate hierarchy into a well-organized and harmonious matrix working together toward a common goal" (Snyder 1994:1). Just as no human being can function in isolation or with parts of the mind or the body 'at war' with themselves, learning organization's defining visions must be agreed upon. This is not to dismiss the importance of healthy conflict, but the conflict must be how to best achieve the organization's core objectives, and not be tainted with personal agendas, resentment, or reluctance. These emotions are most often stirred when people are convinced that management does not truly care about them, and only has its own interests at heart. The less the leadership gives to the organization's members, the less the members give back.

Team learning

Individual learning is important, but teamwork is also a vital component of a learning organization, as members share their knowledge with one another. Some of the most notable innovations are generated from the bottom, rather than the top 'up' and a learning organization honors the right of employees to 'teach' leaders as well as leaders to direct employees. Team learning underlines the emphasis on 'process' that is integral to the learning organizational model vs. competition. Competition, either within the organization or with others, can often hamper growth and information-sharing. Instead of stressing a cutthroat mentality of 'besting' one's competition, employees are encouraged to collaborate and share information. They can learn skills from one another, given that all individuals have different strengths and learning styles.

Cross-disciplinary teams enables 'soft skills' marketing and advertising professionals to ground their recommendations in hard, data-driven analysis gleaned from financial specialists; it enables financial and IT professionals to have a sense of the human dynamic that is required to make numbers and technological innovation meaningful.

Levels of learning

In a learning organization, learning takes place on many levels, and all components of the organization exist in a state of constant, permeable symbiosis. Instead of closed relationships neatly fitted into a hierarchy, in a learning organization individual learning is constantly supporting collaborative team learning, the community is dynamic and the organizational leadership learns from… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Managing the Learning Organization.  (2011, August 25).  Retrieved January 25, 2021, from

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"Managing the Learning Organization."  August 25, 2011.  Accessed January 25, 2021.