The Learning Organization

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In an information economy, an organization's success or failure depends on its ability to adapt, change, and innovate; in other words, on its ability to learn. "Most competitive improvements can't be bought. They have to be learned," explains Anthony Patrick Carnevale in the February 1992 issue of Training & Development. "In fact, economists estimate that 60 percent of competitive improvements come from learning to make better use of the resources we buy."

That learning must take place continuously, as part of everything an organization does. And it must take place on three levels: the individual level, the team level, and the corporate level.

Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline, has become the bible for this new paradigm in workplace learning. In it he describes learning organizations as those "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

Senge describes five disciplines of the learning organization:
  • Personal mastery is the continuous development of proficiency in what we do, achieved through a commitment to life-long learning. Senge calls it "the learning organization's spiritual foundation."

  • Mental models are the personal assumptions and generalizations that influence our behavior, the filters through which we view the world and draw conclusions.

  • Shared vision is the center around which a learning organization revolves-a common array of goals, values, and missions that people throughout the organization are committed to.

  • Team learning is a way of leveraging the power of groups. "Teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations," says Senge. "Unless teams can learn, the organization cannot learn."

  • Systems thinking is Senge's fifth discipline, the one that ties the others together. It is a conceptual framework that looks at seemingly isolated events in the context of connections and implications. It is a focus on both the forest and the trees.
Of course, it's all well and good to provide abstract definitions and characteristics for learning organizations. What about tangible examples? Gordon, Morgan, and Ponticell's book, Future-Work: The Revolution Reshaping American Business offers tangible case studies of organizations that are teaching critical thinking skills to their employees at all levels. Future Work also demythologizes Senge's book into understandable business examples of using cognitive-based training rather than behavior-based training to teach employees the skills of problem solving and decision making and how to use them. The Workforce Education Triad of skills, training, and education gives business a tangible paradigm around which to organize lifelong employee learning in support of a high performance organization.

What Happens to Training in a Learning Organization?

Where is training's niche in a learning organization? In the May 1994 issue of Training & Development, Harvard Business School's Rosabeth Moss Kanter says that workplaces are placing more emphasis on learning-but not necessarily on training. "Training signifies a one-way transfer of established wisdom or skill from the trainer to the unformed trainee," she explains. "It focuses on the teacher, not the student. But learning... involves not only absorbing existing information, but also creating new solutions to not-yet-fully-understood problems. And while we could not conceive of training without students, learning can take place in the absence of teachers."

In a true learning organization, she says, "the ultimate act of learning will be embedded in the person and team as they do their work." As workplace learning is taken out of the classroom and integrated into people's jobs, training becomes less of a separate event. Already most experts note an increase in the number of line managers taking on the responsibility for training their staffs. More training is taking place in self-directed "learning lab" sessions. Also, new technology makes it possible for employees to receive "just-in-time" training on the job-for instance, by calling up help screens on their computers to answer specific questions or demonstrate specific procedures exactly when that help is needed.

Traditionally we've associated workplace learning with the metaphor of the schoolroom. For the learning organization, Senge replaces that metaphor with a new one-the metaphor of the rehearsal hall, where groups work together to produce results and enhance their capacity for success.

What of trainers? What role will training and development specialists play in helping their organizations reach that destination? At first glance it may appear that trainers are being pushed out. If learning is infused into everything employees do, it seems that managers, rather than trainers, will have to take the lead. Couldn't that decentralize training to the extent that trainers would be unnecessary?

In a May 1994 Training & Development magazine article, Senge describes two roles for training and development professionals in a learning organization. First, he says, trainers have the skills and experience to work with managers to plan and facilitate learning. For instance, trainers can help managers or subject-matter experts design and develop lessons for use in computerized learning labs. The other role involves what Senge describes as "guiding the diffusion of new learnings." Line managers may be responsible for making sure that employees learn what they're supposed to learn. However, people who specialize in workplace training and education are in a better position to help employees build on new insights and accomplishments. The key to it all, says Senge, is partnerships between trainers and line managers.

Margaret Wheatley, the author of Leadership and the New Science, writes in the same issue of Training & Development about trainers' roles in the learning organizations of the future. "Those of us already engaged in training and organizational learning will be challenged to design learning experiences that themselves are not rigidly structured or confined by classroom boundaries. All learning, like most work, will be just-in-time. Long-range planning of courses... will give way to learning that is available in a variety of forms, all of which are flexible, easy to access, and available wherever needed. The demands for new knowledge and skills will be constant, no longer a value-added element, but the essential factor in determining organizational survival."
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