MET:The Learning Organization

From UBC Wiki

This page originally authored by Krista Mallory (February 2012).

Learning organizations, as envisioned by Peter Senge(2006) in "The Fifth Discipline", 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 how to learn together" (p.3).

In order to reach this goal, we must learn to see problems as interconnected wholes instead of breaking them into smaller pieces to be solved, and then attempting to fit them back into a system solution (Senge, 2006). Senge likens this approach to "trying to assemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection" (p.3). This requires an un-learning of the problem-solving techniques we have been taught from childhood and a restructuring of traditional hierarchies to fully harness everyone's learning in the organizational context (2006).

Principles of the learning organization

The five principles or disciplines of the learning organization are systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning (Senge, 2006). Each discipline is intertwined with the others, meaning that no one can be eliminated or ignored (2006).

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is the overarching theoretical framework or worldview of the learning organization. It is a lens that forces the organization to see itself as part of a larger system instead of an isolated organism. In this manner, outside forces and impacts must be considered in creating long term systemic solutions (Senge, 2006). For instance, a learning organization would consider all aspects of its business in determining strategies - economic (workers, the community at large, and shareholders), environmental (pollution, effects on wildlife habitat, product disposal), and political (costs borne by the community such as roads, infrastructure, transit, health care). The organization would, in a systems thinking model, choose solutions that maximized wealth for all stakeholders (not just shareholders) and would minimize long term negative effects on the community at large. The overarching goal would be sustainability, not short term profits (Senge, 2006).

Personal mastery

Artistry in motion

Personal mastery involves “people with a high level of mastery [who] are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them – in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning” (Senge, 2006, p.7). The hallmarks of personal mastery are "commitment to the truth and creative tension" (p.197) which then create the foundation for developing shared vision. This discipline is the spiritual foundation of the learning organization as “an organization’s commitment to and capacity for learning can be no greater than that of its members” (p.7). Many organizations understand that learning is fundamental, but tend to focus their efforts on job-related training. Senge (2006) goes beyond this model and asserts that the mastery of any skill or interest taps into individual creativity which can then be harnessed in the organization.

Mental models

Mental models is the process of revealing and challenging our own personal assumptions about people and the world (Senge, 2006). This facilitates “conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others” (pp.8-9). This is especially important for organizations that are attempting to shift gears, to turn in another direction. The deep-seated statements about what the organization is and does must be exposed and restated in order for new models to be adopted and implemented successfully. If not, the difference between what an organization says it is and what it actually is will ultimately stifle any attempt at change (Senge, 2006). You can have as many policies on discrimination as you like, but if you do not expose the structures and mindsets within the organization that create invisible barriers, they will never be effective.

Building shared vision


Building shared vision is not about creating traditional vision and mission statements. It depends on the capacity of every member to "remain clear on the vision and continue to inquire into current reality" (Senge, 2006, p.197). In order to engage members and garner commitment, an organization's vision must reflect the personal visions of its members (2006). In most organizations, visions are built by management and communicated to everyone else. How individual employees embrace the vision will depend on how closely it fits with their personal values and belief system. In learning organizations, all members have the opportunity to build a shared vision that incorporates personal visions. The more closely these align, the higher the level of engagement and motivation will be to achieve the organization's goals (Senge, 2006).

Team learning

Socratic dialogue

Team learning is the process of creating collective learning. Senge's (2006) goal is to have “the intelligence of the team exceed the intelligence of the individuals in the team, and ... to develop extraordinary capacities for coordinated action” (p. 9). The cornerstone of team learning is dialogue in the Socratic sense where a free flow of ideas between individuals can happen without the obstacles of personal assumptions and prejudices. In other words, team learning depends on the principles of mental models and personal mastery.

Historical Context

Traditional organizations are, by and large, founded on the principles of management science or Taylorism (Saul, 1993; Schon, 1983). Taylor's theories are grounded in the belief that workers will forfeit control over their labour for higher rates of pay (1967). He was the first to see human labour as a part of the mechanical production process (Taylor, 1967; Schon, 1983), one that included "the design of tools, the bodily movements of the worker, and the sequencing of production steps" (Schon, 1983, p. 237). Taylor (1967) believed that the average worker was not intelligent enough to manage his own work and needed trained managers to tell them how to best organize their days. This methodology leaves little room for individual creativity and innovation at the lower levels of the organization (Saul, 1993; Schon, 1983).

Over the past century, economies have shifted from production-based to knowledge-based, with human knowledge supplanting physical labour as the new factor of production (Welton, 1991). As a result, worker's brains are suddenly part of the production chain. This shift in function has put the onus on the knowledge worker to learn new processes more quickly, to keep themselves educated and current in their field of expertise, and to be flexible enough to adapt to changing environments (Olssen, 2006). “This kind of flexibility requires skill and competence of a potentially short-term nature, features which did not characterise Taylorism or Fordism” (Olssen, 2006, p. 221). Workers have become “autonomous entrepreneur[s] responsible ontologically for their own selves and their own progress and position” (p.219).

In addition, the pressures of a globalized environment have increased competition and the demands for continuous innovation and increased productivity. "One of the major “problems” of the knowledge economy is how to be as productive as possible when you are relying almost exclusively on the intellectual capacity of human beings. In production based economies, productivity can be controlled by the pace of machinery. Even the workers involved are part of a mechanical process and their pace is dictated by the speed of a machine or series of machines. It is much more difficult to control productivity and profitability when you are dealing solely with the human factor" (Mallory, 2008, pp. 40-41).

The learning organization is structured to open the pathways to innovation and help corporations to regain and/or boost their competitiveness in today's global marketplace (Senge, 2006). Through the five disciplines, traditional hierarchical workplace structures can be transformed into dynamic, innovative organizations that respond to quickly changing environments. The key is the emphasis on engagement and learning for every member, not just management.

Learners and the learning organization

Learners are central to the success of the learning organization. Personal mastery and team learning are naturally dependent on learning at the individual level. In addition, the disciplines of mental models and building shared vision require that individuals in the organization be open to change, and to challenging their own perceptions and assumptions about the world (Senge, 2006). In short, learning organizations depend on the combined capacity of individuals to learn and change (Senge, 2006).

In Senge's learning organization, the discipline of personal mastery transcends work-related learning. "'People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never 'arrive'" (Senge, 2006, p.132). In this context, the learner is not focused on acquiring information and skills, but on "lifelong generative learning" (p. 132). This type of learning is not purely adaptive, but creative. It can result in learners generating unpredicted, deeply innovative ideas (Senge, 2006). This forces the organization to offer learning opportunities in a more open, learner-defined environment that does not necessarily have predefined goals or outcomes.

As the definition of learning changes from training and information-gathering to self-directed, individual improvement, the methods of delivering that learning changes with it. One alternative is to espouse androgogical principles in building learning opportunities. The basic premise of androgogy is that adult learners need facilitators, not teachers, and that they should take an active role in how and what they learn (Knowles, 1980). This essentially turns the controls over to the learner to determine what they learn, where, and how. It also relies heavily on an instructional style that encourages questioning and personal growth over control and rote learning (1980).

Again, this puts the learner at the centre. In essence, the flip from organization-mandated learning goals to personal mastery requires a commitment from each member of the learning organization and a different way of delivering education. The more engaged learners become in their own journeys, the more the learning organization becomes a dynamic expression of the combined energies of its members.

Educational Technology and the learning organization

Educational technology has the potential to be a key tool in developing the learning organization. Corporations have embraced on-line learning as a cheaper alternative to classroom-based instruction. It improves accessibility and allows employees more flexibility to schedule course work. Many of these courses are straight translations of the classroom training content to an on-line environment, presented in webinar formats or as a video that can be viewed at the worker's convenience. The content is still very much driven by organizational objectives and allows little room for diversification or self-directed exploration.

An alternative is to use a constructivist approach to on-line learning (Jonassen, 1999). Constructivism assumes that learning is constructed by the learner in the context of their prior knowledge and experiences (1999). As such, content must build experiences that connect with the individual in order for them to assimilate the practices or knowledge (1999). Real world examples would be experiential learning environments such as wilderness training or acting in a play. The experiences and outcomes for each individual will not be the same. The end point is not that each person has learned a specific lesson, but rather that they have learned something relevant to them and moved towards mastery of a broader skill. They can then apply what they have learned in other contexts. For instance, the confidence gained by conquering nature in a primitive environment can spill over into their work. This opens the creative pathways and allows for the free flow of ideas and concepts across subjects and communities in potentially unexpected ways.

Since the learning organization requires open-ended learning that is defined by the learner, constructivist principles are clearly a better choice. Educational technology can assist by creating on-line learning environments that put learners at the centre, and encourage them to explore pathways that appeal to them. This increases the probability that they will absorb what they learn and apply it naturally at work and at home. Good design can pull the learner into the subject matter, connecting through shared stories, and building shared understanding. The ability to create collaborative spaces on line that connect employees and managers across functional disciplines and locations is key to the cross-pollination of ideas that is essential to the life of the learning organization.

Instructional designers are the key to this meeting this challenge. As long as organizations continue to directly transfer traditional content and delivery methods from classroom to on-line courses, the full potential of educational technology will not be realized. It is up to this group to trumpet the benefits of creating interactive, open-ended, exploratory course content that will ultimately increase employee engagement and, as a result, productivity.

Critiques of the learning organization

The learning organization has been criticized for failing to fully realize its democratic promise in practice. In a perfect world, the learning organization “conceives the ability of individuals to combine their diverse skills and imaginations for the attainment of common, collectively negotiated goals” (Casey, 2003, p.631). In practice, implementing the learning organization model in a traditional hierarchical environment often means that “the learning needs of the organization, as defined by management, override or occlude the attention to the needs of individual learning workers. Individual learning is legitimated solely according to criteria for its contribution to organizational learning” (p.624). This essentially means that learning is only valued if it is seen as advancing corporate goals.

Tara Fenwick (1998) states that “workers’ learning is to be innovative and critically reflective so long as the outcomes ensure the survival, indeed the prosperity, productivity and competitive advantage, of the employing organization” (p.149). The learning organization assumption is that, through building shared vision, personal and corporate goals are the same. In practice, many organizations favour management input in following this discipline. This creates a situation where "managers and educators are the architects of the learning organization, [and] employees are colonized as its subjects” (p.145). This in turn creates an “an ideology of ‘constant improvement’ [that] tends to create a competitive track where the racing dogs never reach the mechanical rabbit” (p.145).

Again, this reflects an imperfect implementation of the five disciplines. Learning and innovation for personal benefit must be encouraged and acknowledged as beneficial to the larger community in order to fully realize the potential of the learning organization. The challenge for instructional designers is to recognize the inherent bias towards management in the system and propose methods that will move the organizations towards the lofty, but attainable, goal of sustainable prosperity for all.

Suggested Reading

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, the following books may be of particular interest:

The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization by Peter Senge (2006 edition)

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future by C. Otto Scharmer, Peter M. Senge, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers

Sculpting the Learning Organization: Lessons in the art and science of systemic change by Karen Watkins and Victoria Marsick

Reasons and Rationalizations: The limits to organizational knowledge by Chris Argyris

Organizational Learning: A theory of action perspective by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon

Toward Development Work: The Workplace as A Learning Environment by Michael Welton

The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action by Donald Schon

Stop Motion Artifact "What is a learning organization and what aligning learning theories can be incorporated into educational technology to contribute to a learning organization ?" a Powtoon by Ivana Petreska

"Joe's Story: Finding a Learning Organization to Call Home": (By Lee Ackerman, Jan 2018)


Casey, C. (2003). The learning worker, organizations and democracy. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(6), (620-634).

Fenwick, T. (1998). Questioning the concept of the learning organization. In S.M. Scott, B. Spencer, & A.M. Thomas (Eds.), Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education (pp. 140-152). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Knowles, M. (1980). What is androgogy? In Modern Practice of Adult Education (2nd Ed.) (pp. 40-62). New York: Cambridge Books.

Mallory, K.R. (2008). Senge’s learning organization: Democratic transformation or neoliberal practice? Identifying the contradictions and conflicts. Master's Thesis. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (MR38694)

Olssen, M. (2006). Understanding the mechanisms of neoliberal control: Lifelong learning, flexibility and knowledge capitalism. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25(3), 213-230.

Saul, J.R. (1993). Voltaire’s bastards: The dictatorship of reason in the west. Toronto: Penguin Books.

Schon, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. U.S.A.: Basic Books, Inc.

Senge, P.M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Toronto.: Doubleday.

Taylor, F.W. (1967). The principles of scientific management. New York: Norton Library 1967. Retrieved February 9, 2012 from .

Welton, M.R. (1991). Section I: Work as curricular structure: From Taylorism to cybernetic capitalism. In Toward development work: The workplace as A learning environment (pp. 13-27). Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.