A learning organization is one where all members of an organization are continually involved in the learning process and that learning and working are seamlessly intertwined. The concept of learning organization comes from Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. According to Senge:
Individual versus organizational learning
Learning by individuals within an organization happens through activities such as: training, increasing skills, work experience, and formal education. But individual learning, even coutinuous learning throughout a person's career, is not the same as organizational learning. Simply summing individual learning is inadequate to model organizational learning. The following definition outlines the essential difference between the two: A learning organization actively creates, captures, transfers, and mobilizes knowledge to enable it to adapt to a changing environment. Thus, the key aspect of organizational learning is the interaction that takes place among individuals.
A learning organization does not rely on passive or ad hoc process in the hope that organizational learning will take place through serendipity or as a by-product of normal work. A learning organization actively promotes, facilitates, and rewards collective learning. As first stated by Lucilius in the 1st century BC, “Knowledge is not knowledge until someone else knows that one knows.”
Capturing individual learning is the first step to making it useful to an organization. There are many methods for capturing knowledge and experience, such as publications, activity reports, lessons learned, interviews, and presentations. Capturing includes organizing knowledge in ways that people can find it; multiple structures facilitate searches regardless of the user’s perspective (e.g., who, what, when, where, why,and how). Capturing also includes storage in repositories, databases, or libraries to insure that the knowledge will be available when and as needed.
Transferring knowledge requires that it be accessible to everyone when and where they need it. In a digital world, this involves browser-activated search engines to find what one is looking for. A way to retrieve content is also needed, which requires a communication and network infrastructure. Tacit knowledge may be shared through communities of practice or consulting experts. It is also important that knowledge is presented in a way that users can understand it. It must suit the needs of the user to be accepted and internalized.
Mobilizing knowledge involves integrating and using relevant knowledge from many, often diverse, sources to solve a problem or address an issue. Integration requires interoperability standards among various repositories. Using knowledge may be through simple reuse of existing solutions that have worked previously. It may also come through adapting old solutions to new problems. Conversely, a learning organization learns from mistakes or recognizes when old solutions no longer apply. Use may also be through synthesis; that is creating a broader meaning or a deeper level of understanding. Clearly, the more rapidly knowledge can be mobilized and used, the more competitive an organization.
An organization must learn so that it can adapt to a changing environment. Historically, the life-cycle of organizations typically spanned stable environments between major socioeconomic changes. Blacksmiths who didn’t become mechanics simply fell by the wayside. More recently, many fortune 500 companies of two decades ago no longer exist. Given the ever-accelerating rate of global-scale change, the more critical learning and adaptation become to organization relevance, success, and ultimate survival.
Organizational learning is a social process, involving interactions among many individuals leading to well-informed decision making. Thus, a culture that learns and adapts as part of everyday working practices is essential. Reuse must equal or exceed reinvent as a desirable behavior. Adapting an idea must be rewarded along with its initial creation. Sharing to empower the organization must supersede controlling to empower an individual.
Clearly, shifting from individual to organizational learning involves a non-linear transformation. Once someone learns something, it is available for their immediate use. In contrast, organizations need to create, capture, transfer, and mobilize knowledge before it can be used. Although technology supports the latter, these are primarily social processes within a cultural environment, and cultural change, however necessary, is a particularly challenging undertaking.
© 2011 Richard Culatta