Learning organization is a term that is widely used to refer to the ongoing and transformational process to create a future in an organization. This is usually done through proper and timely response to the needs of people in and outside the organization. Learning organization is also geared towards fully exploiting and expanding human capacities to complete the set objectives. Consequently, this process is termed as generative learning. Today’s environment is ever changing, and successful organizations have to be in line with all trends. The best way of achieving this is through initiating learning in the organizations. An organization will develop a differential advantage if it learns faster than its competitors. This means coming up with new products and services and selling them widely in the market before the competitors copy their design, and composition among other factors (Gary, 2005). This process is challenging, but proper planning can help achieve good results. A learning organization has different characteristics that are achieved through different ways, and their progress measured differently.
Characteristics of Learning Organizations
According to Senge et al. (2000), there are five key features of learning organizations that can help organizations adapt to the changing environment. The characteristics include:
System thinking is what developed the concept of learning organization. System thinking is used to define the operations of an organization as a whole. Consequently, the term implies that all systems should be geared towards the same goals. All the systems in an organization should have identical characteristics, and if any deviates from others, it may lead to change of goals in the organization at large (Schwandt and Marquardt, 2000). Therefore, achieving success in the set goals does not depend on a single system, but all systems combined.
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Personal mastery is a characteristic that focuses on an individual’s self-development and personal insight. It changes the matter from the group to the individual’s specifically. Learning cannot be forced on a person who is not willing; therefore, personal mastery shows how people are personally committed to the course. This is a characteristic that when achieved, fosters competitiveness with other organizations. Before an organization attains organizational learning, it must begin with individual learning since it (organizational learning) will be analyzed from the individuals’ results. If learning fails at an individual level, then it will fail in the whole organization. Learning should be made incidental rather than formal (Senge et al. 2000). This is usually achieved through the development of a culture that promotes personal mastery in the organization. Cultures in an organization are particularly crucial especially when they are in favor of performance.
This means sharing knowledge, views, experiences, and even assumptions to accomplish organizational goals. Therefore, organizations should make thinking a collective rather than an individual process. This is usually achieved by challenging one another in the organization. As individuals are challenged, they will expose different theories that will be useful to the development of the organization. Modern organizations have been noted to have memory that encourages them to preserve dedicated behaviors, values, and norms (Gary, 2005). This makes the learning environment open; thus promoting trust among the people involved. Values, norms, and behaviors that are not wanted should be discarded as they will not have any benefits either in the present or future.
Shared vision implies communicating with others in the organization with the purpose of developing similar future desires. These similar future desires motivate people in the organization to learn. This is because of the common identity that is established among the staff. Attaining a common vision has impacts on people in the organization since it makes them realize personal visions. For the visions to be achieved, traditional structures have to be changed to confront to the future situation of the organization (Schwandt and Marquardt, 2000). Therefore, organizations are supposed to live while focusing on the future rather than past. The organizational structures should be decentralized. The company should have long term goals that will be transited all through the lifetime. On the other hand, there should be short term visions to succeed against competitors. This aspect is crucial as it makes the organization be strategic on its own, and succeed over its competitors. Lack of visions in the organization automatically means failure since there will be no direction to follow. Consequently, clear visions in the organization encourage team work as all efforts are geared towards the same goals. This is what makes some organizations succeed while others fail.
Team learning simply means an accumulation of individual learning. This is crucial in problem solving and rapid growth of an organization. This ensures that all individuals have access to information and resources, and it makes use of dialogues and discussions. Additionally, it implies openly sharing ideas and communicating (Henneman, 2011). For team learning to be effective, organizations must have excellent management structures. These structures are useful in proper implementation of knowledge in the organization.
The five characteristics of a learning organization are beneficial in different ways. They make an organization competitive and at the same time innovative. This is probably because of the shared understanding that results to new ideas, views, assumptions, and theories. When an organization expresses all the learning organization characteristics, it becomes easy to respond effectively to external pressures. This is because the organization will have management structures that are focused on both internal and external factors unlike traditional management approaches that were only focused on systems and processes (Senge et al. 2000). An organization that has all the learning organization characteristics will find it easy to link resources to specific customer needs. The needs of customers have to be prioritized as they determine the success of any organization.
Barriers to achieving Learning Organization Characteristics
There are different things that hinder the achievement of learning organization characteristics in organizations. One of the barriers is complexity of the learning. No one can deny the fact that learning is complicated. Learning is defined by three activities namely “thinking, communicating, and coordinating” (Gary, 2005). The complexity of the learning process makes it difficult to achieve substantial learning organization characteristics. Since these three different activities are required in learning organizations, it is often difficult for people to have all (Gary, 2005). Majority of the people in the organization will tend to be good in either one or two of activities with only a few being good in all the activities.
Traditionally, it is evident that most of the educational programs are directed to company’s executives and other senior officers rather than the officers at the department level. However, most of the organization’s work is usually done at the departmental levels. In addition, it is at the departments where responsibilities and duties are divided. Therefore, learning should be done at this stage so that the right group is targeted (Henneman, 2011). On the other hand, learning organization directed to the senior executives is a barrier to effective learning in organizations. This is because, in most cases, this learning becomes useless if it is done to the senior executives.
Lack of the right learning organization assessment tools is another barrier towards achievement of learning organization characteristics. Although many organizations have ways of fostering and employing learning in organizations, they lack the right ways of measuring the progress. Without these assessment tools, learning may end prematurely hindering the realization of learning organization characteristics.
Many organizations tend to focus much on systems and processes. This inhibits them from achieving learning organization characteristics since; there are different factors that have to be incorporated rather than only the systems and processes. This is a weakness with many learning organizations as they believe that change in the systems and processes will eventually change everything in the organization. Some features such as the personality of the individuals are less impacted by the change in the processes and systems (Senge et al. 2000). Therefore, too much attention on systems and processes makes many organizations not realize learning organization characteristics.
Measuring the Progress of an Organization towards Becoming a Learning Organization
The best way to assess the progress of an organization towards a learning organization is through assessment of the learning activities. The learning activities as already looked at, are thinking, communicating, and coordinating. Measuring the outcomes of the learning activities implies assessing the human capacities to think, communicate, and coordinate (Schwandt and Marquardt, 2000). If members of the organization are able to think, communicate, and coordinate or cooperate fully, then it means that they have gained a lot towards a learning organization.
Another method that can be used to assess the progress of an organization towards a learning organization is change in reacting to events. This method of assessment was widely used in traditional organizations (Henneman, 2011). Since learning organization is all about change, the way people will react to different events either internally or externally will show the efforts towards a learning organization.
Compelling Characteristics and How to Achieve Them
There are some compelling characteristics in the modern organization towards attaining learning organization. One of these compelling characteristics is personal mastery. Most organizations do not achieve this since it is intangible and its benefits are not quantitative. This is usually a threat to many organizations. If people are not fully engaged, they may slim down to their personal visions rather than the visions of the organization. Personal mastery can be achieved, therefore, through engagement of the whole staff. They should be engaged in a way to foster common visions despite the differences in their personal visions (Gary, 2005). Issues of the organization should be dealt with at an organizational level rather than personal level.
Shared vision is another compelling characteristic in organization. This means the staff should have common objectives that are geared towards the success of the organization at large rather than at an individual level (Fulmer and Keys, 1998). An organization can accomplish this by creating a learning culture. In addition, the learning environment should be made open so that individuals can share learning without being looked down upon by others. A shared vision can also be achieved by doing away with all the traditional hierarchical structures of the organization.
Mental models are also a compelling characteristic as some people tend to have closed mind sets. To solve this, learning should be implemented coherently across all levels of the organization. This is crucial to ensure that learning is not only focused on the senior executives. In the latter case, learning will not be viewed with a common vision, but it will just result to personal disparities in the organization. Training should not be made compulsory as it will serve as a form of control (Schwandt and Marquardt, 2000). Learning and development should be perceived as a personal development rather than an organizational development. This is because organizational development cannot be achieved without personal development.
The last compelling characteristic is team learning. Team learning becomes a challenge especially when the population in the organization is high. This is a challenge since it takes long to come into agreements as the views raised at the dawn of discussion will be many. Organizations with large staffs need to develop ways of changing this into an opportunity, because of the many ideas, rather than taking it as a threat (Fulmer and Keys, 1998). Team learning can also be achieved through proper engagement.
In achieving compelling learning organization characteristics, there are significant barriers that organizations face. One of these significant barriers is a high population. For instance, a case where an organization has over 200 staff members makes it difficult to enhance team learning. This is experienced because internal knowledge sharing by its own becomes a challenge. Such an organization is usually complex, and team learning does not favor such environments (Deiser and Abram, 2009). This happens as a result of lower trust, reduced connectivity between staff, and poor communication.
Resistance to learning is another significant obstacle in achieving the compelling learning organization characteristics. This happens when buy-in at the individual level is not done sufficiently (Senge et al. 2000). Such a situation is mostly common among people who are not willing to change hence making the learning process deviate from its goals. Learning, therefore, should begin at a personal level so that the whole staff is sufficiently involved in the start up process.
Strategies to Overcome the Barriers
The barriers in the learning organization should not be left to grow as this leads to complete failure of the organization. There are some strategies that can be used to overcome these barriers. One of these strategies is making learning to be informal. The managers should not own the learning, but it should take place in the organization. For instance, customer care executives will learn by solving problems in the organizations (Henneman, 2011). The key to success of an organization is not providing lots of formal learning, but creating an environment that favors informal or on-the-job learning.
Giving employees the right incentives is also a strategy to overcome the barriers. This rewarding can be done directly or indirectly. Directly, it can be done, for instance, by rewarding top performers in the organization. Additionally, giving incentives can be done indirectly by giving the staff time to improve their skills, for instance, through part time learning.
Another strategy that can also be used is letting people make mistakes. It has always been said that people learn from their mistakes. Therefore, the best learning takes place after making a mistake (Deiser and Abram, 2009). Mistakes should not be punished, but taken as opportunities to improve on learning in the organization.
The last key strategy that can be employed in an organization to embark on the achievement of the learning organization characteristics is setting up of clear visions. The visions should be acknowledged and accepted by the whole staff. When there is some resistance among the employees, it becomes difficult to embrace learning for the sake of achieving the vision (Fulmer and Keys, 1998). In such a situation, the staff will tend to concentrate on their own personal visions. This is the worst that can happen in organizational learning as it will render the whole process useless.
In summary, organizational learning is a concept that has been in organizations since time immemorial. This is an informal learning that should occur in an open environment. Effective organizations learning should have all the five characteristics including “a clear vision, personal mastery, team learning, mental models and systems thinking” (Senge et al. 2000). However, there are some barriers to achieving these characteristics and organizations should strive to change the threats to opportunities. Lastly, there are some strategies that can be employed to eliminate the barriers, for instance, giving incentives to employees, making learning informal and allowing people to make mistakes.
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