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  • Writer's pictureHelena Eketrapp

The success of the learning organization is everyone's business

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

How do you usually answer the question "what do you do for a living"? Your answer actually reveals whether you are part of a learning organization - or not!

In the learning organization, its success is everyone's concern. It sounds so obvious, BUT is it really? How does the question above, about what you work on, relate to the learning organization? Curious? Keep reading and I promise lots of new insights.


How do you usually answer the question ”What do you work with?” Take a moment and think about it!

Have you thought about how differently we respond? And the answer is actually very telling of how we view our work.

A couple of years ago, I probably usually answered something like I work as a Learning & Development consultant or I work with organizational development. Today, my answer will instead be "I create learning organizations".

The classic example from 1962 is probably even more telling. JF Kennedy asks the janitor at NASA - "What do you do for NASA?" The warden says ” Sir, I putting man on the moon ”. It is clear that the janitor understood that his role was to keep the workplace and the building in the condition required for the scientists and engineers to do their jobs. He understood his role in the universe, so to speak.In the learning organization, the answer is given I work to put man on the moon because there the organization's success is mine and everyone's concern. In the "normal" organization, the answer is something like "I work as a janitor" because there my job is my concern and not what the organization as a whole wants to create.

In the learning organization, its success, and challenges, are everyone's business. In the "regular" organization, your tasks are your business, the team's tasks are the team's business, and so on.

How should we define a learning organization?

There are many different definitions of a learning organization, and you will most certainly get more or less different answers depending on who you ask.

It is common to see a learning organization as a place that is good at competence development and competence provision and where learning and training are prioritized. Unfortunately, this somewhat narrow interpretation contributes to limiting ourselves. We fail to see the organization as the complex system that it really is, where all parts are interdependent. With this approach, we lose the holistic perspective and focus only on a subset of what matters, or even on the wrong things, in the effort to build the learning organization. This interpretation is also one of the main reasons why it often ends up solely on HR's shoulders, instead of a learning organization becoming everyone's concern.

Within research that has a slightly larger perspective than just the issue of competence, a learning organization is roughly defined as A business that encourages and facilitates learning and constantly transforms itself to better face the future. A learning organization is a place where the people in it continuously discover how they create their reality and how they can change it to contribute to the organization's future.

Another name for the learning organization is the transformative organization.

However, no one, regardless of the definition of a learning organization, disputes that the ultimate purpose of learning organizations is to remain relevant in the fast-moving world we live in now.

What is learning really?

We need to start from the beginning, and ask ourselves what learning is!Learning is actually part of being human. It is through learning that we build the ability to do something we have never done before. It is through learning that we pay attention to the world and our relationship to it. It is through learning that we expand our ability to create, to become part of the generative/creative process that life is. It is through learning that we recreate ourselves, so to speak. Within all people is a deep hunger to learn. If we lose it, we lose a bit of what it means to be human.

Learning is thus something completely different from a formal, possibly forced, education that is followed up with various control functions (what I usually call command & control education).

Is there a difference between learning and learning? Adaptive learning and generative learning!

A learning organization constantly expands its capacity to create and contribute to the future. For such an organization, what is usually called adaptive learning, i.e. learning where people must acquire knowledge of predetermined routines, guidelines or working methods, is not enough, even if this type of learning is important and necessary. In a learning organization, there needs to be plenty of room for generative learning, i.e. learning that strengthens our ability to create (new).

In an organization that is detail- and event-driven, generative learning will never happen. Generative learning requires an understanding of the whole, i.e. systems thinking and an ability to discover structural causes of behaviour. Enthusiasm to contribute to creating is not enough!

When we talk about the learning organization, I also think it is interesting to reflect on our Swedish word "näringsliv". A literal interpretation is create nourishment for life. Then learning in our organizations would be about "learning to create nourishment for life" and that the learning organization has that as its ultimate purpose in a larger perspective. I think that interpretation is very nice and puts both entrepreneurship, work and learning in a completely different light.

Where does the idea of Learning organizations come from?

The concept was created through work and research by Peter Senge and his colleagues in the 90s. According to Peter Senge, a learning organization is a group of people working together to improve their ability to create results they really care about. Senge popularized the concept of the learning organization through his book The Fifth Discipline – the Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (1990/2006). The book is considered one of the best management books of all time and is a great source of insights that are universal even today. But it is not an easily digestible book but takes time to read and requires thought and reflection.

Peter Senge is very clear that we need each other to create a good result. Only learning at the individual level is not enough and can even be counterproductive in the worst case, he believes.

Peter Senge talks about three core abilities for a learning organization: 1) the desire and striving towards creating something good 2) Ability for a reflective dialogue and 3) Understanding the complexity of an organization .


Aspiration (the will and striving towards creating something good)

  • Personal Mastery – A form of self-leadership where the individual is aware of his own "why" and creates meaning by striving towards his personal vision in relation to a larger context.

  • Shared Vision - A shared vision that embraces everyone's personal vision in the organization (and its stakeholders).

Reflective conversation (Capacity for a reflective dialogue )

  • Mental models - i.e. deeply rooted assumptions and generalizations how we understand the world and what governs our behaviors

  • Dialogue - that we think and learn together . Collective learning (Team learning) begins in the dialogue.

Understanding complexity (Understanding the complexity of an organization )

  • System Thinking - see the organization as a whole , build understanding of the complexity and how the parts of the organization work together and depend on each other.


Source: Peter Senge, the Fifth Discipline (1990/2006)

Some of the advantages of a learning organization according to Peter Senge are:

  • Creates innovation at all levels, with the aim of remaining relevant and competitive

  • Invests its resources on the customers' real needs, and where it creates the most value.

  • High quality of everything the organization does and what it delivers, at all levels

  • Quick-moving and good at changing

  • High sense of community within the organization, and also with customers and other stakeholders

  • Ability to make decisions that contribute to long-term relevance and success

  • Shares knowledge and learns together, has great organizational learning

  • A strong internal and external "brand" when people are put at the center

  • People in the organization feel good and choose to stay

However, a learning organization places higher demands on its employees because it has higher expectations of people's contribution to the success of the organization and to its future.

What characterizes a learning organization

Today, many of us throw ourselves around the term Learning organization. And although I think that most people are fully aware that it is a big challenge for organizations to create the right conditions, many still come up with rather simple solutions to the "problem" and with a bunch of quick-fix suggestions. But, when we dive a little deeper into what it means to be a learning organization, we realize that it is complex.

We start by looking at what characterizes a learning organization in order to understand what it is we strive towards. This kind of list easily feels like platitudes, but if an organization really takes it to heart and decides to strive to reach this state, it takes on a completely different meaning.

  • In a learning organization, people are encouraged to learn and develop, individually and together, both at work and outside, and the organization has the ability to transform both individual and joint experiences into organizational learning that contributes to the organization's success.”Work must become more learningsful”

  • In a learning organization, people are better at listening empathetically and understanding the needs of customers and the outside world, and faster at adapting to meet these needs.

  • In a learning organization, people are open and responsive, both to what happens inside and outside the organization. The continuous influx of new experiences and new knowledge creates a dynamic and flexible organization that is constantly prepared for change while a more innovative and permissive environment is created.

  • In the learning organization, the people in the work experience it as meaningful and that it is in line with their own personal vision.

  • In a learning organization, people have the ability to see opportunities instead of problems and thus much better at creating value both for their customers and other stakeholders, while the work becomes much more enjoyable.

  • In a learning organization, teams and people become better at prioritizing and focusing on what creates value (and opting out of other things).

  • In a learning organization, people are better at leading strategic, exploratory and experimental initiatives and activities by experimenting and learning along the way.

  • In a learning organization there is a strong power of innovation, as innovation and learning are strongly related.

  • A learning organization uses its full potential! Research shows that "ordinary" organizations use as little as 40% of its potential so there's a lot to pick up here.

  • Learning organizations attract the best people - the best employees, the best customers, and the best suppliers and partners.

What is preventing us from becoming a learning organization?

If we now turn the coin and look more closely at why it is so difficult - and there is much that prevents organizations in their transformation to become a learning organization. Some things we are probably quite aware of. Others are harder to see.

Listed below are eight factors that prevent businesses from becoming learning organizations according to Peter Senge:

1. Management by measurement

  • Focus on short-term results

  • Underestimate intangible assets (only 3% of what matters can be measured - W.E Deming)

2. Compliance culture

  • Get ahead by pleasing the boss

  • “Management by fear”

3. Management of Results

  • The management sets the goals

  • People are held accountable for meeting management goals (regardless of whether it is possible within existing systems and processes).

4. Right answers vd wrong answers

  • Technical problem solving is emphasized

  • Aberrant/divergent problems are reduced

5. Uniformity

  • Differences are a problem to be solved

  • Conflicts are suppressed over superficial agreements

6. Predictability and controllability

  • To lead is to control

  • The trinity of leadership is planning, organizing and controlling

7. Excessive competition and mistrust

  • Competition between people is essential to be able to reach the desired performance

  • Without competition between people, there will be no innovation

8. Lack of the whole

  • Fragmentation

  • Local innovations do not spread further

However, this list can be a bit difficult to absorb, and most organizations need tools both to see their barriers and help with how to address them.

You can learn more about obstacles to the learning organization in the article - Why is the learning organization conspicuous by its absence?


Is your organization using its full potential?

Is your organization using its full potential? Or are there things that prevent you from growing?

What if you knew your organization was only reaching 40% of its full potential? Wouldn't that change the way you thought about strategy?

SpryHouse has, based on research, identified nine drivers that describe the conditions and capabilities that are common to organizations that have succeeded in building long-term value and healthy and sustainable growth and what organizations can do to increase its degree of maturity. Read more here …

At SpryHouse, we help organizations to transform into learning organizations, unlock untapped potential and transform it into ability, commitment and innovative power that create real value and for all stakeholders.

Our thesis is that many companies use a maximum of 40% of their full potential. We believe that all organizations can unlock more potential and grow sustainably, healthily and creating value.



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