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What is a learning organization?

A learning organization is one that is committed to continuously re-envisioning all aspects of its business and increasing the capabilities of its people. Being a learning organization must be the foundation of any organizational culture that hopes to go beyond surviving to thrive in the 21st century high-speed, rapid change business climate.

A learning organization is a bit of a misnomer because it is not, of course, the organization that actually learns. Rather it is the collective of individuals in the organization that adopt a philosophy and practice of ongoing learning who create an organization that has the ability to constantly revive and re-create itself on an ongoing basis in response to the needs, demands and resources of the market.

Why build a learning organization?

There are many reasons to build a learning organization: to improve quality, to enhance customer service, to increase staff performance, to manage change, to foster an engaged and energized workforce, and to increase competitive advantage. All of these results, however, can be achieved with a variety of other models and methods. What these other models and methods lack is the capacity for generating solutions that do not exacerbate problems over the long-term by focusing on short-term solutions.

A key tenet of building a learning organization involves the practice of systems thinking. This practice helps individuals to consider the effects of proposed solutions over the long term, identify mental models that block real innovation, and develop holistic strategies that consider the impact on natural systems and markets. Ultimately, the most fundamental reason for undertaking the task of building a learning organization is because we have no other real choice. Only by becoming committed to learning as individuals and as organizations can we hope to address challenges such as technological change, increasing violence, shortages of skilled workers, and environmental degradation that are facing not only organizations, but our communities as well.

How do we create a learning organization?

Real learning requires that the individual or organization involved is willing to let go of existing knowledge, mental models and methods in favor of something that works better. Real learning in an organization must take place on several levels. In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Peter Senge lists five “learning disciplines” that are the foundation for study and practice in a learning organization:

Personal Mastery – Organizations must expand their ability to support individuals in identifying their individual passions and purpose and being able to fulfill these both at work and in their lives.

Mental Models – Organizations must support individuals to seek understanding of current beliefs and models of how the world works and how we create our results. They must foster a commitment to question these models on an ongoing basis in order to create stronger foundations for sustainable actions and decisions.

Shared Vision – Organizations must learn to build a vision for the organization based on shared visions, values and goals. They must build a common ground of shared principles for decision-making and action which will guide their learning, performance, and economic growth.

Team Learning – Organizations must develop the ability and desire of their people to engage in deep conversation and strategic questioning on difficult issues. This is essential to facilitate the cross-pollination of talents and develop synergistic intelligence, collective thinking, high-leverage solutions and quantum growth.

Systems Thinking – Organizations must promote holistic thinking that views both problems and their solutions from 30,000 feet. Special attention must be given to natural cause and effect relationships, interdependence and processes within and between individuals, organizations, communities, markets, and the environment to ensure that solutions are real in the long term as well as the short term.

The first of these practices, Personal Mastery, is the foundation for all of the others. Personal Mastery consists of helping each and every individual within the organization to understand and grow their own passions, purpose and vision within the organization. Without building this foundation of awareness that occurs in the practice of Personal Mastery, there is no spark of inspiration for learning within the organization. Without Personal Mastery, individuals have no clear sense of their own vision, their own strengths and weaknesses, and their personal desires and motivations for learning. This is critical to move people from just accepting training – which results only in temporary shifts in behaviour – to real learning that is lasting and permanent.

The first step in developing Personal Mastery is articulating a personal vision. This personal vision must encompass what the individual wants to create for themselves in a variety of areas not limited solely to work or the organization. A personal vision should include a clear picture of both the tangibles and intangibles in one’s life in terms of health, home, relationships, self-image, recreation, career, and community. To begin developing your own personal vision as a leader in a learning organization, simply take some time with each of the above categories to define how you would like your life to look in that area a year from now.

Another key component of one’s personal vision is an understanding, or rather a choice, of what they wish to live as their life purpose. Many people mistakenly assume that their life purpose is something that will be magically revealed to them, as if by decree, at some pivotal moment in their life. Though this has been known to happen, more often than not the process of uncovering your life purpose is a gradual one and clarity comes only from articulating and committing to follow your best understanding of it so far. As you life into the current purpose you have articulated for your life, you deepen your understanding of it.

After developing a personal vision, the next step in Personal Mastery is to identify how well your current reality fits your vision. This requires radical honesty both with yourself and, for the truly courageous, the willingness to seek feedback from others in the organization and your circle of influence to determine accurately where you stand in relation to your vision and what might be preventing you from reaching it.

The final step in Personal Mastery involves commitment to see the learning through and create real and lasting change in your life. This ability to commit requires a separate set of knowledge and capabilities to integrate your understanding of your vision, with your own personal strengths and weaknesses and develop an action plan that will move you towards your goal. Don’t let yourself be stopped by uncertainty over whether or not this is the vision that you really want to commit to. By picking something that is in the right ballpark and committing to take action towards it, you will set in motion a whole sequence of events that will conspire to bring you something that will likely be even better than what you had imagined. Or as Robert Fritz, a pioneer in the area of Personal Mastery says. “It’s not what the vision is. It’s what the vision does.”

– Andrea Jacques (Kyosei Coaching)

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