Definition Of A Learning Organization Management Essay


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The purpose of this paper is to discuss, assess, compare, and contrast this authors preferred management philosophy using five different articles or books that have been published within the last five years in academic literature. Furthermore, a matrix will be included to depict the similarities and differences among the five different articles or books.

The management philosophy that this author prefers centers on the learning organization. The learning organization is not a new concept however, it did not become popular until the 1990s when organizations begin to realize that in order to be successful well into the future they had to embrace new ways of thinking instead of hanging onto the old ways of thinking. A learning organization is able to continuously experiment and improve its capabilities by enabling individuals within the organization to identify and solve problems. Therefore, the organization is able to enhance its capacity to grow, learn, and adapt its culture. Furthermore, the organization will gain new knowledge and insights. By comparing the articles this author believes that there is no universal definition of a learning organization and that there are multiple viewpoints surrounding the characteristics of this type of organization.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows: a discussion that focuses on the varying definitions of a learning organization and multiple viewpoints related to the characteristics of learning organizations.

Discussion: Definition of a Learning Organization

Organizational practitioners define the term "learning organization" in a variety of ways. However, even to this day, a universal definition of a "learning organization" remains elusive. Although, the most widely accepted definition was given by Senge who defines a learning organization as an organization where individuals are constantly expanding their ability to create the outcomes that they wish to achieve, innovative thought patterns are encouraged, individuals are free to pursue their objectives, and individuals are constantly learning together (as cited in Weldy & Gillis, 2010).

Gephart and Marsick describe a learning organization as one "that has an enhanced capacity to learn, adapt, and change" (as quoted by Akhtar & Rashid, 2011, p. 263).

Senge sets forth another possible explanation of a learning organization as an organization that will last well into the future by "discovering how to tap people's commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization" (as quoted by Akhtar & Rashid, 2011, p. 258).

Garvin defines a learning organization as an organization that is adept at "creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights" (as quoted by Akhtar & Rashid, 2011, p. 257).

According to Akhtar and Rashid (2011), a learning organization can be defined as an organization that is ambitious, proactive, ahead of its time, strategic, alive, adaptable, flexible, and promotes experimentation. Furthermore, a learning organization can readily adapt to changes as well as provide all of its members with the opportunity to grow and learn (Akhtar & Rashid, 2011).

Bateman describes a learning organization as an organization that has the capability to not only introduce and acquire knowledge but to disseminate that knowledge throughout the organization as well as to modify behavior resulting in the reflection of new knowledge and behavior (as cited in Hawamdeh & Mohammed, 2012).

Dixon defines a learning organization in terms of how an organization uses its members to develop methods that will not only increase but also improve organizational performance (as cited in Weldy & Gillis, 2010).

Although, each definition of a learning organization differs from one another, each one addresses the common elements of futuristic thinking, that learning is a continuous process, and that a dynamic, living organization has the capability to learn.

Viewpoints: Learning Organizations

This section will discuss and highlight the different viewpoints related to the characteristics of a learning organization. Table 1 provides a matrix highlighting the similarities as they relate to the characteristics of a learning organization that were discussed in this paper.


Senge put forth one perspective that asserts that an organization has several key characteristics that differentiate it from other types of organizations such as a bureaucratic organization. Some of these key characteristics include team building, learning from past experiences, the effective as well as efficient transfer of knowledge in a timely manner across an organization, system thinking, problem solving, and experimentation (as cited in Hawamdeh & Mohammed, 2012).

Additionally, Senge believes that there are three primary learning capabilities that organizations and individuals alike must possess in order for learning to be successful which are nurturing aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and comprehending complexity (as cited in Edwards, 2012). He further proposes five disciplines that are vital to the success of any learning organization which are defined by Kourdi (2009) as follows:

System thinking: this discipline is essentially a framework for understanding the interrelationship among an organization's parts rather than as a whole.

Personal mastery: is the discipline of constantly clarifying one's personal vision, channeling our energies, exercising patience, and exhibiting objectivity.

Mental models: are deep-rooted perceptions, beliefs, and generalizations that have an impact on the way we behave and how we comprehend the world we live in.

Shared vision: this discipline involves the creation of a vision for the future that has the power to be inspiring and encouraging in terms of creativity, experimentation, and innovation.

Team learning: this discipline builds off the other disciplines of personal mastery and shared vision by recognizing the concept that individuals must be able to work and learn together.

It is important to note that the three primary learning capabilities and the five disciplines are linked together; that is they build off each other.


Daft has a very different perspective from Senge when it comes to the characteristics of a learning organization. He outlines several key characteristics, which are "determined, teaching and sponsoring leadership, participatory strategy, team-based structure, rigorous adaptation culture, administrative and staff empowerment, and access to information" (as quoted by Hawamdeh & Mohammed, 2012, p. 690).

Gephart and Marsick

Gephart and Marsick identified six key attributes that are vital to a learning organization (as cited in Akhtar & Rashid, 2011) which are described as follows:

Continuous learning at the systems level: individuals share their learning in ways that allow an organization to learn through the transfer of knowledge throughout the organization by incorporating the learning into an organization's routines as well as activities.

Knowledge creation and sharing: involves the creation, capture, and movement of knowledge throughout the organization quickly and easily so that individuals who need the information can access it in a timely manner.

Critical system thinking: this type of thinking encourages individuals to think in new ways and to think critically as well as productively.

Culture of learning: learning and creativity are rewarded and supported .

Spirit of flexibility and community: encourages an individual to take risks, be creative, explore new ideas, experiment, solve problems, and perform in their own way.

People-centered: a learning organization is in essence a community that cares which fosters, appreciates, supports the welfare, and growth of each individual.

Goh and Richards

Goh and Richards proposed a model that identified five primary conditions that are essential for learning to occur in an organization (as cited in Akhtar & Rashid, 2011) which are described as follows:

Clarity of purpose and mission: a shared sense and understanding of an organization's mission and vision is essential in a learning organization.

Leadership commitment and empowerment: requires a commitment to organizational goals as well as learning goals. Mistakes are a part of the learning process and performance deficiencies are identified.

A culture that fosters experimentation: experimentation requires challenging the status-quo by finding ways to do things better. Risk taking must be encouraged and rewarded. Additionally, problems should be viewed as opportunities to come up with innovative ideas or solutions.

Ability to transfer knowledge: must be transferred throughout the organization easily and in a timely manner so that it can be accessed by individuals that need the information.

Teamwork and cooperation: individuals bring their collective skills and abilities together to share information, brainstorm, and solve problems. It is essential that a team be composed of members from each functional department within an organization.

Garvin, Edmonson, and Gino

Garvin, Edmonson, and Gino proposed a model that consists of three units for learning to occur in an organization (as cited in Akhtar & Rashid, 2011) which are defined as follows:

An environment that supports learning: this type of environment involves employees feeling comfortable while challenging the ideas of co-workers, managers, leaders, and so forth. Employees must be able to express their thoughts about the job, encouraged to take risks, and apply their own ideas. All members of the organization must be encouraged to think innovatively.

Concrete learning process and practices: involves the sharing, generation, collection, and interpretation of information. Additionally, it involves experimentation with creative ideas.

Leadership behavior: leaders have a strong influence on organizational learning. Organizational members whose leaders provide them with opportunities to speak are going to be motivated and encouraged to learn.


Parek proposed eight essential elements that are necessary for organizational learning to occur (as cited in Akhtar & Rashid, 2011) which are defined as follows:

Systemic view: enables organizational members to work on the underlying causes of a problem rather than simply just scratching the problem's surface.

Strategic thinking: enables leaders to think of the consequences and implications of a decision.

Shared vision: management must develop a vision and communicate the vision throughout the organization ensuring that organizational members understand the vision and share in it.

Empowerment: individuals in a learning organization must be provided with direction and support as well as the freedom to accomplish their task.

Information: information must be able to freely flow throughout the organization and at all levels of the organization, whether it is positive or negative it should be passed on.

Emotional maturity: this element includes commitment, optimism, self-discipline, and risk taking in moderation.

Learning: a learning organization's environment must be conducive for learning and encourage discussions, debates, and the sharing of new ideas.

Synergy: encourages teamwork and collaboration. In order for teams to be effective the members of the team must put aside their differences, assumptions, and generalizations. Teams must be composed of members from each functional department within an organization.

Table 1: Matrix of Learning Organization Characteristics



Gephart & Marsick

Goh & Richards

Garvin, Edmonson, & Gino


Personal Mastery


Mental Models/Culture/Climate







Shared Vision/Mission




Systems Thinking











Team learning/Teamwork

















Although, there are multiple viewpoints that surround the characteristics of a learning organization some common characteristics continue to surface in these articles, which are based upon previously published works by individuals such as Senge and Parek. These common characteristics are organizational culture and climate, team learning and teamwork, leadership, shared vision and mission, and empowerment.


The preferred management philosophy of this author centers on the learning organization. The concept of a learning organization is not new however, it did not become a popular way of thinking for managers until the 1990s. After reviewing the five articles, it is readily apparent that there is not a universally accepted definition of what a learning organization is. In fact, a universally accepted definition of this type of organization remains elusive to this day although the definition of a learning organization by Senge in this paper is the most widely accepted definition.

Furthermore, the multiple viewpoints related to the characteristics of a learning organization were explored to determine if there were any commonalities or differences among the viewpoints. After a careful review of the articles, it is apparent some common characteristics continue to surface which are organizational culture and climate, team learning and teamwork, leadership, shared vision and mission, and empowerment.

Consequently, further research needs to be conducted to clear up the ambiguity surrounding the definition of a learning organization. Additionally, more studies need to be carried out to determine a universal set of characteristics that are applicable to a learning organization.

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