Management theorists including Smith recognize that although there has been considerable debate about learning organizations ever since the emergence of the concept in the early 1990s,it has not been easy to cite examples of such organizations in real life…
Management theorists including Smith recognize that although there has been considerable debate about learning organizations ever since the emergence of the concept in the early 1990s,it has not been easy to cite examples of such organizations in real life. Smith (2001a) therefore is of the opinion that the concept of the learning organization may be too idealistic to be translated into reality; similarly, theorists such as Jashapara (1993) have metaphorically equated the struggle to become a learning organization with 'a quest for the Holy Grail'. This paper first reviews, summarizes and explains available literature on the subject of learning organizations and further attempts to determine whether such an organization is in reality achievable or not.The concept of the learning organization was pioneered and popularized during the 1990s by Peter Senge through his book The Fifth Discipline which was first published in the year 1990 (Smith, 2001b). The premise behind the theory of learning organizations is that in the rapidly changing world; where today's new discovery may be obsolete tomorrow, only those succeed who are 'adaptive' and 'flexible' (Smith, 2001) and Senge (1990a, p. 4) believes that this could only happen when organizations 'discover how to tap people's commitment and capacity to learn at all levels'. Senge (1990a, p. 3) views learning organizations as those where people continually strive to broaden the horizons of their capacity for the achievement of desired results, where innovative and out of the box thinking is encouraged and cultivated, where team work and collectivism is valued and 'where people are continually learning to see the whole together'.
Senge believes that true learning enables both organizations and individuals to re-invent themselves and thus argues that survival alone is not the objective for learning organizations. He goes on to distinguish between 'adaptive' or single-loop learning and 'generative' or double-loop learning, and explains that where 'adaptive learning' is that which is necessary for mere survival, learning organizations are those which combine adaptive learning with 'generative learning', i.e. learning which enriches the ability to create (1990a, p. 14).
Evolution of the Concept of the Learning Organization
Rowden (2001), in an effort to trace the learning organization to its founding disciplines recognizes that the concept of the learning organization is not new and can trace its roots in organizational learning (Argyris & Schon, 1978) as well as being derived from action learning (Revans, 1983). Further, the learning organization concept is found to be rooted in organizational development specifically in 'action research methodology' and organic organizational theory. The concept is based most specifically on systems theory (Senge, 1990a) whereas its application to business has been more of an evolutionary outcome of strategic management (Fiol & Lyles 1985; Hosley et al. 1994), which in turn has over the years realized that the fundamental source of strategic change is in fact organizational learning (DeGeus 1988; Jashapara 1993). Rowden (2001) further notes the opinions of thinkers Senge (1990b) and Stata (1989) that the practical application of the notion of the learning organization began with the increased emphasis on continual quality improvement in the recent past.
Characteristics of Learning Organizations
Senge (1990a) identifies the five building blocks of the learning organization and calls them its 'component technologies', which are systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision and team learning. Similar thinking is echoed by Watkins & Marsick (1993) and Rowden (2001), who agree that learning organizations share certain key characteristics. They provide learning opportunities to ...
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