Conceptualization and Evolution of Learning Organizations

Conceptualization and Evolution of Learning Organizations

Baiyin Yang (Tsinghua University, China)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-883-3.ch026
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Learning organization has received an increasing attention in the literature of organization and management studies, but only few empirical studies have been conducted to examine its nature, antecedents, and outcomes. Facilitating continuous human resource development throughout all levels of the organization is becoming a primary challenge for many HR professionals. In the era of knowledge economy where intellectual capital and learning become major sources of competitiveness, managers of all functions have to develop and nurture a learning culture. Consequently, human resources information systems need to embrace the concept of learning organization. A robust information system should enable organizational learning, knowledge creation, sharing, and application. This article discusses the definitions of learning organization, reasons for the popularity of this concept, emerging studies on this topic including its relationship with organizational performance, practical measures used to build learning organization, and future trends of this topic.
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Conceptualization Of The Learning Organization

A number of approaches to defining the construct have emerged in the literature; they are system thinking, learning perspective, strategic perspective, and cultural perspective.

Senge (1990) applies the system thinking approach and defines the learning organization as an organization that possesses not only an adaptive capacity but also a generativity, that is, the ability to create alternative futures. Senge (1990) identifies the five disciplines that a learning organization should possess: (1) team learning with the emphasis on the learning activities of group processes rather than on the development of team process; (2) share visions, that is, the skills of unearthing shared “pictures of the future” that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance; (3) mental models and the deeply held internal images of how the world works; (4) personal mastery, which is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening personal vision, of focusing energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively; and (5) system thinking, that is, the ability of seeing interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains.

Pedler, Burgoyne, and Boydell (1991) take a learning perspective and define the learning organization as “an organization that facilitates the learning of all of its members and continuously transforms itself in order to meet its strategic goals” (p. 1). They identified eleven areas, that of, using learning approach to strategy, participative policy making, informating, formative accounting and control, internal exchange, reward flexibility, enabling structures, using boundary workers as environmental scanners, intercompany learning, learning climate, and self-development for everyone.

The strategic approach to the learning organization maintains that being a learning organization requires an understanding of the strategic internal drivers necessary for building learning capability. Garvin (1993) defines “[a] learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights” (p. 80). Having synthesized the description of management practices and policies related to this construct in the literature, Goh (1998) contends that learning organizations have five core strategic building blocks: (1) clarity and support for mission and vision, (2) shared leadership and involvement, (3) a culture that encourages experimentation, (4) the ability to transfer knowledge across organizational boundaries, and (5) team work and cooperation.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Organizational learning: The processes or activities that an organization involves to develop insights, knowledge, and lessons from past experiences so as to improve current and future performance. Organizational learning means the process of improve actions through better knowledge and understanding. It occurs in all organizations, and it indicates how individuals, teams, and organizational learn and transform.

Learning Organization: Those organizations where learning and work are integrated in an ongoing and systematic fashion to sustain continuous improvement of the organization at three levels: individuals, work groups or teams, and the organization.

Double-Loop Learning: The process in which individuals, groups, or organizations question the foundation of existing knowledge (i.e., values, assumptions and policies) that led to the actions in the first place. Second-order or double-loop learning has taken place then they are able to recognize the gap and modify the existing knowledge. Double loop learning is the learning about single-loop learning.

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