By: Dianette Seda-López

Have you ever implemented strategies that worked in other industries and the result was not the expected one? What did go wrong? It might have been implementing a practice which was part of a discipline, unknowing of what other aspects were essential to make it work. That might have happened to many organizations trying to improve their HR practices. To be competitive and to improve productivity, a change in culture within the company is essential, but a difficult task at hand. To have the Return of Investment (ROI), the company must research and implement proven processes and practices that warranty results. The Learning Organization (L.O.) discipline is very complex and effective, and might be of benefit to many if they do their research and implement those practices that might work for their businesses.

In 1990, Peter M. Senge published his book “The fifth discipline” where he presented a model for L.O. There he explained the disciplines that needed to be mastered and form the core of it are: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. Per Senge’s (2006) definition, it needs generative learning which “cannot be sustained in an organization if people’s thinking is dominated by short-term events.” Companies need to predict an event, so they can be as prepared as possible. To be able to predict events, employees, managers and top-level management, should pay attention to outcomes of implemented practices.

Another concern, has been addressed by Garvin (1993) where he mentions “will managers know when their companies have become learning organizations?”. There are organizations whose focus was not to become a learning organization when they implemented practices they understood might work for them. Implementation of strategies often happens unknowing they will create a new culture and implement an existing model. What is very important for Senge’s model is to address the learning disabilities identified in his book: (1) “I am my position”, (2) “The enemy is out there” which reflects in how employees might look what or where to blame, (3) “the illusion of taking charge” which refers of being proactive instead of reactive, (4) “the fixation on events”, (5) “the parable of the boiled frog”, (6) “the delusion of learning from experience” and (7) “the myth of the management team”. If these disabilities are overcome, a learning organization might be possible.

The Learning Organization and the Organizational Learning concepts have been confused many times as being the same. It is important that before quoting any of the many available definitions, the same differentiation Armstrong & Foley (2003) did in their article, is made: organizational learning, “concentrates on the observation and analysis of the processes involved in individual and collective learning inside organizations”, while the learning organization has an “action orientation, and is geared toward using specific diagnostic and evaluative methodological tools which can help to identify, promote and evaluate the quality of learning processes inside organization”.

This differentiation is vital for any organization to understand which one is the theory they are adopting. Another version of the same interpretation is offered by Pokharel & Choi (2015) where it states “Organizational learning is the process of acquiring, interpreting, distributing and making meaning of information, while learning organization is the state in which organizations manifest the advanced stage of organizational development, as indicated by the seven dimensions”. This last of the sentence refers to a model created by Watkins and Marsick (1997) and is based in a continuous learning theory.

One of the best definitions of this concept is cited by Garvin (1993) in his article, “a learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights”, is then when the Learning Organization culture and model has been implemented into the Organization. Each implementation require changes in how the work is getting done, otherwise results will not last.

Now, for understanding some of the models existent in Learning Organization, where it refers to the single loop and double loop learning, it is important to understand the concept behind it. Per Sun & Scott (2003) “single-loop learning is limited to changes to the current norms and assumptions of the organization, whereas double-loop learning questions and changes these norms and assumptions.” These terms are referred by the authors to Senge’s terms of adaptive learning for the single-loop learning and generative learning for the double-loop one.


There is more than one model of Learning Organization, most of them based on Senge’s Fifth discipline book presenting the concept of the Learning Organization. To be able to understand the following models of Learning Organization, it is essential to know Peter Senge’s shown in addendum 5, and its disciplines which are the core of most of the models developed afterward. Senge’s identify and define each discipline as follows: (1) Personal Mastery “discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.” (2) Mental models is defined as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.” (3) Building Shared Vision happens when “people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to” but it happens by binding “people together around a common identity and sense of destiny” where the employees follow a vision that is shared inside the organization. (4) Team Learning happens when dialogue occurs, and the members of a “team” start thinking together, leaving assumptions aside. (5) Systems Thinking is a “conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.”

Another model that is presented by Garvin (1993) is Ikujiro Nonaka “Metaphors and Organizational redundancy which has three areas: to focus thinking, encourage dialogue and make tacit, instinctively understood ideas explicit. Meanwhile, Rowley & Gibbs (2008) presents the practically wise organization with seven pillars, (1) understanding dynamic complexity, (2) Developing personal wisdom competency, (3) deliberating towards ethical models, (4) refreshing shared sustainable vision, (5) group wisdom dynamics, (6) deliberated praxis and, (7) embodied learning. This practically wise organization, can’t work if it is not a learning organization as well, for which it identifies the following building blocks: clarity of mission and vision, leadership commitment and empowerment, experimentation and rewards, effective transfer of knowledge and teamwork and group problem solving.


In the study of the strategies of learning organizations in China, Wen (2014) presents the following strategies to construct a learning organization: (1) leaders first, leadership transition and learning leadership team, (2) to promote learning and personal mastery, (3) the double-loop learning, systems thinking and the improvement of mental models, (4) to develop organizational capacity, learning teams and the deep dialogue, (5) to promote the practice of learning, (6) to enhance the effectiveness of learning, (7) to establish the “three in one” mode of work, (8) to aim at sustainable development, (9) to promote the whole assessment process and, (10) to establish the leading group. These practices are based in eight of Senge’s proposed strategies combined with those of other scholars who created them under specific contexts and conditions. Many of these focuses in leadership and continuous learning.

Results showed in research related to performance

There are different researches that focus in the performance acquired in different organizations, by implementing the learning organization model. Two of them, are in the public-sector industries and another one in a financial firm. At both industries, the results showed that implementing the model had relationship with a better performance in the organizations. In the one performed by Pokharel & Choi (2015), Watkins and Marsick model was analyzed through a dedicated set of questions, taken from the Dimensions of Learning Organization Questionnaire (DLOQ) and it researched the three levels: individual, group and organizational. In it, five out of the seven dimensions showed to be related to the performance outcome of the Organization. The two organizational level variables that didn’t show any significant association with performance, the researcher understands, it is related even though it wasn’t proved by his methodology.

In the case of a Supply Chain Industry presented by Opengart (2015) and using the Supply chain management, the researcher could conclude that “adopting the framework and practices of a “learning chain” will enable organizations to develop the capacity of their supply chain, manage the supply chain’s potential and success and add a perspective from which to assess potential suppliers.” Even though the author suggests further research regarding this, his understanding is that the industry is already applying learning and collaboration.

Using Watkins and Marsick Learning Organization conceptualization of Continuous learning and transformation, Ellinger, Ellinger, Yang, & Howton (2002) conducted a study to analyze the relationship between the concept of Learning Organization and the firm’s financial performance. That study was conducted using a mail survey in 400 midlevel managers at US manufacturing firms from the Council of Logistics Management Membership listing.

Other variants in learning organizations

In the Harvard Business Review Tool Kit: Is Yours a Learning Organization? the authors identify it with building blocks with certain characteristics in each one. It is interesting how Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino (2008) developed this tool kit that is available online, provides a benchmark and presents the four principles managers need to cultivate their own learning organizations. To explain this, for this investigation, I chose to mention first the four principles: (1) know that leadership alone is insufficient, (2) understand that Organizations are not monolithic and cultural differences (local) need to be taken into consideration, (3) comparative performance is the critical scorecard, and (4) learning is multidimensional.

To resume the model of the Learning Organization Toolkit in its building blocks and the characteristics, I depict it as:

  1. Supportive learning environment

* Psychological safety

* Appreciation of differences

* openness to new ideas

* time for reflection

  1. Concrete learning processes
  2. Leadership behavior that provides reinforcement.

Learning Organization Practices

In the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, & Smith (1994), there is a comparative table of those successful business practices before the Learning Organization: (1) efficient manufacturing, (2) effective mass marketing, (3) rapid adoption of technology, (4) Financial acumen and (5) “Theory Y”.

After the Learning Organization was born, the authors present the success as: (1) distributing power while increasing self-discipline, (2) systemic thinking skills as well developed as reductionist skills, (3) improved conversation and (4) Voluntary followership.

While companies with great success study the practices they’re going to implement and take the time and resources to do it, competitors take those practices they observe and try to implement them, failing to achieve the same results in a short period. For that reason, while many organizations might have adopted some Learning Organization practices, others ignore that what they implemented is part of a discipline, model, and way of managing their organizations.

Many of the theories of learning organization, focusses in formal learning through the employer, but Berg & Youn (2008) concluded in her research that “learning and performance improvement practitioners gain new knowledge from informal learning activities more frequently than they do from formal training.” And that “there is a tendency in learning organization research to focus on learning at the organizational level and to lend less attention to learning at the individual level” which occurs in daily activities.

Becoming a Learning Organization, have many benefits, but Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino (2008) identified the result of the publications, workshops and websites that flourished in early 1990’s, as “a compelling vision of an organization made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. These people could help their firms cultivate tolerance, foster open discussion, and think holistically and systemically. Such learning organizations would be able to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than their competitors could.” With those results, the company can be rentable, competitive, pioneer in their industries, and efficient.

For more information about Learning Organization practices, the book: The fifth discipline fieldbook Strategies and tools for building a learning organization would be of help with excercises and experiences from businesses.


Armstrong, A., & Foley, P. (2003). Foundations for a learning organization: organization learning mechanisms. The Learning Organization, 10(2), 74-82.

Ellinger, A. D., Ellinger, A. E., Yang, B., & Howton, S. W. (2002, Spring). The relationship between the Learning Organization Concept and firms’ financial performance: an empirical assessment. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 13(1), 5-21.

Garvin, D. A. (1993, july – august). Building a Learning Organization. Harvard Business Review, 1-14.

Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C., & Gino, F. (2008, March). Is yours a Learning Organization? Harvard Business Review, 2-9.

Opengart, R. (2015). Supply chain management and Learning Organization: a merging of literatures. Internation Journal of Commerce and Management, 25(2), 183-195.

Pokharel, M. P., & Choi, S. O. (2015). Exploring the relationships between the learning organization and organizational performance. Management Research Review, 38(2), 126-148.

Rowley, J., & Gibbs, P. (2008). From learning organization to practically wise organization. The learning organization, 15(5), 356-372.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline The art & practice of the Learning Organization (Revised ed.). New York, USA: Crown Publishing Group.

Senge, P. M., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R. B., & Smith, B. J. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Sun, P. Y., & Scott, J. L. (2003). Exploring the divide – organizational learning and learning organization. The Learning Organization, 10(4), 202 – 215.

Watkins, K.E., Marsick, V.J. (1997). Dimensions of Learning Organization Questionnaire.

Wen, H. (2014). The nature, characteristics and ten strategies of learning organization. International Journal of Educational Management, 28(3), 289-298.