Learning Organizations Then and Now

‘The Learning Organization’ was a hot topic in the nineties. Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline was published at the beginning of the nineties (1990). And The Fifth Disciplines Fieldbook shortly after that (1994). Recently I reread the Fieldbook. Nowadays lots is being written about social media and its power for personal and business use. Not very often you hear people and businesses say they use new media for learning. Although this area is very interesting.

Harold Jarche and Jay Cross (who recently pointed me to these interesting posts about this topic), to name just two experts, have been writing and publishing about this topic. They wonder: How can learning be improved by using social media? How does social media affect and possibly change learning? What is social learning? Related to this, Jarche also writes and talks about personal knowledge management, which also relates to personal learning. Really interesting stuff. I follow their work closely. (I've collected some links here.)

Back to the Fieldbook. Peter Senge’s work was published before the internet went mainstream. And way before we even thought about social media, likes blogs and wiki’s. Reading the Fieldbook in 2011 is fascinating if you keep that in mind. Often I wondered: How would people in the nineties have implemented that idea? Now, with modern tools that’s easy, but then?

The core of the learning organization was that people agreed to increase the collective insight and capacity of the organization. And by learning faster than the competition, a competitive advantage could be achieved.

Interestingly the book is also focused on managers that want to ‘learn to learn’ from the results, reflections and experiments of others. This information which is shared and developed, is not only discussed but used as springboard for new experiments and initiatives.

The Learning Organization consists of 5 learning disciplines (which are never done):
  • Personal mastership: using our skills to get the results we want and create an organizational context in which all are encouraged to develop in the direction of the goals of their choice.
  • Mental models: think about our internal world view, continuously changing and improving it, influencing our actions and decisions.
  • Collective vision: work towards a joint vision of the future and define the principles with which we want to achieve that future.
  • Team learning: create a situation in which the collective intelligence of the whole is more than the sum of the individuals.
  • Systems thinking: understanding and using the whole to create harmony.
One of the things learning does is make people want to change. Learning and change are not the same, but they are tightly related.

According to the Fieldbook, which is based on cases from practioners, successful learning organizations will be defined by the following:
  • Power is distributed
  • Self-discipline is encouraged
  • Systems thinking will be developed
  • Improved discussion skills
  • Leaders will be followed voluntarily 
And the three most important principles of learning organizations:
  • The whole is more important than the sums of its parts
  • ‘me’ is intrinsically connected with and part of the whole
  • The creational power of language 
When you read through this book and my notes, I’m sure you think: Hey, this relates nicely to social media and that connect to social media concepts. Right?

Of course the focus of the learning organization book is on changing organizations and people. So when they talk about implementing the learning organization they look at changing employee behavior and skills, and organizational structures. Every now and then technology does pop up in the book through. An example from AT&T mentions forums. And email, virtual meeting (then called: electronic meetings), computer networks and databases are mentioned. The databases are mentioned relating to the importance of institutional memory in communities.

The learning organization sees companies as communities (organisms). A very interesting statement is made towards the end of the book:
The lifeblood of the organization as community is dialogue, not only within teams but in the whole organization. If intellectual capital is the most important production factor than the capacity to have deep discussions about important topics is essential for breakthrough thinking and innovation.
Isn’t this interesting? Isn’t this also one of the ways social media can be used inside and outside organizations? To facilitate and encourage dialogue. And learning. To be that’s what using social media has brought me. And the nice thing is, you and I can do this if we’re manager or not. The tools to support learning have a lot to do with human skills. But the tools can support that learning processes in huge vibrant networks. By articulating what we learned, what our questions are, who we know, what we’ve found, etc. And we’re not limited to doing this within organization anymore. We can do this between organizations and institutions as well.

To me this is progress. This really helps us implement the learning organization in our daily lives. And in that we in the organizations, communities and institutions we live in and work for. We are creating and using “creation spaces” as mentioned in The Power of Pull (p. 19):
Creation spaces differ in at least two ways from the “learning organization” approaches pioneered a couple of decades ago. First, they emerge as ecosystems across institutions rather than within a single institution, so they reach a much more diverse set of participants. Second, they are not primarily focused on learning – their goal is to drive more rapid performance improvement, and learning occurs as a by-product of these efforts.
Bonus quote from the Fieldbook relating to social media/enterprise 2.0 ROI: “Measure in a quantitive way what can be measured quantitively; measure qualitively what can’t be measured.”

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