Organisational learning and learning organisations have been the focus of a great deal of evaluation within management literature since the 1990’s (Senge, 1990; Michaux, 2002). This paper aims to define and critically evaluate the concept of a learning organisation by drawing on the writings of core authors to both support and demonstrate criticisms of the ‘learning organisation’ concept.
The Learning Organisation
Organisational learning is a continual process whereby an organisation adapts to its environment by constantly improving performance through evolving knowledge and understanding by its members and the organisation (Hartel, Strybosch & Blyth, 2006). A learning organisation, on the other hand, is an organisation which actively creates, captures, transfers, and mobilizes knowledge of all its members to enable it to adapt to a changing environment (Wikipedia, 2008). Paramount to the concept of the learning organisation is the interaction that takes place between the individuals within the organisation. The concept of a learning organisation differs from organisational learning as it seeks to use the theoretical findings of organisational learning to describe how organisations can effectively and continuously adapt and learn.
Globalisation, competitive markets, technological advancements, growing competition, and new work methods have all given rise to the need for an organisation to be able to change and adapt to its environment (Poell, 1999). Learning, or more specifically organisational learning, is the key characteristic that enables an organisation to adapt to changes in its internal or external environment and remain competitive in times of uncertainty (Smith, 2001). Senge (1990) comments that in situations of turbulent or rapid change those organisations that are flexible, adaptive and effective will excel and, that to excel, an organisation needs to discover how to entice individual commitment and the capacity to learn at all levels within the organisation. Hence, the adoption of a system-wide approach to learning will assist during the instability of organisational change (Hartel et al, 2006).
The previously presented description of a learning organisation calls for learning by both individuals and the organisation. Hartel et al (2006) believe that organisations learn in a similar manner to which individuals learn however the way in which an organisation learns will be unique to its own distinctive business practices. The key to effective learning by organisations is the binding of learning with knowledge and cognition (Hartel et al., 2006) to enable an organisation to compete against its market threats. The consideration therefore, is how does individual learning impact upon organisational learning and vice versa.
According to Fisher (2003), individual learning is a prerequisite for organisational learning however, whilst similar in nature, the process by which individuals and organisations learn must be considered respective to their individual characteristics. Huber (cited in Hartel et al, 2006) asserts that there are four constructs to organisational learning: knowledge acquisition, information distribution, information interpretation and organisational memory. From these constructs we can see that for organisational learning to occur, knowledge must be gained, shared, commonly understood and stored for future use.
How Organisations Learn
Organisational learning encapsulates the methods and models of how organisations learn. Contributors such as Argyris and Schon (1978), March and Olsen, Kim, and Flood (cited in Michaux, 2002) have each presented models of how organisations can learn. As cited in Hartel et al (2006), Argyris and Schon propose three levels of learning: single loop learning, double loop learning, and duetero, or triple-loop, learning. Single loop learning focuses on improvements within the current framework of an organisation, double loop learning...
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