A learning organization refers to an organization or institution engaged in the continuous testing of experience, and the transformation of that experience in to knowledge which is accessible to the whole organization and relevant to its core purpose. On a more objective perspective, a learning organization is one where experience matters and feeds in to genuine commitment towards improving the organization’s delivery of its core business. In other words, this is a place where personnel learn from mistakes in a constructive manner in order to avert the mistakes in future work practice. For any learning organization, the culture is less about blame and more about understanding and improving an individual. In the creation of any learning organization, various factors and elements have to be put in to consideration to ensure that the established institution meets the necessary requirements. This study paper seeks to explore the various contexts of an ideal learning organization. In the process the paper will provide an in-depth understanding of the characteristics of the ideal learning organization, observable behavior of each characteristic, and the result of these characteristics. In addition, the study paper will explain the various measures to evaluate any learning organization, and ways in which the organization can best attain the characteristics. In the final section, the paper will explore major barriers to the learning organizations and the available strategies to overcome the barriers.
Characteristics of an Ideal Learning Organization
The social view of learning organizations refers to interaction and process and it is this orientation which has become dominant in popular literature concerning learning organizations. However, most conceptualizations of learning organizations operate on the principle that learning is continuous, valuable, and needs to be shared. More so, every experience is an opportunity to learn. In any learning organization, there are various similar characteristics which quality the organization as a learning institution. Learning organizations majorly exhibit the following traits: They provide continuous learning opportunities, use learning to reach their goals, link individual performance with organizational performance, and embrace creative tension as a source of energy and renewal (Smith & Elliott, 2007). Other characteristics of learning organizations include the aspect of fostering inquiry and dialogue making it safe for people to share openly and take risks, and continuously creating awareness of and interaction with their environment. For one to achieve the above defined organization, then it is necessary that the institution has personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking.
Learning organizations need to take into account various characteristics in order to achieve the set objectives. For most learning organizations, there exists a shared vision which everyone in the organization agrees and works towards attaining. In learning organizations, individuals discard their old ways of thinking and the standard routines they use for problem solving or doing their assignments. Members of the learning organization think of all organizational processes, activities, functions, and interactions with the environment as part of a system of interrelationships. Most significantly, people openly communicate with each other and this cuts across the organization, vertically and horizontally without fear of criticism or punishment. In a learning organization, people are able to sublimate their personal self-interest and fragmented departmental interest to work together to attain the institution’s shared vision.
Systems thinking are the major characteristic of any learning organization. This feature implies that people in the organization pool their thoughts together. In most cases, the learning institutions permit people in a similar institution to reason as one. Systems’ thinking is a great method when evaluating any organization. It has information systems capable of measuring not only the organization’s performance but also the performance of various elements within the organization. For any institution to qualify as a learning organization, then it is essential for personnel to assimilate all the characteristics from the beginning. However, another school of thought proposes that learning organizations acquire their characteristics in a gradual manner. Personal mastery is yet another element which helps in building up a learning organization. Personal mastery implies that an individual dedicates himself to the learning process and this offers an upper hand for organizations with a faster learning workforce. People learning in organizations can be through different method that may include staff development and staff training among others. Essentially the individuals must be ready and willing to learn as this is a process that cannot be imposed on an unwilling party. According to statistics, most learning sessions are incidental rather than through formal training. It is significant that the organization, therefore, plants or establishes a culture whereby people yearn for learning without it being imposed on them. In the event the organization has a culture of personal mastery for every individual then the aspect of learning will take place daily without imposition. Individual learning in turn forms organizational learning.
Learning organizations have mental models which are the assumptions held by people in the same organizations. For the assumptions to be viable, they must get challenges from other quarters. In learning organizations, individuals establish theories which tend to guide the business thinking. In addition, the organizations have guidelines and memories which uphold certain attitudes, values, and norms. Confrontational attitudes should be replaced with an open-minded culture which promotes trust and professional interaction in the organization. Therefore, any learning organizations need to develop mechanisms by which location and evaluation of organizational theories is done. In the end, the management should discard unwanted values and retain beneficial ones for the learning organization. Shared vision in learning organizations helps in motivating employees and other people to learn. This will in turn create a common focus and psych for everyone to learn. This implies that the company’s visions should be based on the visions of all employees across all management levels. This favors the decentralized organizational structures for learning organizations to allow for the collection of information and visions from different levels of management.
Finally, another major characteristic is team learning. Under this characteristic, the organization accumulates individual learning which has varied benefits. One of the benefits of team learning is that as the staff grows quickly, the organization’s capacity to solve problems improves. Team learning enables the staff to learn from the best and therefore acquire the best knowledge to become experts in their various fields. In order for this to be efficient, the organization should put in place structures which will facilitate team learning. Mainly, this characteristic calls dialogue and discussion hence the need for shared meaning, open communication, as well as shared understanding. Naturally, learning organizations have proper knowledge management structures that make it possible for acquired knowledge to be implemented within the organization (Brown & Duguid, 1991).
Barriers to achieving characteristics of an ideal learning organization
For any learning organization obstacles can interfere with the learning process making it to stall. Most of the barriers in learning organizations arise when the organization fails to embrace all the essential features. Once the management can identify the barriers to the learning process, it is necessary for them to work and rectify the situation. In relation to the embracing personal mastery, most organizations have difficulty understanding the ideology. Personal mastery is an intangible concept hence difficulty in quantifying the benefits of the characteristics. According to statistics, empowering individuals an organization that is not properly aligned cannot produce positive results. The main barrier to personal mastery is that it could be used to achieve personal and selfish interest if individuals do not share a common vision. For some organization learning can be hindered by the absence of a learning culture. This barrier can be avoided by creating a positive environment where everyone will feel free to share his/her ideas in an open but structured manner. In this case, most people in the organization can will be in a position to benefit from the shared information and therefore become more empowered. Therefore, learning organizations must abolish traditional ranking structures.
Another barrier to characteristics of learning organizations is resistance to learning. Normally, this occurs when some individuals are scared of what change might bring about especially when they feel that it might interfere with their activities or behavior. Such individuals have preconceived mind sets and would not accept anything that would seem to be contrary with what they believe in. If not coherently implemented, learning can be considered to be meant for only the senior employees and managers yet in real sense, it should be embraced at all levels. In case of such an incidence, this will be an indication that there was not proper preparation of the staff for the proposed change. The size of an organization can also be a barrier to learning process. Size may interfere with the process of knowledge sharing within the organization. For instance, if there are more than 150 people, knowledge sharing will not be as effective as when the number is much smaller. Larger organizations have a more complex organizational structure. Therefore, most employees feel that there is reduced connective efficiency and trust in when the number is big. Furthermore, communications becomes less effective (Vendel¸ 2009). According to research studies and past experiences, when there are more people in a learning organization, knowledge sharing becomes less effective and therefore minimal change will be realized.
Progress towards becoming a learning organization
It is essential for any organization to have visible and measurable indicators of their progress towards becoming a learning organization. The evaluation can be through traditional approaches which clearly indicate the progress made by organizations in an effort to learn. However, contemporary means can equally be effective in evaluation of the progress achieved. The performance of an organization that spends energy to initiate change will initially decline. However, after a while, things will eventually change and the performance will surpass the original level. In production and manufacturing terms, this phenomenon is known as a learning curve. Unfortunately, it is not well demonstrated in the service sector. However, the bottom line is that when a learning process is initiated in an organization, it takes a while before the actual change in performance is achieved.
Between the time an investment in the learning process is made and the positive changes are realized, the organization is not fully sure of what might happen. This is the reason why improvement processes that are meant to be implemented over a long period of time may be prematurely terminated. In contrast, projects that are failing may be pointlessly continued.
Nonetheless, managers should continuously monitor and evaluate the progress of the learning process until that point when proper structures of measuring are developed. This helps to keep track of the changes necessary to improve the organizational practices.
In most learning organizations, the evaluation of progress in learning is in productivity. Productivity, whether high or low, has a direct impact on wages, the cost of products, the consumption of resources to produce goods, the quality of work life, and the survival and competitiveness of industries and of individual firms. However, appropriate evaluation should be done at individual level rather than at group level (Brown & Duguid, 1991).
Strategies to overcoming barriers in learning organizations
Some barriers to learning may seem trivial but will require major strategies for their elimination. When there seems to be lack of interest from the employees it essential for the management to provide evidence for the significance of learning, sharing knowledge, and even personal mastery. Compare the learning goal against the company’s vision and the employees’ work requirements. Allow the staff members to interact as this will enable them realize the importance of learning from their co-workers and supervisors. The best way to make a learning goal less difficult is to break it up into smaller more easily attained objectives. In most organizations, a difficult learning goal is one which is too broad. Determine the specific stressors which one expects and develop particular steps to handle each barrier. As evidenced from the barriers of learning, most people will perceive learning as a stressful process since they have major targets. To minimize this ideology, management should breakdown the objective in to smaller and more manageable goals which are often a big stress reducer. Broad goals leads to many doubts about any success hence the reason for lesser and manageable goals.
Lack of control over the organization form another barrier to learning. In this case, development of specific plans to ensure the management’s ability to control and use the knowledge gained in the learning process will work as a strategy towards better learning. Poor attitude poses as a difficult barrier to learning as this occurs at an individual level. The best strategy to deal with this barrier is to encourage team work and coherence at work place so that people can have a good attitude towards learning and knowledge (Akella, 2007). Lack of support from co-workers and supervisors in the learning process has a negative impact on the given employees. It is easier and more effective to seek out support where it exists. In the process of establishing action points, the management should ensure that teams avoid detractors while each person pursues their learning objective and in most difficult times, find supporters for their learning goals. Review each barrier to the learning process and plan effectively to avoid their occurrence. In avoidable cases, establish ways through which employees will not have to meet and be affected with the barriers.
The idea of learning organization comes from theories held by leaders in organizational development and systems dynamics. Most crucial in organization development is the emphasis on the humanistic side of organizations. In evaluation, there are few organizations which meet the learning organizations’ standards.