The learning organization: principles, theory and practice

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The learning organization. Just what constitutes a ‘learning organization is a matter of some debate. We explore some of the themes that have emerged in the literature and the contributions of key thinkers like Donald Schon and Peter Senge. Is it anything more than rhetoric? Can it be realized?

contents: introduction · the learning society and the knowledge economy · the learning organization · systems theory and the learning organization · dialogue and the learning organization · some problems and issues · conclusion · further reading and references · links

associated pages: donald schön and the learning society · peter senge and the learning organization · dialogue · social capital

Many consultants and organizations have recognized the commercial significance of organizational learning – and the notion of the ‘learning organization’ has been a central orienting point in this. Writers have sought to identify templates, or ideal forms, ‘which real organizations could attempt to emulate’ (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 2). In this sense the learning organization is an ideal, ‘towards which organizations have to evolve in order to be able to respond to the various pressures [they face] (Finger and Brand 1999: 136). It is characterized by a recognition that ‘individual and collective learning are key’ (op. cit.).

Two important things result from this. First, while there has been a lot of talk about learning organizations it is very difficult to identify real-life examples. This might be because the vision is ‘too ideal’ or because it isn’t relevant to the requirements and dynamics of organizations. Second, the focus on creating a template and upon the need to present it in a form that is commercially attractive to the consultants and writers has led to a significant under-powering of the theoretical framework for the learning organization. Here there is a distinct contrast with the study of organizational learning.

Although theorists of learning organizations have often drawn on ideas from organizational learning, there has been little traffic in the reverse direction. Moreover, since the central concerns have been somewhat different, the two literatures have developed along divergent tracks. The literature on organizational learning has concentrated on the detached collection and analysis of the processes involved in individual and collective learning inside organizations; whereas the learning organizations literature 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 organizations. (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 2; see also Tsang 1997).

We could argue that organizational learning is the ‘activity and the process by which organizations eventually reach th[e] ideal of a learning organization’ (Finger and Brand 1999: 136).

On this page we examine the path-breaking work of Donald Schon on firms as learning systems and then go on to explore Peter Senge’s deeply influential treatment of the learning organization (and it’s focus on systemic thinking and dialogue). We finish with a brief exploration of the contribution of social capital to the functioning of organizations.

The learning society and the knowledge economy

The emergence of the idea of the ‘learning organization’ is wrapped up with notions such as ‘the learning society’. Perhaps the defining contribution here was made by Donald Schon. He provided a theoretical framework linking the experience of living in a situation of an increasing change with the need for learning.

The loss of the stable state means that our society and all of its institutions are in continuous processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable states that will endure for our own lifetimes.

We must learn to understand, guide, influence and manage these transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral to ourselves and to our institutions.

We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation. (Schon 1973: 28)

One of Schon’s great innovations was to explore the extent to which companies, social movements and governments were learning systems – and how those systems could be enhanced. He suggests that the movement toward learning systems is, of necessity, ‘a groping and inductive process for which there is no adequate theoretical basis’ (ibid.: 57). The business firm, Donald Schon argued, was a striking example of a learning system. He charted how firms moved from being organized around products toward integration around ‘business systems’ (ibid.: 64). He made the case that many companies no longer have a stable base in the technologies of particular products or the systems build around them. Crucially Donald Schon then went on with Chris Argyris to develop a number of important concepts with regard to organizational learning. Of particular importance for later developments was their interest in feedback and single- and double-loop learning.

Subsequently, we have seen very significant changes in the nature and organization of production and services. Companies, organizations and governments have to operate in a global environment that has altered its character in significant ways.

Productivity and competitiveness are, by and large, a function of knowledge generation and information processing: firms and territories are organized in networks of production, management and distribution; the core economic activities are global – that is they have the capacity to work as a unit in real time, or chosen time, on a planetary scale. (Castells 2001: 52)

A failure to attend to the learning of groups and individuals in the organization spells disaster in this context. As Leadbeater (2000: 70) has argued, companies need to invest not just in new machinery to make production more efficient, but in the flow of know-how that will sustain their business. Organizations need to be good at knowledge generation, appropriation and exploitation.

The learning organization

It was in this context that Peter Senge (1990) began to explore ‘The art and practice of the learning organization’. Over 750,000 copies of The Fifth Discipline (1990) were sold in the decade following its publication – and it is probably this book that has been the most significant factor in popularising the notion of the learning organization. However, as Sandra Kerka remarked in 1995 ‘there is not… a consensus on the definition of a learning organization’. Indeed, little has changed since. Garvin (2000: 9) recently observed that a clear definition of the learning organization has proved to be elusive.

Exhibit 1: Three definitions of a learning organization

Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (Senge 1990: 3)

The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level. A Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. (Pedler et. al. 1991: 1)

Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles. (Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118)

We can see much that is shared in these definitions – and some contrasts. To start with the last first: some writers (such as Pedler et. al.) appear to approach learning organizations as something that are initiated and developed by senior management – they involve a top-down, managerial imposed, vision (Hughes and Tight 1998: 183). This can be contrasted with more ‘bottom-up’ or democratic approaches such as that hinted at by Watkins and Marsick (1992; 1993). Some writers have looked to the learning company, but most have proceeded on the assumption that any type of organization can be a learning organization. A further crucial distinction has been reproduced from the use of theories from organizational learning. This is the distinction made between technical and social variants (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 8). The technical variant has looked to interventions based on measure such as the ‘learning curve’ (in which historical data on production costs is plotted against the cumulative output of a particular product) (op. cit.). There is a tendency in such approaches to focus on outcomes rather than the processes of learning. The social view of the learning organization looks to interaction and process – and it is this orientation that has come to dominate the popular literature.

According to Sandra Kerka (1995) most conceptualizations of the learning organizations seem to work on the assumption that ‘learning is valuable, continuous, and most effective when shared and that every experience is an opportunity to learn’ (Kerka 1995). The following characteristics appear in some form in the more popular conceptions. Learning organizations:

Provide continuous learning opportunities.

Use learning to reach their goals.

Link individual performance with organizational performance.

Foster inquiry and dialogue, making it safe for people to share openly and take risks.

Embrace creative tension as a source of energy and renewal.

Are continuously aware of and interact with their environment. (Kerka 1995)

As Kerka (1995) goes onto comment, the five disciplines that Peter Senge goes on to identify (personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking) are the keys to achieving this sort of organization. Here, rather than focus too strongly on the five disciplines (these can be followed up in our review of Senge and the learning organization) we want to comment briefly on his use of systemic thinking and his interest in ‘dialogue’ (and the virtues it exhibits). These two elements in many respects mark out his contribution.

Systems theory and the learning organization

Systemic thinking is the conceptual cornerstone (‘The Fifth Discipline’) of Peter Senge’s approach. It is the discipline that integrates the others, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice (1990: 12). Systems theory’s ability to comprehend and address the whole, and to examine the interrelationship between the parts provides, for Peter Senge, both the incentive and the means to integrate the disciplines. Three things need noting here. First, systems theory looks to connections and to the whole. In this respect it allows people to look beyond the immediate context and to appreciate the impact of their actions upon others (and vice versa). To this extent it holds the possibility of achieving a more holistic understanding. Second, while the building blocks of systems theory are relatively simple, they can build into a rather more sophisticated model than are current in many organizations. Senge argues that one of the key problems with much that is written about, and done in the name of management, is that rather simplistic frameworks are applied to what are complex systems. When we add these two points together it is possible to move beyond a focus on the parts, to begin to see the whole, and to appreciate organization as a dynamic process. Thus, the argument runs, a better appreciation of systems will lead to more appropriate action. Third, systemic thinking, according to Senge, allows us to realize the significance of feedback mechanisms in organizations. He concludes:

The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view. That’s why delays and feedback loops are so important. In the short term, you can often ignore them; they’re inconsequential. They only come back to haunt you in the long term. (Senge1990: 92)

While other writers may lay stress on systems theory, in Senge’s hands it sharpens the model – and does provide some integration of the ‘disciplines’ he identifies.

Dialogue and the learning organization

Peter Senge also places an emphasis on dialogue in organizations – especially with regard to the discipline of team learning. Dialogue (or conversation) as Gadamer has argued is is a process of two people understanding each other. As such it is inherently risky and involves questioning our beliefs and assumptions.

Thus it is a characteristic of every true conversation that each opens himself to the other person, truly accepts his point of view as worthy of consideration and gets inside the other to such an extent that he understands not a particular individual, but what he says. The thing that has to be grasped is the objective rightness or otherwise of his opinion, so that they can agree with each other on a subject. (Gadamer 1979: 347)

The concern is not to ‘win the argument’, but to advance understanding and human well being. Agreement cannot be imposed, but rests on common conviction (Habermas 1984: 285-287). As a social relationship it entails certain virtues and emotions.

It is easy to see why proponents of the learning organization would place a strong emphasis upon dialogue. As Peter Senge has argued, for example, team learning entails the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine “thinking together”’ (1990: 10). Dialogue is also necessary to other disciplines e.g. building a shared vision and developing mental models. However, there are significant risks in dialogue to the organization. One factor in the appeal of Senge’s view of dialogue (which was based upon the work of David Bohmand associates) was the promise that it could increase and enrich corporate activity. It could do this, in part, through the exploration and questioning of ‘inherent, predetermined purposes and goals’ (Bohm et. al. 1991). There is a clear parallel here with Argyris and Schön’s work on double-loop learning, but interestingly one of Bohm’s associates has subsequently suggested that their view was too optimistic: ‘dialogue is very subversive’ (Factor 1994).

Some problems and issues

In our discussion of Senge and the learning organizationwe point to some particular problems associated with his conceptualization. These include a failure to fully appreciate and incorporate the imperatives that animate modern organizations; the relative sophistication of the thinking he requires of managers (and whether many in practice they are up to it); and questions around his treatment of organizational politics. It is certainly difficult to find real-life examples of learning organizations (Kerka 1995). There has also been a lack of critical analysis of the theoretical framework.

Based on their study of attempts to reform the Swiss Postal Service, Matthias Finger and Silvia B?rgin Brand (1999) provide us with a useful listing of more important shortcomings of the learning organization concept. They conclude that it is not possible to transform a bureaucratic organization by learning initiatives alone. They believe that by referring to the notion of the learning organization it was possible to make change less threatening and more acceptable to participants. ‘However, individual and collective learning which has undoubtedly taken place has not really been connected to organizational change and transformation’ (ibid.: 146). Part of the issue, they suggest, is to do with the concept of the learning organization itself. They argue the following points. The concept of the learning organization:

Focuses mainly on the cultural dimension, and does not adequately take into account the other dimensions of an organization. To transform an organization it is necessary to attend to structures and the organization of work as well as the culture and processes. ‘Focussing exclusively on training activities in order to foster learning… favours this purely cultural bias’ (ibid.: 146).

Favours individual and collective learning processes at all levels of the organization, but does not connect them properly to the organization’s strategic objectives. Popular models of organizational learning (such as Dixon 1994) assume such a link. It is, therefore, imperative, ‘that the link between individual and collective learning and the organization’s strategic objectives is made’ (ibid.: 147). This shortcoming, Finger and Brand argue, makes a case for some form of measurement of organizational learning – so that it is possible to assess the extent to which such learning contributes or not towards strategic objectives.

Remains rather vague. The exact functions of organizational learning need to be more clearly defined.

In our view, organizational learning is just a means in order to achieve strategic objectives. But creating a learning organization is also a goal, since the ability permanently and collectively to learn is a necessary precondition for thriving in the new context. Therefore, the capacity of an organization to learn, that is, to function like a learning organization, needs to be made more concrete and institutionalized, so that the management of such learning can be made more effective. (ibid.: 147)

Finally, Finger and Brand conclude, that there is a need to develop ‘a true management system of an organization’s evolving learning capacity’ (op. cit.). This, they suggest, can be achieved through defining indicators of learning (individual and collective) and by connecting them to other indicators.


It could be argued that the notion of the learning organization provides managers and others with a picture of how things could be within an organization. Along the way, writers like Peter Senge introduce a number of interesting dimensions that could be personally developmental, and that could increase organizational effectiveness – especially where the enterprise is firmly rooted in the ‘knowledge economy. However, as we have seen, there are a number of shortcomings to the model – it is theoretically underpowered and there is some question as to whether the vision can be realized within the sorts of dynamics that exist within and between organizations in a globalized capitalist economy. It might well be that ‘the concept is being oversold as a near-universal remedy for a wide variety of organizational problems’ (Kuchinke 1995 quoted in Kerka 1995).

There have been various attempts by writers to move ‘beyond’ the learning organization. (The cynics among us might conclude that there is a great deal of money in it for the writers who can popularise the next ‘big thing’ in management and organizational development). Thus, we find guides and texts on ‘the developing organization’ (Gilley and Maybunich 2000), ‘the accelerating organization (Maira and Scott-Morgan 1996), and ‘the ever-changing organization’ (Pieters and Young 1999). Peter Senge, with various associates, has continued to produce workbooks and extensions of his analysis to particular fields such as schooling (1994; 1999; 2000).

In one of the more interesting developments there has been an attempt to take the already substantial literature on trust in organizations (Edmondson and Moingeon 1999: 173) and to link it to developments in thinking around social capital(especially via the work of political theorists like Robert Putnam) (see Cohen and Prusak 2001). We could also link this with discussions within informal education and lifelong learning concerning the educative power of organizations and groups (and hence the link to organizational learning) (see the material on association elsewhere on these pages). Here the argument is that social capital makes an organization more than a collection of individuals. (Social capital can be seen as consisting of ‘the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviours that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible’, Cohen and Prusak 2001: 4). Social capital draws people into groups.

This kind of connection supports collaboration, commitment, ready access to knowledge and talent, and coherent organizational behaviour. This description of social capital suggests appropriate organizational investments – namely, giving people space and time to connect, demonstrating trust, effectively communicating aims and beliefs, and offering equitable opportunities and rewards that invite genuine participation, not mere presence. (Cohen and Prusak 2001: 4)

In this formulation we can see many of the themes that run through the approach to the learning organization that writers like Watkins and Marsick (1993) take. The significant thing about the use of the notion of social capital is the extent to which it then becomes possible to tap into some interesting research methodologies and some helpful theoretical frameworks.

Quite where we go from here is a matter for some debate. It could be that the notion of the ‘learning organization’ has had its ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. However, there does seem to be life in the notion yet. It offers an alternative to a more technicist framework, and holds within it a number of important possibilities for organizations seeking to sustain themselves and to grow.

Further reading and references

Easterby-Smith, M., Burgoyne, J. and Araujo, L. (eds.) (1999) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage. 247 + viii pages. A collection with a good overview and some very helpful individual papers. The opening section provides reviews and critiques, the second, a series of evaluations of practice.

Schön, D. A. (1973) Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 236 pages. A very influential book (following Schön’s 1970 Reith Lectures) arguing that ‘change’ is a fundamental feature of modern life and that it is necessary to develop social systems that can learn and adapt. Schön develops many of the themes that were to be such a significant part of his collaboration with Chris Argyris and his exploration of reflective practice.

Senge, P. M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization, London: Random House. 424 + viii pages. A seminal and highly readable book in which Senge sets out the five ‘competent technologies’ that build and sustain learning organizations. His emphasis on systems thinking as the fifth, and cornerstone discipline allows him to develop a more holistic appreciation of organization (and the lives of people associated with them).


Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organisational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organisational learning II: Theory, method and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Bohm, D., Factor, D. and Garrett, P. (1991) ‘Dialogue – a proposal’, the informal education archives.

Bolman, L. G. and Deal, T. E. (1997) Reframing Organizations. Artistry, choice and leadership 2e, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 450 pages.

Castells, M. (2001) ‘Information technology and global capitalism’ in W. Hutton and A. Giddens (eds.) On the Edge. Living with global capitalism, London: Vintage.

Cohen, D. and Prusak, L. (2001) In Good Company. How social capital makes organizations work, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Dixon, N. (1994) The Organizational Learning Cycle. How we can learn collectively, London: McGraw-Hill.

Easterby-Smith, M. and Araujo, L. ‘Current debates and opportunities’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Edmondson, A. and Moingeon, B. (1999) ‘Learning, trust and organizational change’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Factor, D. (1994) On Facilitation and Purpose,

Finger, M. and Brand, S. B. (1999) ‘The concept of the “learning organization” applied to the transformation of the public sector’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Gadamer, H-G. (1979) Truth and Method, London: Sheed and Ward.

Garvin, D. A. (2000) Learning in Action. A guide to putting the learning organization to work, Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Gilley, J. W. and Maybunich, A. (2000) Beyond the Learning Organization. Creating a culture of continuous growth and development through state-of-the-art human resource practices, Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.

Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hayes, R. H., Wheelwright, S. and Clark, K. B. (1988) Dynamic Manufacturing: Creating the learning organization, New York: Free Press. 429 pages.

Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (1998) The myth of the learning society’ in S. Ranson (ed.) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell.

Kerka, S. (1995) ‘The learning organization: myths and realities’ Eric Clearinghouse,

Leadbeater, C, (2000) Living on Thin Air, London: Penguin.

Malhotra, Y. (1996) ’Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations: An Overview’

Maira, A. and Scott-Morgan, P. B. (1996) The Accelerating Organization: Embracing the human face of change, McGraw-Hill.

Marquandt, M. and Reynolds, A. (1993) The Global Learning Organization, Irwin Professional Publishing.

Marquardt, M. J. (1996) Building the Learning Organization, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Van Maurik, J. (2001) Writers on Leadership, London: Penguin.

Pedler, M., Burgoyne, J. and Boydell, T. (1991, 1996) The Learning Company. A strategy for sustainable development, London: McGraw-Hill.

Pieters, G. W. and Young, D. W. (1999) The Ever-Changing Organization: Creating the capacity for continuous change, learning and improvement, St Lucie.

Senge, P. et. al. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Roth, G. and Smith, B. (1999) The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, New York: Doubleday/Currency).

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N. Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J. and Kleiner, A. (2000) Schools That Learn. A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education, New York: Doubleday/Currency

Sugarman, B. (1996) ‘Learning, Working, Managing, Sharing: The New Paradigm of the “Learning Organization”’, Lesley College,

Sugarman, B. (1996) ‘The learning organization and organizational learning: New Roles for Workers, Managers, Trainers and Consultants’, Lesley College,

Tsang, E. (1997) ‘Organizational learning and the learning organization: a dichotomy between descriptive and prescriptive research’, Human Relations, 50(1): 57-70.

Watkins, K. and Marsick, V. (eds.) (1993) Sculpting the Learning Organization. Lessons in the art and science of systematic change, San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Watkins, K. and Marsick, V. (1992) ‘Building the learning organization: a new role for human resource developers’, Studies in Continuing Education 14(2): 115-29.


Analyze an organization’s learning climate – set of tools concerning cultural aspects of organizational development.

The Business Researcher’s Interests: Organizational Learning & Knowledge Management – Lots of links.

Index of links to learning organization websites: some ideas for getting started in learning about learning organizations.

Learning Org — A Discussion of Learning Organizations. Contains current messages and archives of the Learning-org mailing list.

Learning organization profile – checklist produced by ASTD (American Society For Training and Development)

The Learning Organizations Homepage: articles on the nature of the learning organization plus articles and links.

The Learning Organization: journal.

The Learning Organization: Transformational Change: article

Organizational fitness Website

Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations: An Overview Excellent collection of links and papers @ Brint.comAn overview of key concepts related to Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations covering questions such as: What is Organizational Learning? What is a Learning Organization? What is Adaptive Learning vs. Generative Learning? What’s the Managers’ Role in the Learning Organization? What’s the Relationship between Strategy and Organizational Learning? What is the Role of Information Systems in the Learning Organization? Does Information Technology Impose Any Constraints on Organizational Learning?

QuaSyLaTic Model / Thinking – Learning Organizations inspired homepage

The Society for Organizational Learning

Stanford Learning Organization Web (SLOW): The Stanford Learning Organization Web (SLOW) is an informal network of Stanford researchers, staff, and students along with colleagues and friends from the corporate world interested in the nature and development of learning organizations.

Acknowledgement: Picture, Marble Madness is by Jo Christian Oterhals . It was sourced from Flickr and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  licence.

To cite this page: Smith, M. K. (2001, 2007) ‘The learning organization’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

© Mark K. Smith 2001, 207

Last Updated on October 19, 2019 by