Developing a Learning Organization


Change management and quick learning are critically important for organizations that are willing to remain relevant in today’s world. Many organizations change and learn by applying new technology in operations while others learn by employing new human resource management strategies (Garvin, 2000; & Schulz, 2001). Modern organizations have recognized the significance of organizational learning and change. In order to support these organizations to approach change and learning in the right way, several authors have sought to find document templates that real organizations can emulate. Although theorists of organizational change and learning have concentrated on how to evaluate the quality of learning processes in organizations, many people still have limited understanding of how to develop a learning organization (Maguire and McKelvey, 1999).

Definition and features of a learning organization

Senge et al. (1999) defines a learning organization as an organization whose leaders constantly expand their ability to achieve the results they desire by involving employees in decision making and employing expansive patterns of thinking in problem solving. A learning organization has a vision of what might be possible at any given time. As Senge et al., (1990) adds, an organization does not learn simply by training employees alone, but by ensuring that appropriate changes are implemented at the whole organization level. Generally, a learning organization is one that has the capacity to change its behaviors and actions as a result of experience (Bolman and Deal, 1997).

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From the definition above, it is evident that all learning organizations have common characteristics that can be used to distinguish them from non-learning organizations. For instance, every learning organization must provide constant learning opportunities for its employee. Employees are very important assets in every company and they contribute greatly to organizational learning and change (Hayes, Wheelwright and Clark, 1988). Therefore, a company that continuously gives its employees an opportunity to learn is likely to achieve the desired results at the right time. Additionally, a learning organization is committed to achieving its goals through learning. For this reason, it uses every means possible to ensure that the desired objectives are met (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003).

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Furthermore, a learning organization often links employee performance with organizational performance. In this context, a learning company ensures that its workers possess the necessary competencies that will assist it to realize its objectives. Again, all learning organizations engage their employees in meaningful dialogues in order to allow them share their opinions and be ready to take risks. This way, a learning organization prepares its workers for any challenges that they may encounter throughout the change process (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003). Moreover, a learning organization appreciates creative pressure as a source of renewal and energy. Most importantly, a learning organization is persistently aware of its environment and interacts with other companies in the industry. This form of interaction provides a good platform for benchmarking and for identifying the strategies that other companies use to change and learn (Marquardt, 1996).

How and why organizations change and learn

According to Serrat (2009), many organizations change and learn in order to increase their effectiveness and compete favorably in the industries within which they operate. For an organization to increase its effectiveness through learning, it must first value the role that learning can play in promoting organizational growth and development. A company that wishes to improve its effectiveness through learning must also have an inspiring vision and formulate a learning strategy that will support it to realize the vision. Moreover, the leader of such an organization must be committed to the significance of learning and recognize the importance of creating learning opportunities. Additionally, a learning organization must communicate its learning strategy to all employees and allocate adequate resources for learning (Bolman and Deal, 1997).

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Organizational learning and change has been in the media over the recent past where companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Apple have been mentioned as examples of organizations that are considering major streamlining (Troyani, 2014). For example, British Airways has restructures the entire organization making it better than it was back in 1970s. Way back in 1981, the company employed a new chairperson who saw how resources were ineffectively utilized. The new chairperson recognized that performance of British Airways could be improved by reducing the workforce. In this case, British Airways had to change in order to increase its effectiveness and compete favorably in the airline industry. Prior to starting the process of reducing workforce, the new chairperson communicated the issue to the entire company and informed all workers to prepare for the restructuring. He conducted the layoffs in a transparent manner ensuring that no issues arised after the change (Troyani, 2014).

Another reason why organizations change and learn is to retain talents and attract people who are committed and intellectually curious about their job. A learning organization needs employees who can use their initiatives to promote knowledge development. Organizations attract and retain people who are committed to knowledge development through employee training and by using various motivational strategies. Additionally, a learning organization provides a wide range of learning opportunities for its employees. In every learning organization, coaching is a very important source of individual and collective learning as it tends to enhance reflective practice (Serrat, 2009).

Since Marissa Mayer became the new Chief Executive Officer of Yahoo Inc, the company’s stocks have largely increased and many employees who had left the company have resorted to come back. Additionally, employees’ level of satisfaction has increases since Mayer began to implement new change strategies at Yahoo Inc. After analyzing Yahoo for a while, Mayer realized that the company needs intellectually curious employees in order to acquire a new image. Therefore, she mainly focused on talent management in the company and ensured that all employees were excited about working for the company (Troyani, 2014).

By 2013, Mayer had implemented new motivation strategies that were intended to bolster employee morale and encourage them to assist Yahoo achieve its objectives. As a new leader of Yahoo Inc, Mayor understood that equal attention must be paid to all workers in order to effectively develop and retain talent. For this reason, she used a wide range of formal awards and incentives to motivate workers and to promote organizational learning and change (Troyani, 2014).

Additionally, many organizations change and learn because they want to acquire new knowledge that can be used for proper management. Although learning is a product of knowledge, an organization can choose to learn in order to acquire new facts. A learning organization increases knowledge among employees by providing creating opportunities for learning to all workers. The main sources of knowledge for an organization are procedures employed in decision making and the designs used in delivery of products and services (Serrat, 2009).

According to Serrat (2009), modern companies learn and change in order to harness the power of information and communication technologies. The world has changed and many companies are now compelled to use modern technology in operations. Learning organizations extensively use information and communication technologies to strengthen their identity and build sustainable learning relationships with other companies. In order to effectively harness the power of information technology, learning organizations must provide sufficient opportunities for their staff members to learn and make good use of information and communication technology systems (Garvin, 2000).

Just recently, California State University implemented major changes on its information technology systems. This new system has affected operation in other branches of the University because students must now learn new ways of doing things. In order to effectively implement the change, the Information Technology Department decided to use an automatic change management system that worked to replace the old system that was initially used at the University. This indicates that California State University has changed and learned in order to harness the power of information and communication technologies (Troyani, 2014).

The University has recognized the importance of information and communication technologies in knowledge management and learning. For this reason, it has refined the roles of Information Technology employees by stating clearly who can use the system at different areas in the University. The University has minimized confusion and issues by articulating new employee responsibilities and roles. The Information Technology system changes at California State University are a clear indication that the company has changed and learned (Troyani, 2014).

Potential Barriers to Becoming A Learning Organization

Various potential barriers stand in the way of the organization becoming a learning organization. One such barrier is the failure of the systems put in place for learning in organizations. Since a learning organization is an organization that does organization learning, some attempts may end up in failure. Failure thus may cause a company to cease from engaging in the learning process, as it may not have the funds or the resources or the will to continue. Another barrier is the passive involvement of the leadership in place (Hatch & Cunliffe, 2013). The leadership should be near the workers to ensure that they carry out their various tasks appropriate and if possible be tough on them. Leadership that is out of sight may lead to laxity creeping into the organization and thus inefficiency in carrying out various tasks.

Too much use of authority in organizational learning may hinder organizations from becoming learning organizations. The management in such cases does not involve the employees in the various decisions they make on the changes that are to take place in the company. Short-term objectives and inadequate communication to the wider organization are other barriers that impede organizations from becoming learning organizations.

Theories used to explain how organizational change and learning occurs

A number of theories or models have been shown to explain why and how organizational change and learning occurs. Understanding these models and theories is important because the knowledge can be used to assess change at both micro and macro levels. Kezar (2001), outlines various categories of change models that comprise of individual organizational change theories. The first group of theories that can be used to explain organizational change and learning is categorized under evolutionary models. This category consists of a number of theories with some of them being systems theory, contingency theory, and self-organization theory (Morgan, 1986). The main assumption underlying all theories under evolutionary models category is the fact that change depends on situational variables and the circumstances faced by each company. The direction of evolution is directly established and human beings have very little influence on the change process. Organizations that apply evolutionary models in learning and change management assume that the environment in which they operate demands change for survival (Kezar, 2001).

The other category of theories is teleological models which are also called rational models. Theories that fall under this category of theories include organizational development theory, adaptive learning theory, and strategic planning approach. Under rational models, it is assumed that organizations are created with a purpose and it is the responsibility of leaders to see the necessity of change (Schulz, 2001; & Boonstra, 2004). In this case, organizational change and learning is motivated by internal features or decisions, and the leader must align goals to the change for effective learning to be achieved (Drucker, 1999). Theories that are used to explain how organizations change and learn are also categorized under life cycle models. Life Cycle models emphasize the systematic processes that take place in every individual change, and they assume that organizational learning and change occurs in stages: organizational growth, maturity, and decline. Organizational learning and change begins from when the companies are founded. Afterwards, the organizations grow, mature, undergo revival, and eventually decline (Dixon, 1994). According to Morgan (1986), organizational change occurs because it is natural progression that can neither be stopped nor altered.

Dialectical models comprise a group of theories that assume that organizations undergo short periods of evolutionary change and a subsequent order of re-evolutionary transformations. These result in opposing forces which eventually promote radical change, leading to a new organizational identity (Garvin, 2000). Dialectical models, also known as political models examine how organizational culture shape continuous change and learning. Here, organizations are views as political entities where each and every party strives to outdo another and maintain its privilege (Kezar, 2001).


 One could argue that the notion of organizational change and learning provides a detailed picture of how things occur within an organization. It is very important for organizations to embrace change and learning in order to achieve their objectives in the long term. Learning organizations explore new ideas and strive to continuously adapt to both internal and external forces.

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