Leadership and "The Learning Organization"

The term "learning organization", not to be confused with organizational learning, was popularized by Peter Senge. It describes an organization with an ideal learning environment, perfectly in tune with the organization's goals. Such an organization is a place "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 (reality) together." (Senge 1992).


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This subsection will focus largely on the work of Peter Senge, and it will serve as a basis for understanding:

  • The ideal organizational environment for learning, knowledge management (KM), innovation, etc, as described through the term "the learning organization".
  • The leadership qualities necessary for promoting and encouraging this ideal environment.


The Learning Organization

According to Senge, the learning organization depends upon the mastery of five dimensions:

Systems thinking: The notion of treating the organization as a complex system composed of smaller (often complex) systems. This requires an understanding of the whole, as well as the components, not unlike the way a doctor should understand the human body.Some of the key elements here are recognizing the complexity of the organization and having a long-term focus. Senge advocates the use of system maps that show how systems connect.

Personal mastery: Senge describes this as a process where an individual strives to enhance his vision and focus his energy, and to be in a constant state of learning.

Mental models: "Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action" (Senge 1990). These must be recognized and challenged so as to allow for new ideas and changes.

Building shared vision: Shared vision is a powerful motivator. A leader's vision does not necessarily become shared by those below him. The key here is to pass on a picture of the future. To influence using dialogue, commitment, and enthusiasm, rather than to try to dictate. Storytelling is one possible tool that can be used here.

Team learning: The state where team members think together to achieve common goals. It builds on shared vision, adding the element of collaboration.

The Role of Leadership

Senge emphasized the role of the leader in the creation of this learning organization. He defined three leadership roles (1990) that would reshape the old-fashioned approach to being the boss. These are:

Leader as Designer: Senge likens this to being the designer of a ship rather than its captain. He defined it in three ways:

  • Creating a common vision with shared values and purpose.
  • Determining the "policies, strategies, and structures that translate guiding ideas into business decisions."
  • Creating effective learning processes which will allow for continuous improvement of the policies, strategies, and structures.

Leader as Teacher: The leader here is seen as a coach that works with the mental models present in the organization. He must understand the (usually tacit) concepts of reality and restructure these views "to see beyond the superficial conditions and events [and] into the underlying causes of the problems."

Leader as Steward: This is the vaguest of the three and refers largely to the attitude of the leader. He emphasizes the importance of a leader that feels he is part of something greater; whose desire is first and foremost not to lead, but to serve this greater purpose of building better organizations and reshaping the way businesses operate.

The first two roles outlined by Senge shed a lot of light into the requirements of effective KM and organizational learning.

Written by Emil Hajric Emil Hajric

Published August 4th, 2023

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