The Birth of a Learning Organization

Peter Senge helped propel the concept of a “learning organization” to the top of the business books chart–not to mention top-of-mind awareness–with the 1994 publication of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

“Learning organizations are possible,” says Senge, “because, deep down, we are all learners.”

This simple reality, put into authentic action, once helped a work group I led to identify performance issues and to begin a critical turnaround that quickly met and then exceeded key performance indicators.

Addressing a group of some fifty fellow managers and first-line supervisors, I attempted to create a new beginning, a new psychological space where we could start to build a preferred future of both superior business performance and transformational personal growth.

“We are all learners,” I said during my remarks.

I did not have my copy of The Fifth Discipline in hand as a prop, but I did demonstrate a genuine desire to connect with my team on a fundamental level, a “deep-down” level.  The learning level.

Setting aside for the time a discussion of the problems we faced, I sought to connect with, and then to unleash, this powerful human commonality: learning.

Each of us, I explained, as our work required and based upon our individual skill sets and needs, would learn and could learn what we needed to do.  And what was needed first was to accept a personal responsibility for, and make a commitment to, learning.

And we would all be learners.  “I am a student of my own job,” I said, confident that no one would misconstrue my confessed willingness to learn as a weakness of leadership.

Moreover, we would help each other to learn, and we would reinforce our own learning by sharing, coaching, teaching.  And if we did not know how to do that, then we would learn that, too.

Our work would be our laboratory.

We would carefully monitor our progress–the impact of our learning–because showing improvement in the near term was critical to the client and to the business.  And we would adjust our learning/doing/teaching programs as needed over time.

With that, a learning organization was born.

But what had changed?  Had it not always been our nature to learn, as Senge points out?

Yes.  But had the organization supported, encouraged, and released the power of learning?


What changed in that 50-minute meeting was our willingness to call ourselves “learners” and to live and act as learners in the context of a work group.

Let’s go deeper.

Being a learner implies that we do not know everything.  Of course we do not know everything.  No one would make such a claim.  But often, in the context of a work group, team members are unwilling to say “I don’t know” or “I need to get more information” or, perhaps hardest yet, “I need to learn how.”

Insufficient know-what (knowledge) or know-how (skill) threatens and usually impairs performance; failing to remedy these deficits rapidly only prolongs and entrenches (that is, worsens) poor performance.

Making it OK to be a learner set us on our way.  That’s the first step in developing a learning organization.

Oh, yeah, step #1 has no end.

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4 Responses to The Birth of a Learning Organization

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