Why a Learning Organization?

In February, 1995 we asked a number of friends this question:

Why a Learning Org?? Why bother... It does take effort. Why do we want learning organizations? On a personal level, why do you want to build learning organizations? Why do you want your own organization to be more of a learning organization?

This is a collage of the responses.

If you would like to add to this collage, please email your response to:
with the "Subject: Why a Learning Organization?" In this special case, we will use answers without attribution, and the collage will be circulated outside the mailing list and archive. (The general policy in Learning-Org is "Authors own their own words" and messages are not re-distributed or re-used outside the Learning-Org facilities.)

Richard Karash, rkarash@world.std.com, host for learning-org

According to Art Kleiner (who orchestrated the writing of Fifth Discipline Fieldbook) they had originally planned a lengthy section on the same question, framed with the title "Why Bother?" Graciously Art has contributed this outline. (Thanks Art!)

Organizing ideas of the "Why Bother?" section were to have been:

Because we need a different way of viewing the process of conducting activity in a business environment and of achieving change within that environment. Our existing views and ways of understanding are not keeping up with the realities of that environment nor with our own belief system which defines that environment.

My answers:

Because it's 'in touch' with a fundamental part of our humanity -- to learn, to improve our environment, to be active actors, not passive recipients.

A company CEO once defined a team as "a place where I go to have my answers questioned"...seems LO's provide the same service.

I think another driver towards organizational learning is change. It's been said a lot but the greatest constant of modern time is change. With regards to the organizations we are in, change consistently challenges traditional institutional practices and beliefs. Most important, most of the changes we now struggle to comprehend arise as consequences, intended or unintended, of created in some way by the folks from the orgnanizations themselves.

What is required then, given this constant state of change are fundamental new ways of thinking and acting. The most compelling of which is Systems Thinking, or "the ability to see the world as a complex system." This kind of thinking inspires people to say things like:in "you can't just do one thing" and "everything is connected to everything else."

Another one for the list:

The question is: how do we continually learn, if change is a constant?

That leads to barriers to learning, what stops us from learning? :

If we could collectively see and to some extent overcome these barriers, the environment, our families, our communinities and our organizations would all dramatically improve -- another reason for pursuing organizationa learning.

Great question. I can't help but answer rhetorically.

Why not have a learning organization?

Its not up to anyone to answer but those who want it. Otherwise, in my opinion, its someone else's organization. I may be wrong here, but the only way that there isn't a tradeoff between higher performance and individual satisfaction is when individuals decide that they will do what they love, be driven by THEIR drives to learn, and collectively create a higher performing, by traditional as well as their own measures, organization.

One of the most compelling answers I've ever heard came from client. He was able to answer quickly and clearly, "to be free."

It reminded me of the "I want to live on a green planet!" story. He had a rich representation in his mind of what "freedom" meant (and what its lack meant).

I choose to contribute to human evolution, to stretch the fabric of our soul. Not knowing how, I choose to learn with others, to start where I am.

Where I am becomes a learning organization the moment I preceive it to be one, as I share insights with others. It is born with the discovery that together we can contribute to evolution, that not knowing how to stretch- together- we can each learn how.

Summary: Because it is our heritage and our promise to do so and when it works it is transformative. (And when it doesn't work it is a bummer!)

My reasons for supporting a learning organization are similar to yours, Rick, but I would change the term "improve" to the terms "learn, play, and achieve mastery". I think that the work by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi on intrisic reward (see Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience for a good laypersons summary) has much to contribute to understanding that deep human drive. My years spent as a pre-school teacher were invaluable to my observation and understanding of that drive in action. To that I would throw in some intimations of Teilhard de Chardin's notion of "complexification" (at personal, organizational, community, and cosmic levels) for the "big picture" of systems at work, and a bit of the "new science" concepts (a la Margaret Wheatley and others) and the ancient eastern traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and especially Taoism (the Tao Te Ching is an essential example). I figure if all of these various sources can be in some sort of resonance, we are probably on to something good!

Because it is only natural, i.e. in keeping with human nature.

The old way is for senior managers to do all the thinking while everyone else "wields the screwdrivers". The old way works, but doesn't tap the greater energy available when the team is fully engaged. Tapping into this energy can result in improved products and services for customers, and an improved work environment.

The learning organization approach is a new way that promises to tap into this energy.

Any approach that increases joy in work and the quality of products and services raises the overall quality of life.

I'm only interested in learning organizations insofar as they:

(1) provide people with more satisfying lives, so they are happier, do more interesting things with their lives, and are more fun to have lunch with; and

(2) promote systems thinking enough so we have a snowball's chance in hell of restoring enough sanity to our motives so we don't fall into any of the "Limits to Growth" scenarios during my lifetime. (Or hopefully many centuries to come, though knowing the collapse may well come while I'm around lends a bit more urgency.)

systems thinking and organizational learning is nothing new. We just have to remember what we already know.

1. Because it offers me theory-based avenues that support me in contributing to reducing the fragmentation in the world

2. Because the L.O. approach flows out of and speaks to the deepest human values that I attempt to embody in my life, values such as wholeness, the interconnectedness of all beings and things, collective endeavour and intelligence.

3. Because it channels and supports and enhances the basic (and my) human passion to learn

4. Because it provides a rational explanation of the necessity for caring about each other.

5. Because it offers a way to cut through some of the dead ends that have cropped up in more "technical " approaches to organistion development, a way that calls upon soul qualities to support,inspire and illuminate the movement

6. Because it provides an invitation and a rationale for building communities.

Because I believe that there is a new level of efficiency and effectiveness to be gained in organizations that master the intricacies of the LO. I think it is the next level of evolution for organizations and I'd like to help my company and mankind to get there.

At the last Bretton Woods gathering, Clair Nuer and Joe Jaworski talked about the holocaust. I don't mean to be gloomy, but it seems that if we do not become learning organizations, individually and in community, we stand the chance of creating something as devastating as the holocaust. I can imagine 10 years from now, living a poorer quality of life because we've depleted more natural resources, poluted more, burned out more people, ...... the list goes on. I like to think that those involved in creating learning organizations are balancing the need for economic viability and ccontinuously improving productivity with creating environments in which people can excel (contribute fully to something that matters for them individually and collectively).

On a lighter note---people involved in creating learning organizations are FUN to be with!!

The answer to your question might be a little disjointed but it generated a flood of ideas that are still percolating!

Why do we want a LO?--because it gives organizations the possibilities to discover who they are, where they want to go, and define the quality of life they wish to pursue.

We need to bother because of the issues of complexity and the quality of life on the earth . Complexity is driven by a feedback loop containing variables from the social, cognitive, political, organizational, and technological worlds. These variables have always be with us, but what has changed is the speed of access to information (compressed information float time). Mass media, cyberspace, technological artifacts are adding to the complexity facing all of us. James Burke's Connections is an excellent example of these loops developing over time. I find within the educational organizations I work with a disconnectiveness from these variables which heigthens thier inability to see their relationship to the system. Introducing the tools of LO has given some a new lens to understand this disconnectiveness. I am starting to generate many examples but I don't think you are asking for those at this time.

After reading and listening to Capra, Ackoff, Senge, et al.to me the LO is part of an evolutionary process.I see the LO evolving into what I would call (it might already be coined) the Ecological Organization. The EO will create the "sustainable community" that Capra envisions. This is why I am pursuing the LO concepts with all the organizations that I work with. What the LO gives these organizations (schools - businesses) is away to explore their present assumptions juxtapositioned with new assumptions that will be found in sustainable communities.

If you ask me what the mental models of the EO are and how they relate to our present organization I am not sure. But, the essence of the LO will help to generater the models linked to many of Capra's concepts found in living systems. For example, given all the recent discoveries in the cognitive sciences, why do our school systems continue to produce a byproduct called student failure? If life-long-learning is a vision for school systems, how would we create a self renewing process that would enhance all learners and increase the quality of life within the community?

I see many of the existing organizational forms and processes as machinelike, where humans are seen as parts of the machine (not only in trad. bureaucracies). The more quailified the average population is, the less this will be a possible way to organize cooperation. One possible solution can be to create something like a learning organization. Vital to this effort is to understand that there are no finite descriptions of such organizations, if so they would be no place for learning.

The following quote may be my answer to your question: why have a Learning Organization.

Humanity generally acts -- as if -- most of the time, especially in collective action. This is a form of denial. Denial of the consequences of rationalism. A hopeful denial, but none-the-less, a kind of group defense mechanism. It is the source of our faith in technology as 911. The western belief in inventing our way out of a mess.

It seems possible that the learning organization can bring into our enterprise institutions the possibility of systems thinking in action. And shorten the feedback loops so that collective action for the general welfare is not just possible, but expected. Thus the learning organization, unlike other technologies for business, is not about the bottom line first. It is about living with paradox and choosing life affirming values. This is why I think of Bohm's proposal for dialogue as an epistemological discipline, not a communications technology for 'business'. This is why I believe Bohm insisted it be "agenda free." To discover what Laszlo refers to below. And the learning organization appears to be a "state" which could support such a profound change in view, and act from that change!

Its fun.

In answer to the question why a learning organization, my answer is simple: why not? It may be the only way we can survive.

I do not know that I necessarily want learning organizations. I think I want a more effective way to be. Not to do business but, to be. I want to work in an environment where everyone's needs are met in a way which effectively serves the whole. Not just the whole of the organization but, the whole of the community in which we all live. The learning organization offers a vision, which for me, seems to meet this need.

I want to build learning organizations because it gives me energy. I am truly excited about this work. I have not been excited about work in a long time. I am deeply interested in creating a learning journey for myself which, hopefully, serves those who I am working with. By serving others in an effective manner, I will serve myself in an effective manner. Everybody will be better off.

add to our data pool

Why learning organizations? ** To empower people to effect change

Why do we want? ** To change attitudinal and institutional barriers of learning

On a personal level? ** Learning is living, living is being open to possibilities

What do we want our organization to be? ** "Thriving" rather than "surviving" and achieving extraordinary results.

I'm not sure that the term (learning organization) means much to me in the way that it does for others. I get what it's about but it covers many interpretations. Another word like that is 'community' and that is where my interest lies.

To the extent that a learning organization is a place in which community is fostered, I want to be in one and help create them. Also it would not be enough for me to be in a learning organization to become a better 'company man" in the pursuit of an even better widget. (Maybe that's why I work for myself!)

To me a community has to have a sense of connection to the wider world and I want my participation in it to contribute to a better world in some way. So it is with organizations. If my participation is aligned with a larger goal (making environmentally friendly widgets, expanding access to learning for parents, encouraging a sense of creativity and spirit, creating connections among people etc), then I can get excited.

I also want my private aspirations to be respected. I want it to be legitimate that I spend time writng, making music etc I want my commitment to my children to be respected and so on.I am from Ireland. Once, many years ago I heard the leader of a political party talk about how he would travel the country to meet the people. He said he would be on the road for many days. His wife later talked about how his children would not see him for weeks on end. He was following a commitment to make things better for families yet his own family rarely saw him. This, to me is what we need to get beyond in learning organizations.

The more I reflect, the deeper the answers go. I am involved in learning about L.O. and bringing it into my work, because all that I read, the research, the theories, etc. puts words on what I have felt for years but felt very awkward about expressing.

It's as if the legitimacy of academic institutions gives me the courage to move ahead with even more of who I am, and help others do so also, thus creating organizational communities that are more supportive of life, in the widest and deepest sense of the term.

Healthcare needs learning organizations because the dilemmas in healthcare today are not simple, they cannot be explained in simple thoughts and words.

They are the ultimate example of the need for all people to understand how the systems within their world work through interrelationships, and how what one part of that world does affects others in ways broader than many have realized. People must look into assumptions, and beyond perceptions of healthcare to learn more and gain understanding, in order to make informed decisions. Leaders must continue to ask why things are as they are.

Healthcare providers must work toward better business and community relationships, and the sharing of resources with colleagues, whether is is across towns or regions. The classic model of competitition will not work in healthcare provision. Healthcare providers must get their communities involved and learning in the "business" of healthcare. They must understand that healthcare is people, not an industry. A dollar spent on healthcare is a dollar spent by a citizen, not a government or a committee. The limiting of services is the limiting of services to real people, not an industry.

That's "why learning organiztions", and why I do what I do...

As I see it,
through the glass dimly (if not darkly),
we learn with the aim to live
more fully,
to become,
simply to contribute--
whether personally, communally, or
more for the world.

We learn
to live more fully
simply to contribute
more for the world.

We learn better
in communion
I think generally
than we do alone--
communion with the
whole world
and beyond the world
that we can see and touch and know

In learning in communion
WE have the simple hope
perhaps the real promise
of doing more
for the world
by being
more in communion
with the world,
and more.

And speaking personally,
as I see it,
that's why.

The BIG Q: Why a Learning Org?? Why bother... It does take effort.

I'm engaged in two projects based on turbo-charging the information executives get from IS systems. Both are focused at least in part on using the "i" from WWW and the Internet for strategic planning purposes. However, getting the "i" is only part of what the executive needs. The missing ingredient is what to do with it (it being the i for information).

At the executive level, and this comes from 16 interviews so far at the mid--level VP to Senior Executive VP's and COO's, it has become a question of, "Ok, we know what information we think we need, but how do we get it?" Executive Information Systems are the answer to that q. This is followed by "OK, we got the information now what do we do with it?" This is not yet answered by a system so is covered piece by piece in analysis, individual and team guesswork. Then comes a disturbing q by thoughtful executives, "Are we sure this is ALL the information we need?" If one's not careful paralysis sets in--this is not new to executive management.

The world has become more competitive, I can't verify with a citation, but if you doubt this then I pity you. Hyper competition is extant in more industries. Trade barriers both structural and cultural are waning. Given this, executives are faced with overload as demonstrated by the three questions above. A good example of dealing with this information load can be found in Thurman Rodgers work at Cypress Semiconductor. An elaborate goal setting system for every employee that is easily accessible by all executives with certain automated features to remind one of goals past due. His book is "No Excuses Management". It contains demonstration software and I recomend it highly.

The learning organization is one response to this, and I suspect, without trying to be melodramatic, soon to be a question of survival for many firms. The executives simply are not capable of knowing the same % of the firm's secrets and knowledge as they were 5 or 10 years before, but they have greater access to the information of the firm than ever before. I suspect an indicator of this is the mean age of executives in affected industries getting younger.

What this means is the new skill being developed by executives is not only accessing the information, but also in synthesizing it into understanding and actions. Multiply this out to several levels of the corporation because of flattening organizational hierarchies accomplished over the last decade and you've got a prescription for executive headaches induced by stress.

A solution, maybe not the best, is to push the organization's learning about itself, and I'll use the zen metaphor for learning (the full tea cup) to stress that it is unending, just like it was 20-30-100-300 years ago, but the pace of unlearning has increased--that is the tea is poured faster, sometimes faster than one can drink.

Sorry for the length, as always, had I had more time...

IMHO, (In my humble opinion) the entire concept, as well as most other approaches to organizational change, is about gaining competitive advantage. But, the basic difference is that the learning org. concept is based on the "resource-oriented" school of thought in strategy, i.e. that the question to be answered is: how can our organization turn standard resources, i.e. resources that are available to us and all our competitors, into competences, which are unique for us, and which cannot be copied by others?

A learning organization combines the essential elements of strategy development and personal development. It creates a space for people to achieve tremendous business and personal results. It values the scientific method of hypothesis development, testing and validation, as well as the personal development pathway found in the concepts of "personal mastery."

Connecting humans to organizations in a vital mutually beneficial way is why learning organizations are worth creating.

Why do we want learning organizations?

We want to live "divided no more." We want work and personal goals to be in sync or chosen for legitimate reasons. We want to instill greater levels of personal commitment and creativity in the work force. We want to have our work and our organization work be in harmony not at odds. We want to be able to produce exceptional business results in an ever changing environment.

Personally, why do we want to build learning organizations?

I believe that such an environment is essential to the continued growth and development of those who work. I believe that work should not be an obligation but a joy. I believe that learning and creativiity spark the future. I believe that without learning organizations we will not be able to transition into the next millennium and meet the challenges ahead. I think it is the only way to live and work!

Why do I want my organization be more of a learning organization?

For all of the reasons mentioned above and because we have chosen strategies which depend on our ability to expand the organization's capacity to learn and innovate. Without these skills and concepts, we will probably not achieve our desired results.

I want learning organizations primarily because I think they provide the healthiest kind of environment for human beings to be in. I am secondarily interested in the bottom line effectiveness of organizations, and I feel that maximum effectiveness is achieved through continuous learning resulting in continuous improvement.

I personally am interested in helping people explore alternatives in their own lives--both personal and professional--and take responsibility for bringing their personal vision of "better" into reality.

I've been pondering the question of 'why a learning org?' for some time now. It may sound simple, but I think the answer is because we want it.

I can take an intellectual tack with talk of self-organizing systems, various theories of group dynamics, etc.

I can take an emotional tack and approach it from the fundamental essence that all I encounter here seems to have.

I can take an operational tack and approach from all the great things improvements, and results we will likely achieve.

But what it really comes down to is that my image of a 'learning organization' is fundamentally the type of place where I want to work; where personal growth is valued as much as organizational growth; where we recognize the essence of the whole and our individual roles.

Speaking for myself, why a learning organization? Because thats what I want to create.

Why a Learning Organization?

.. to achieve competitive advantage. This is usually the answer that businesses understand. We know that in order to learn, information and knowledge have to be available... However, competitive advantage at the individual level is based on "know-how", that is "knowledge is power". So my question is:

How do you create an organization that is willing to share if most of the people in the organization are willing to learn, but not too many are motivated to teach or share?

As I understand it, according to the principle of "Dharma" -- everyone is put here for a purpose -- they have some gift that only they can give. I believe our organizations are built upon structures that effectively squash people's ability to find and apply that gift. We are all immensely poorer as a result. Learning organizations offer an opportunity to challenge ourselves to find and apply our gifts, and to recognize and appreciate the gifts of others.

Thanks for participating with us! The question was:

Why a Learning Org?? Why bother... It does take effort. Why do we want learning organizations? On a personal level, why do you want to build learning organizations? Why do you want your own organization to be more of a learning organization?

If you would like to add to this collage, please email your response to:
with the "Subject: Why a Learning Organization?" In this special case, we will use answers without attribution, and the collage will be circulated outside the mailing list and archive. (The general policy in Learning-Org is "Authors own their own words" and messages are not re-distributed or re-used outside the Learning-Org facilities.)

Richard Karash, rkarash@world.std.com, host for learning-org