Creating a Learning Organization

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Developed by Matilde Nygaard Pedersen

A learning organization evaluates projects to capture and interpret information that can benefit future projects by translating new knowledge into ways of behaving. Organizational learning includes both individual and collective learning, which are both important determinants of organizational effectiveness. The ability to learn is a key enabler to organizational success and competitive advantage [1] In the absence of learning will companies simply keep repeating old practices [2].

But managing the learning is difficult and time consuming, which is why many organizations often fail to do it or completely neglects it. Project managers needs to be able to effectively manage scope, time and budgets in projects, but also human behaviour. All of these factors should be included when conducting the learning. It is also important to include all stakeholders and all organizational levels.

The definition of a learning organization has evolved over the years. Organizational theorists have many different suggestions, most view it as a process that unfolds over time, and link it with knowledge acquisition and improved performance [2]. Some believe that changes in behaviour is required, others state that it is enough to think in new ways [2].

Organizations can apply methods, theories, and tools to better their skills in learning. This article describes the importance of learning in an organization, and how information is created, captured and interpreted, and used in future projects. It also outlines the requirements for creating a learning organization. Lastly it investigates the barriers to learning and how to overcome these.


Importance of Learning

Important information and answers to many questions emerge from experience. So learning organizations create an environment where employees continuously seek new knowledge to share with co-workers.

There are several benefits to having a learning organization. These include:

  • Increased knowledge and skills
  • Improved work methods and routines
  • High levels of innovation in the organization
  • Competitiveness
  • Fast response to change
  • Improved quality of outputs

Principles for Creating a Learning Organization

Peter Senge advanced the theory of Learning Organizations in 1990, when he published his book The Fifth Discipline, where he outlines five characteristics for a learning organization that he calls the "learning disciplines":

1 Develop personal mastery. How much we know about our selves and are aware of the impact that our behaviour has on others is called self-awareness [3]. Developing personal mastery focuses on learning to expand our self-awareness and personal capacity to create desired results. Individual learning is acquired through training and encouragement of continuous self-improvement. But learning cannot be forced on an individual, and it is crucial that employees are willing to learn [3].

Therefore organizations need to make learning part of the culture and create an organizational environment in which organizational members are encouraged to develop learning skills.

2 Build complex, challenging mental models. The assumptions or "internal pictures of the world" held by individuals and organizations are called mental models [3]. These are part of shaping the way people think and act. Organizations should continuously reflect upon these models and challenge them. Organizational members should clarify their mental models for each other, to build a shared understanding.
3 Promote team learning. When teams start thinking together by sharing individual experiences, insights, knowledge and skills it is called team learning [3]. When teams do team learning they are able to develop greater intelligence and ability than the sum of individual members', which in the end will make an organization more competitive and faster responsive to a changing environment. Team learning is done through openness when team members engage in dialogue and discussions. Managers need to allow for development and reflection of knowledge.
4 Build shared vision. Creating a sense of commitment and common identity in a group to work towards common goals is to have a shared vision [3]. Teams need to take time early in the process to build common understandings and commitments, and create shared visions in order to work effectively.
5 Encourage systems thinking. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework that describes the language and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems [3]. It describes the deeper interconnections behind any system, and can help organizations understand outputs and detect causes of problems, and hereby plan courses of action.

Integrating Learning in an Organization

Figure 1 - Systems Learning.[4]

When an organization fails to manage learning, valuable knowledge is thrown away. Learning can and should be implemented in all parts of a process, and on every level of an organization. Integrating learning in a organization requires time and commitment. Peter Senge says "First, you must realize that the very idea of a "learning organization" is a vision" [3].

Michael J. Marquardt argue that before individuals and organizations can adequately learn, they must incorporate five subsystems: (1) Learning, (2) Organization, (3) People, (4) Knowledge, and (5) Technology. All five subsystems are dynamically interrelated, and if any is weak or absent, it will have significant effect on the overall learning. Therefore, focus on all five subsystems is necessary to move from non-learning to learning.


Management of knowledge is the heart of building a learning organization. There are six knowledge elements of organizational learning [4]:

Acquisition Collection of existing data and information from within and outside the organization.
Creation New knowledge is generated through different processes, or through the ability to make new connections between previously known elements.
Storage Coding and preservation of knowledge for easy access by any staff member, at any time, and from any place.
Analysis and Data mining Using techniques for analysing, reconstructing, validating, and storing data, i.e. to find meaning in data.
Transfer and dissemination Mechanical, electronic, and interpersonal movement of information and knowledge throughout the organization.
Application and Validation The use and assessment of knowledge by members of the organization.

The six elements are interactive and interdependent.

Levels of Learning

Managers need to realize that an organization consist of many individuals who have different ways of working, different ways of reflecting and communicating, and different levels of resistance. They need therefore to manage both individual and collective learning, particularly in terms of the extend to which individuals are viewed as autonomous and distinct from social and cultural groups in work activities [5]

Learning exist on three levels:

Individual learning: the individual human process of consuming and storing new concepts, skills and behaviors [5].
The challenge is to translate relevant learning into capabilities that can be useful for the organization.
Individuals often hold much more information than they share, because it can be challenging to communicate. Tacit Knowledge or "know-how" is highly experience based and context-dependent. Though being hard to communicate, tacit knowledge is considered being the most valuable knowledge, and the most likely to lead to breakthroughs in an organization. The challenge is to communicate and translate this information into something useful for others.
Explicit Knowledge or "know-what" is easy to identify and standardise.. The challenge here is to ensure that people have access to exactly the information that is relevant to them, and it should therefore continuously be reviewed, and updated or discarded [6].
Group or team learning: the increase in knowledge, skills, and competencies accomplished by and within groups [4].
Organizational learning: the enhanced intellectual and productive capability gained through commitment to and opportunities for continuous improvement across the organization [4].
Learning from each other can sometimes bring the most powerful insights and help in gaining new perspectives. Ideas carry maximum impact when they are shared, rather than kept in the team. Methods to spread information throughout the organization are written, oral, and visual reports, as well as site visits and tours. They can help in summarizing findings, providing checklists, and describing important processes and events. Other mechanisms include rotation programs, education and training programs, and standardization programs [4].

Singe-loop and Double-loop Learning

Figure 2 - Single-loop and Double-loop Learning.[1]

Argyris and Schön (1978) distinguish between two types of learning; Single-Loop Learning and Double-Loop Learning:

Single-Loop Learning. Engaging in Single loop learning means to reflect on what is happening now or in the past, and focus attention on detecting errors. This is used to modify future actions and behaviour, including goals, values, and operating frameworks. Single loop learning can be very useful and is a good tool in continuous improvement, but will never create path-breaking behaviour. Single-loop learning is especially useful in project and program management, but can also to some extent be useful in portfolio management.
Double-Loop Learning. Re-evaluating the deeper variables that make us behave the way we do is called double loop learning, and happens when leaders are able to think outside the box. It challenges the accepted ways of thinking and behaving, and thereby provides the possibility of developing new understandings of situations and crucial path-breaking behaviour. Double-loop learning only occurs when leaders are able to deeply reflect on outcomes. This is done by identifying assumptions that underpin decisions and actions, as well as identifying assumptions that defines what is a satisfactory outcome. These assumptions should be reviewed and challenged, and where appropriate, modified. Double-loop learning is especially useful in portfolio management, where large, strategic decisions are to be made, and a complete re-evaluation of the organization is sometimes necessary.

Post Project Reviews

A great tool to help learning from projects is Post Project Reviews. It is a structured framework to capture and interpret knowledge gained from a project. It can be executed in countless different ways depending on the management style and size of the project, but necessary factors for successful post project reviews are ensure that team members are prepared and engaged, select the right time and environment, include key stakeholders, produce a summary document, share the document with stakeholders, and lastly assign responsibility areas to a team or individual who is responsible for implementing the lessons learned. Post project reviews can be executed in each step on the innovation process or after the project is finished. It can also be executed at different levels ranging from ad hoc execution to organization-wide standardised processes with established guidelines. Organizations should customise post project reviews to their needs, depending on their resources and size of the company.

Barriers to Learn

Even though there is a lot of potential in disseminating know-how between projects, many companies fails to do so. This is because there are several barriers to learning in an organization. Zedtwitz (2003) divides barriers into four categories [7]:

1 Team based barriers include poor internal communication and reluctance to blame. When team members have different backgrounds and work in different locations, it can be difficult to communicate effectively and fully understand each other. There exist both professional and personal relationships within a team. While personal relationships can help build a stronger team, it also creates a barrier for co-workers to go against each other in situations where it is needed [7].
2 Physiological barriers include memory bias and inability to reflect. The human brain has limitations. Our memory is biased and we tend to remember the more positive or negative experiences, and forget the indifferent or common experiences, which can often contain just as useful information. It also tends to suppress complex problems, which are actually often the most important problems to understand and reflect on. Additionally, the brain is from nature not capable of reflecting completely on the past, either because it is hard to link outcomes of previous actions or simply because we do not like to reflect on our own failures [7].
3 Managerial barriers include time constrains and bureaucratic overhead. In vast majority of all projects, time is a constraint and teams constantly work under a performance pressure. So often there is no time of reflect on the process, teamwork, and outcomes, even though this might be a big help in future projects by eliminating possible questions or time spend on the same problems. Another managerial barrier is that not all stakeholders in a project are asked to reflect or give feedback to the process. It is most often only the top management that runs checkpoints on time, budget and quality of deliveries, and the root of possible problems are not detected on lower levels where they actually occur, which is a huge barrier to organizational learning [7].
4 Knowledge utilization barriers include difficulty in generalizing information and tacit knowledge. Sharing knowledge in a systematic way is difficult and you can end up with immense amounts of information, which is pointless to navigate in for future projects. People also know more than they are able to express. It is difficult to express feelings and impressions [7].

Overcoming the barriers

First of all, organizations need to understand and accept that these barriers exist, in order to manage them.

The most important factor to overcome barriers is to have a creative climate, i.e. foster an environment which allows employees to objectively and honestly explore issues. To allow a creative climate, the organization needs to meet a number of preconditions, which is only possible if members from all organizational levels are included, expectations of outcome and success criteria are aligned, and if organizational members are prepared to take risks and accept failure as an opportunity for learning and development [8]. The criteria for a creative climate are:

  • Trust and openness
  • Challenge and involvement
  • Support and space for ideas
  • Conflict and debate
  • Risk taking
  • Freedom

Boundaries in organizations isolate individuals and groups and inhibit flow of important information. Organizations should open these boundaries and simulate exchange of information and ideas among teams and individuals. This can be done through conferences, meetings or project teams. Or more intensely through learning forums, which are programs or events with explicit learning goals, and can bring in internal groups, customers, suppliers and outside experts.

Example: Toyota's Learning Organization

Toyota is considered one of the worlds greatest manufacturers [9]. In 2001 they outlined 14 management principles and behaviors that they call The Toyota Way. These are sectioned in four categories, which are (1) Long-term philosophy, (2) The right process will produce the right results, (3) Add value to the organization by developing your people, and (4) Continuously solving root problems drives organizational learning. The last principle is Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement, which is the one that ties the other 13 together.

Toyota realizes the importance of looking back at the changes they make and what the results were. They consider whether the outcome was as expected and why. They often use Root cause analysis as a tool to reflect on results, most often to non-ideal results with the intent of correcting problems.

Secondly, they use policy development to move important information and objectives from top management down to the work group level. Measurable and concrete goals are set on the top level of the organization, and then the lower levels develop objectives to support these. The results of any change is therefore always measurable.

Toyota has not developed into the very well learning organization it is over night. It has taken years and full commitment for Toyota to achieve its success.


There are many different models for organizational learning. While having various different points, there are some areas in which they agree [10]

These include

  • Learning is a continuous process
  • Work should be structured so that it allows for experimentation, as well as learning from mistakes
  • Structures and systems are needed to capture the right information and making sure that it is useful for the right people
  • Innovation is needed, which typically requires double-loop learning

There are, however, also areas in which they do not agree. These include

  • The amount of responsibility that lies on the individual
  • The emphasis placed on performance vs. learning
  • The relative emphasis on single-loop and double-loop learning
  • The needed quantity of information
  • The extent of participation from members at different levels in the organization

There are no disadvantages of organizational learning, other than it requirers time. But the time consumption is an investment in the future, and it is a matter of balance, to customise solutions that fit to the individual organization.


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Theory and practice of change management, John Hayes, Palgrave Macmillian, Fourth edition, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Building a Learning Organization, David A. Garvin, Harvard Business School, 1993
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 The art and practice of the learning organization. Emerging strategies for leadership and organizational change, Senge, P. M., New York: Doubleday, 2006
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Building the Learning Organization, Michael J. Marquardt, Davies-Black, Second edition, 2002
  5. 5.0 5.1 Understanding Relations of Individual-Collective Learning in Work: A Review of Research, Tara Fenwick, University of British Columbia, 2008
  6. The Different Types of Knowledge,, Alan Frost M.Sc., 2010 - Updated 2013
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Post-Project Reviews in R&D, Max Zedtwitz, Vol. 32, 2002
  8. Managing Innovation – Integrating Technological, Market, and Organizational Change, Tidd, J. and Bessant, J., Wiley, 5th edition, 2013
  9. The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World's Greatest Manufacturer , Jeffrey K. Liker, Jan 2014
  10. The Learning Organization: An Integrative Vision for HRD, Victoria J. Marsick, Aug 2006

Annotated bibliography

  • Ref 1: John Hayes. The Theory and practice of change management. Palgrave Macmillian. Fourth edition. 2014.

Annotation: This book provides skills to identify the need for change and ensure that it is successfully implemented. It provides hands-on tools for various change scenarios, as well as tools to reflect on your experiences. It also describes how managers can overcome resistance to change.

  • Ref 2: David A. Garvin. Building a Learning Organization. Harvard Business School. 1993

Annotation: The article describes the linkage between learning and continuous improvement. It tries to define what a learning is, and thoroughly describes five building block for having a learning organization. These are 1. Systematic problem solving, 2. Experimentation, 3. Learning from past experience, 4. Learning from others, and 5. Transferring knowledge. Lastly it investigates how to measure learning.

  • Ref 3: Senge, P. M. The art and practice of the learning organization. Emerging strategies for leadership and organizational change. New York: Doubleday. 2006.

Annotation: The book by Peter Senge (senior lecturer at MIT) describes his five disciplines for a creating a learning organization. The five disciplines represent theories and methods for developing core learning capabilities.

  • Ref 4: Michael J. Marquardt. Building the Learning Organization. Davies-Black. Second edition. 2002.

Annotation: The book describes key forces that have necessitated the emergence of learning organizations. It introduces the total Systems Learning Organization model, which builds on the five sub systems 1. Learning, 2. Organization, 3. People, 4. Knowledge and 5. Technology. It also describes the dimensions of the five sub systems.

  • Ref 5: Tara Fenwick. Understanding Relations of Individual-Collective Learning in Work: A Review of Research. University of British Columbia. 2008.

Annotation: The article focus on the relations between individual and collective learning. It discuss similarities and differences stated in the different journals about understanding individual and collective learning.

  • Ref 7: Max Zedtwitz. Post-Project Reviews in R&D. Vol. 32. 2002.

Annotation: The article argue that Post-project reviews are one opportunity to systematically improve performance in subsequent projects. It discuss why so many organizations neglects it as a tool. It reviews the role of post-project meetings as a tool to improve organizational learning at the group level, and describes different maturity levels of the tool.

  • Ref 8: Tidd, J. and Bessant, J., 2013. Managing innovation: Integrating technological, market and organizational change. Wiley, 5th edition, 2013

Annotation: Managing Innovation describes how to manage innovation in organizations.

  • Ref 9: Jeffrey K. Liker. The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World's Greatest Manufacturer. Jan 2014

Annotation: The book outlines the 14 management principles that has lead Toyota to be one of the worlds greatest manufacturers. The 14th principle is Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.

  • Ref 10: Victoria J. Marsick. The Learning Organization: An Integrative Vision for HRD. Aug 2006.

The article outlines a number of different learning organization models, and highlights areas of agreement and disagreement among these learning models.

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