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December 02, 2012

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Senge was a bit ahead of his time. Also, he's not a compelling writer. The Fifth Discipline was impenetrable. (The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook is a better read.)

I agree with you and Brent that this is C-Suite material. Competition for those eyeballs is intense. The Fifth Discipline was published more than two decades ago! Since then we've endured Six Sigma, Zero-based Budgeting, Intrapreneuring. Re-engineering, Matrix Management (again), Michael Porter, and Stephen Covey. The Learning Organization got lost in the shuffle.

Management guru Stan Davis pointed out that learning is but a means to an end; it's not the purpose of the business. Maybe "The Always Ahead of the Curve Organization" would have fared better.

Some aspects of Senge's definition of the "learning organization" have found their way into L&D work. Shared vision, team learning, personal mastery, systems thinking, and mental models have all become mainstream in various forms. But I think the label has been misused and abused. Every organization that is doing any training calls itself a learning organization, as if they have achieved something significant. I prefer talking about organizational learning at the individual, team, whole organization, and community levels and incorporating all of the ways organizations can learn, change, and improve performance. A few of us have written extensively about L&D and organizational learning, incorporating the thinking of Argyris and David Garvin. Mark, I believe like you do, that L&D folks need to look at performance of the entire system and not just incremental individual learning.

I think part of the disconnect has to do with how traditionally, organizations have handled individual learning (via training) and organizational learning (via some form of knowledge management approach) and the organizational barriers that can exist between the two, making it difficult to implement a more holistic approach that encompasses both individual learning and organizational learning.

I recognize your question since I really liked the notion of a learning organisation (Senge, but also Nancy Dixon's work). I hardly use it now as a term, I think it is not a goal in itself. Maybe adapting or innovating or performing may be?

We are definitely on the same page here...i mostly suck at expressing my thoughts well, however. But I suppose that's what I was getting at in referencing the ideas needing to become mainstream. That sort of change takes a long time. And for the most part next qrtr sales numbers and new product releases are critical or else there is no need to talk about a learning organization. I think it's more about operations methodologies relating to HR, legal, etc. I think the classic "learning organization" lies in any startup. But once a business moves beyond that, then the legal wonks take over and it's incredibly difficult to "manage" a learning organization. But I suppose the fact that an organization needs to be managed at all is really the problem, right? But now I'm completely off topic. Let's just leave it at the learning organization getting a lot of lip service but won't be real for a long time...at least it won't be in existing F500s.

Brent, I hear what you're saying but think there is maybe a different disconnect here. I was thinking about this after I wrote this post, but I became aware of Senge and Argyris from my undergrad degree in Management - I imagine that's where most people have picked them up - just like Drucker, Deming...so I think the people in the C suite who have that management background may have been exposed to these ideas but just like the next release of Captivate being the 5 meter target for instructional designers - I think the 5 meter target for the execs is maybe next quarter's sales numbers or product release - the point being unless someone breaks out of this focus on the short run, we will never have the discussions about becoming learning organizations.

It's the difference between Instructional Designer and Developer work being tactical and "learning organization" conversations being strategic. And not just strategic from the view of a Training Manager, but strategic as in the CEO needs to buy into it.
So, while the buzz phrase, "learning organization", has the term "learning" in it, the level of conversation being had is well outside the sphere of influence of your average Training Specialist(or insert title here).
It's absolutely relevant and should be discussed at all levels, but until the idea of a learning organization spreads across the C-suite, and becomes mainstream thinking, it will not be seen as necessary.
Learning the next version of Captivate will always just feel more practical and take priority.

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Quoth she/he...


  • "The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the society they live in. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are transmogrified, replaced, or simply destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the music and newspaper businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic." --Clay Shirky

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