Learning Organisations

by Sharon Varney

Understanding learning organisations

The fundamental learning units in an organisation are working teams.

Peter Senge

If, as Peter Senge says, the fundamental learning units in an organisation are working teams, then you, as a manager, are at the heart of the learning organisation. It’s not just about the attitudes and actions of senior executives, but of managers and team leaders right across the organisation.

The core learning capabilities

Senge talks about developing three ‘core learning capabilities of teams’:

  • Aspiration
  • Reflective conversation
  • Understanding complexity.

He tells us that the five disciplines of a learning organisation are methods and theories for developing those core learning capabilities.

These capabilities are all necessary for a learning organisation. As the three-legged stool suggests, if any of them are missing, the stool will fall over. So, we might consider the manager’s role as helping their team to develop the three core learning capabilities and working to keep them in balance.


Both personal and team aspiration are necessary for a learning organisation. The disciplines covered are

  • Personal mastery
  • Shared vision.

Reflective conversation

In a learning organisation, we need to consider what we think and how we talk together. Reflective conversation requires dialogue. Dialogue is very different to how we might normally have conversations. Most conversations are discussions, in which everyone puts forward their own views. Dialogue is a way of talking in which each person tries to recognise and suspend their own views and assumptions. The disciplines covered are

  • Mental models
  • Team learning.

Understanding complexity

Critical to Peter Senge’s view of a learning organisation is the idea that people should take time to understand the bigger picture of relationships. The discipline covered here is

  • Systems thinking.

Taking a closer look at the five disciplines

If you want to encourage the core learning capabilities within your team, it’s useful to take a closer look at each of the five disciplines. Once you are able to recognise each of them, you can consider where your team has strengths and where you might need to pay attention along the way.

Personal mastery

Organisations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organisational learning. But without it no organisational learning occurs.

Peter Senge

Personal mastery is about an individual’s desire for growth and learning. It is something we are born with and we are all pretty good at it as babies and small children. It’s how we develop. The danger is that, somewhere along the line, our desire for growth and learning becomes reduced to competence and skills.

Although competence and skills are important – indeed they provide the foundation for personal mastery – that’s not all there is. It’s not just about acquiring new knowledge. Personal mastery is about having an aspiration for continual learning and an attitude of openness to learning. In many ways, it’s about creating new knowledge.

The guiding principles of personal mastery are purpose (a direction) and vision (a goal). Together, they help provide focus for continual learning. Understanding the gap between your current reality and your desired vision can be a source of creative tension, giving you the energy to pursue your goals. Some suggest that committing to a vision beyond personal self-interest can increase your energy.

Remember, though, that no one can be forced to develop! It’s something that we each have to choose to pursue for ourselves.

So what can you do to encourage this attitude in others?

  • Lead by example – your own commitment to personal mastery will speak volumes
  • Actively foster a climate where people feel that their personal vision is valued
  • Encourage people to challenge the status quo
  • Encourage people to reflect on their assumptions.

Mental models

We all have mental models. They are the sum of our assumptions and beliefs about how the world works. Our mental models tend to exist beneath the surface of our consciousness, so we are not necessarily aware of them. Yet they still have a profound influence on our thinking and behaviour.

For example, if I believe that appraisal systems exist just to give HR people something to do, I’m likely to complete performance appraisals for my staff only when pushed, to make the meetings as short as possible and just find the easiest way to complete the paperwork. However, if I believe that when I actively manage people’s performance we will achieve great results, then I am likely to behave very differently.

At a deeper level, our mental models will affect what we see. If we believe that someone is lacking confidence, we’re likely to pay more attention to those things we notice in their behaviour which support that view. Correspondingly, we’ll pay less attention, or not even notice, those things which contradict that view. There is more on this filtering effect in the topic on NLP.

Managing our mental models is about having a questioning approach. It’s about

  1. Recognising and surfacing our mental models
  2. Then being open to testing them by listening to others and enquiring into other points of view.

Together, these actions may help us improve our internal pictures of how the world works.

There are two areas where managers can develop their skills in working with mental models. These are

  • Skills for reflection – slowing things down so you can notice your own thinking
  • Skills for enquiry – questioning to find out about others’ thinking.

The value lies in making mental models more explicit within the team. It’s not about getting everyone to agree. Many mental models can exist at once. Indeed, it can be some of the differences between them that give rise to sources of deep learning.

Shared vision

A shared vision is generated from the common aspirations within people’s personal visions. Commitment to a shared vision is about much more than compliance. When people are committed, they all feel responsible for doing whatever they can to work towards making that vision a reality.

The real value of a shared vision is the way it brings focus. It brings focus by creating a common identity among many diverse people. It brings focus to many people’s energies in the service of achieving something shared that’s important to each and every one of them. It also brings focus and energy to learning.

Involving so many people expands the potential of what they can all create together – so learning can be a truly creative process. Typically, you will see risk-taking and experimentation. This helps both to further clarify the vision and also serves to enrol more people into sharing the vision.

A word of caution for managers here. It’s not about getting people to ‘buy in’. That may generate compliance, but little else. It’s about involving people so that they can shape and be shaped by the evolving nature of the shared vision.

Managers must also realise that staff have absolute free choice about whether to personally commit – even though they may comply. The manager’s tools here are

  • Leading by example
  • Explicitly recognising the free choice individuals have
  • Involving others – even the dissenters.

Team learning

The heart of team learning is alignment or coherence. Unaligned teams often see people working extremely hard, but achieving below-optimal results because energies are pulling in a number of different directions. Alignment is not about everyone sacrificing their personal vision to get behind an identikit team view. In fact, it’s more like a jazz band – where everyone has their own voice (or instrument) and yet they are able to bring them together in a way that complements each others’ efforts. Imagine how dull a band would be if everyone played exactly the same tune on exactly the same instrument?

There are three dimensions of team learning:

  • The team needs to tap into its collective intelligence (greater than the sum of each person’s intelligence), not succumb to ‘groupthink’ (less than the sum of the parts)
  • Team members need to act in a way that is both spontaneous and co-ordinated (think again about the jazz band metaphor)
  • Influencing other teams of which individuals are members.

Teams will use both dialogue and discussion in team learning. However, it’s dialogue which is the new way of working for most people and, therefore, the one that is likely to need most practice.

The central practice of team learning is dialogue. This is a particular kind of conversation which is vastly different to discussion. In discussion, we might invite people to put forward a number of viewpoints, with a view to debating their various merits and determining a course of action. Dialogue involves suspending judgement and listening to differing and even conflicting viewpoints, with a view to understanding how they might all illuminate a larger meaning. In some ways, the practice of dialogue links to systems thinking, in terms of its focus on the whole, rather than the parts.

While dialogue requires some level of trust, it is also a way of developing trust. It is truly a team discipline, as it is not something that can be achieved individually. But, as with mental models, reflection and enquiry skills are at its core. See the topic on Dialogue.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is the holistic thinking that brings the other four disciplines together in a way that can lead to organisational learning. It’s a kind of opposite to snapshot thinking, which looks at a particular issue, in isolation, at a particular point in time.

Key to systems thinking is recognising that

  • There can be connections between things that are distant from each other
  • Those connections are not often visible
  • The implications of particular actions can often take time to make themselves obvious
  • As people, we are part of the system we work in, so it’s even harder to see how things are inter-related and thus to perfectly understand cause and effect over time and space.

At the heart of a learning organisation is a shift of mind – from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems as caused by someone or something ‘out there’ to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organisation is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.

Peter Senge