Since Peter Senge1 re-introduced and elaborated on the concept of the learning organization in 1990, many organizations have experimented with different approaches to building learning cultures. Still, ten years after the publication of Senge's "Fifth Discipline," some of these experiments fall far short of reaching their objectives.
A plethora of theoretical approaches to building learning organizations has been developed and, along the way, the concept has become intermingled (and some would say confounded) with ideas such as knowledge management, change management, and training and development. The pervading logic seems to be that one has to do something to an organization to turn it into a learning entity. Senge himself has been quoted as saying that asking if an organization is a learning organization is like asking if a person is human: of course all organizations learn.2 This is not the problem. The problem is improving and focusing the learning at a systemic level in the organization, developing an organization so that it learns faster and more effectively-not necessarily to build one from scratch.
And it shouldn't be that hard; most organizations have a number of key processes in place to promote learning at an organizational level. To embed learning in the very fabric of the organization, these processes might need to be focused differently, enhanced, or refined. But one word of caution is in order: the same processes will not work for every organization. Different strategies, culture, history, leadership, or organizational design will lead to different emphases on what processes should be refined to develop the organization as a learning entity. But across the many different organizations that have experimented with the concept, a core commonality in approaches does exist. This article will describe three key processes that must be aligned in developing learning organizations in the public sector.
The Context for a Learning Organization
Before we move ahead, we need to answer three key questions related to the exercise of developing a learning organization:
1. Learning for what?
2. What are we learning?
3. What do we do with what we've learned?
It is a given that learning is important, so it is commonly accepted that a learning organization is a good thing. But, like any other organizational development intervention, if it is adopted willy nilly, without a clear focus on what it is intended to achieve, the results will generally not be satisfactory. Therefore, people in charge of creating public sector learning organizations should answer these three questions as clearly as possible.
Question 1: Learning for what?
Despite the thousands of definitions available in the literature, a very simple answer exists: learning is designed to improve individual and organizational performance. If this is so, then it must be aligned with the business priorities of the organization as well as with the skills and career aspirations of people within the organization.
1 Senge, Peter (b).(1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Double Day/Currency.