Learning Organizations in higher education and beyond– Why they’re more important than ever before
In 1990, MIT lecturer Peter Senge introduced the concept of the learning organization - an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future” (p. 14) – in his book, The Fifth Discipline. He argued that as the world becomes more interconnected and business becomes more complex and dynamic, work must become more “learningful” (p. 4). Furthermore, he asserted that the organizations that truly excel in the future will be those that discover how to facilitate individual’s capacity and commitment to learn at all levels of the organization. Some 30 years later, in an era of unprecedent technological advancement and access to information, these arguments are more relevant than ever.
Senge identifies five disciplines which represent essential dimensions for developing learning organizations. These include personal mastery, mental models, shared visioning, team learning and the fifth discipline - systems thinking - which serves as a basis for comprehensive integration. This systemic orientation focuses the leadership on opportunities of interrelation which build and strengthen the organization. Repeatedly, the concept of synergy surfaces, as Senge argues that through systems thinking the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.
Additionally, Senge’s philosophy calls for a “metanoia” or a shift of mind that represents the very core of real learning, involving a re-perception of the world and an extension of the capacity to create. He challenges organizations to become involved in and committed to generative learning as well as adaptive learning.
This period of history has been characterized as the information age (aka the digital age), whereby the rapidly transforming information and communication processes have become the driving force of political, economic and social evolution. Thus, any system or philosophy which purports to engender effective leadership for the future must attend to the need for managing rapidly expanding areas of information. Now, more than ever, the need for effective and adaptable learning environments is paramount. Additionally, in the existing rapidly changing and volatile climate, the need for strong mechanisms which support cooperative learning is highlighted.
Senge’s book, claiming to be revolutionary and innovative in its approach, reflected a concept that now appears frequently in the literature. It is actually referred to in associated current literature as “the work that spurred worldwide discussion and development of learning organizations” (Fulmer, Gibbs & Keys, 1998, p.13). Reflecting the inception of current trends, Senge calls for a revitalization of organizational systems thinking and speaks of the often-explored concepts of empowerment and team building.
The concepts in this book have special relevance in the area of adult and higher education in that they represent an opportunity to put the fundamental principles on which the field is based into practical application. Learning, after all, is the core mission of higher education. Yet, however lofty these ideals might be, the changing times in which we find ourselves mandate both the mind-shift and the implementation of practices which support continued learning throughout an organization in order to maintain not only congruence to the mission, but also a competitive advantage.
Fulmer, R. M., Gibbs, P. & Keys, B. J. (October 1998). The second-generation learning organizations: New tools for sustaining. Organizational Dynamics, 27, 1-14.
Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.