The difference between Organisational Learning (OL) and learning Organisation (LO)

The two most common ways to distinguish between organizational learning and learning organization in existing literature are that learning organization is a form of organization while organizational learning is activity or processes (of learning) in organizations, and that learning organization needs efforts while organizational learning exists without any efforts. These two distinctions often appear together.

The term of “new” organizational learning, from Turner (referred to in Gherardi, 1999, p. 108), for this social approach of learning. Also, again referring to Turner, it will be called the traditional perspective organizational learning, for “old” organizational learning.

Differences OL LO.pngAnother popular way to differentiate between the two terms, or perhaps another variant of the descriptive vs. normative distinction, is that the literature of organizational learning is academic while the literature of learning organization is practice-oriented and often written by consultants (e.g. Argyris, 1999; Argyris and Schön, 1996; Easterby-Smith, 1997). This might be empirically true – the term learning organization certainly does not impress on some researchers (although others use the term learning organization and vice versa). And new organizational learning is probably even more academic than the concept of old organizational learning.

To sum up (Table I) both of the most common ways to distinguish between organizational learning and learning organization, can very well be used for that purpose especially after a few minor elucidations and corrections. Nevertheless, It will be suggested as another and complementary way to distinguish between the two concepts.

The literature on organizational learning has concentrated on the detached collection and analysis of the processes involved in individual and collective learning inside organizations; whereas the learning organizations literature has an action orientation, and is geared toward using specific diagnostic and evaluative methodological tools which can help to identify, promote and evaluate the quality of learning processes inside organizations. (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 2; see also Tsang 1997).

We could argue that organizational learning is the ‘activity and the process by which organizations eventually reach the ideal of a learning organization’ (Finger and Brand 1999: 136). .
Three main definitions can be emphasized:
  1. Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, collective aspiration is set free, and people are continually learning to see the whole together. (Senge 1990: 3)
  2. The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level. A Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. (Pedler et. al. 1991: 1)
  3. Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles. (Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118).

The Importance of Learning in Organisations
Many consultants and organizations have recognized the commercial significance of organizational learning – and the notion of the ‘learning organization’ has been a central orienting point in this.
Writers have sought to identify templates, or ideal forms, ‘which real organizations could attempt to emulate’ (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 2). In this sense the learning organization is an ideal, ‘towards which organizations have to evolve in order to be able to respond to the various pressures [they face]' (Finger and Brand 1999: 136). It is characterized by a recognition that ‘individual and collective learning are key’ (op. cit.).
Two important things result from this:
  1. While there has been a lot of talk about learning organizations it is very difficult to identify real-life examples. This might be because the vision is ‘too ideal’ or because it isn't relevant to the requirements and dynamics of organizations.
  2. The focus on creating a template and upon the need to present it in a form that is commercially attractive to the consultants and writers has led to a significant under-powering of the theoretical framework for the learning organization..

An interview with David Garvin and Amy Edmondson, Professors, Harvard Business School.

Learning organizations generate and act on new knowledge. The ability to do this enables companies to stay ahead of change and the competition.

Steps in becoming a Learning Organisation:

It is important to remember that one is never fully is a learning organisation. Change always continues, as well as learning. The following are 16 steps taken by various organisations in order to become learning organisations:
  1. Commit to becoming a learning organisation.
  2. Connect learning with business operations (direct connections between learning and improved business operations makes it easier to persuade people).
  3. Assess the organisation’s capability on each subsystem of the systems learning model.
  4. Communicate the vision of a learning organisation (the most sophisticated vision is of no use unless it can be clearly understood by others).
  5. Recognise the importance of systems thinking and action (a company cannot become a learning organisation by focusing on just one subsystem or on one part of the organisation).
  6. Leaders demonstrate and model commitment to learning.
  7. Transform the organisational culture to one of continuous learning and improvement.
  8. Establish corporate wide strategies of learning (encourage experimentation, recognise and praise learners, reward learning, spread the word about new learnings, apply the new learnings)
  9. Cut bureaucracy and streamline the structure.
  10. Empower (to possess the necessary freedom, trust, influence, opportunity, recognition, and authority) and enable (to possess the necessary skills, knowledge, values, and ability) employees. Significant resources of time, money, and people are allocated to increase employees’ skills not only in present job but also for future, unforeseen challenges.
  11. Extend organisational learning to the entire business chain.
  12. Capture learnings and release knowledge (quickly throughout the organisation).
  13. Acquire and apply best of technology to the best of learning.
  14. Encourage, expect, and enhance learning at individual, group, and organisation levels.
  15. Learn more about learning organisations.
  16. Continuous adaptation, improvement, and learning

How companies become Learning Organisations Animation

Ten facilitating factors that support and sustain the Learning Organisation
  1. Scanning imperative. Learning cannot continue without a solid awareness of the environment
  2. Performance gap. Performance shortfalls are opportunities for learning.
  3. Concern for measurement. Discourse over metrics is a learning activity.
  4. Experimental mindset. Support the practice of trying new things and being curious about how things work.
  5. Climate of openness. Debate and conflict remain acceptable ways of solving problems.
  6. Continuous education. One is never finished learning and practising.
  7. Operational variety. There is more ways than one to accomplish business objectives and work goals.
  8. Multiple advocates or champions.
  9. Involved leadership. Creating vision is not enough. Leadership at any organisational level must engage in hands-on implementation of the vision.
  10. Systems perspective.

For an empirical model of Learning Organisation where one can observe the three problems in the learning organisation literature according to Craig Johnson, David Spicer and James Wallace of the University of Bradford (school of Management) Click here


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