Learning Organizations and Systems Change

Ever since the publication of Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, organizations in every sector have talked about becoming learning organizations. Senge described a learning organization as one, “where people expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” Throughout the early 1990’s I remember walking up and down airplane aisles and seeing every third person reading Senge’s book. While the idea of being a learning organization clearly struck a chord, operationalizing the concepts of what it means to be a learning organization, has been more elusive. Dilbert’s parody of Captain Kirk from Star Trek epitomized the time – Dilbert’s boss hands him The Fifth Discipline, and tells him “to make it so.” If it were only that easy!

Prior to joining FSG in 2009, I was an academic and among other courses, taught a graduate level seminar on “The Theory and Practice of Organizational Learning.” Throughout the 15 years I taught this course, I struggled to find examples of organizations that were true learning organizations. While the literature offered many definitions and case examples, I still had not seen one up close. During this time, I also had the opportunity to consult with a wide range of philanthropic, human service, corporate, education, and government organizations, many of whom talked the talk of learning organizations, but did little to walk the walk. I began to wonder, what does it take to be a learning organization? Is it even possible? Is a learning organization akin to a mythical creature?

But then I met the Education Initiatives (EI) team at the Ball Foundation, a small family foundation in Glen Ellyn, IL, and my faith was renewed. For the last decade, the team had been struggling with the following questions:

  • What would it take for every child to achieve high levels of literacy?

  • What would it take to develop schools where each child actualizes his or her unique  potential?

  • And why do so many schools, filled with hard-working, well-intentioned people, fail to meet the learning needs of their students, especially students of color and English language learners?

Working with mid-sized urban school districts, and using literacy instruction as an entry point into a conversation about how a district behaves as a system, they asked, how could a small group of people help a school district become a learning organization in service to literacy achievement for every student?

For two years, I had the privilege of being a “thought partner” to the EI team. As I listened, observed, and reviewed their plans and materials, it became increasingly clear to me that this team represented a genuine learning organization. They believed that for them to ask school district staff to learn and change, that they would first, have to model authentic learning with each other, challenge their own and each other’s assumptions, and ask lots of questions. The more I worked with the team, the more I realized that they were actually living the definition, principles, and values of what it means to be a learning organization, and were developing and implementing true organizational learning practices and processes. Because we felt it was a story worth sharing with others, we collaborated on writing their “learning journey,” which is described in the recently published book, Becoming the Change: What One Organization Working To Transform Educational Systems Learned About Team Learning and Change. The story, often told in their own words, reveals what people really experience as they go through the sometimes difficult and ambiguous process of becoming a learning team and organization.

Perhaps more than any other, the philanthropic sector has embraced the importance of being intentional about learning as a core organizational practice. The sector’s interest and commitment to learning is evident through several publications that have been published in the last few years. These include: A Compass in the Woods: Learning through Grantmaking to Improve Impact (2010), Evaluation in Philanthropy (2009). Learning for Results (2007), and Learning for Community Change: Core Components of Foundations that Learn (2005). As stated in the introduction of the Learning for Results publication, “Effectiveness in philanthropy is not just about the money. It is also about how grantmakers use what they are learning to lead change and achieve better results.”

While I truly believe that we must think and act in big and bold ways to solve complex social problems and create systems change, I hope that amidst the excitement about grand experiments and scaling what works, we not lose sight of the fact that change is personal; that change is negotiated and nurtured through relationships, and that organizations are the vehicles through which systems change is designed and implemented. My hypothesis is that the more organizations embed a learning culture that values risk taking and building trust, supports asking questions and engaging in dialogue and reflection, uses information and data for decision making, and views failures as opportunities to learn and grow, the more likely they are to achieve social impact – individually, and collectively.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts and experiences…

  1. What do you think it will take for organizations to embrace organizational learning practices?
  2. Why do you think so many organizations talk about learning, yet do so little to support it?
  3. Do you think learning organizations are more likely to be effective in helping solve social problems than those that are not learning organizations?

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