This is the fourth post in the 10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.   Organizational Learning Practices (Strategy #8) offers opportunities to build learning into day to day work.  The methods can help individuals, teams and entire organizations surface and understand patterns of behaviour that lead to sub par performance and to adopt more positive patterns to improve personal and organizational effectiveness.


1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to Business Process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a Community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action Learning
8. Organizational Learning practices
9. Design jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

8. Organizational Learning Practices

Organizational Learning (OL) means different things to different people.  These days, it is often used as a catch-all label for training which it most certainly is not.  OL is broader than that label implies.  It is usually focused on individual and team transformation through participating in tangible activities that change the way people conduct their work.   It builds new capacities in individuals and teams that collectively begin to shape the culture and performance of an organization.

Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline defined his view of what those new capacities should be and in doing so launched the Organizational Learning movement.   The Fifth Discipline contains a collection of practices from system dynamics, organizational development and psychology that Senge organized into a cohesive whole structured around five disciplines of organization learning.

OL practices have grown and evolved beyond Senge’s framework but his still remains the most cohesive.  This post lists his five disciplines along with some guidelines for the learning professional to help their clients achieve them.  It’s important to remember that each of the five disciplines listed are considered a “lifelong body of study and practice” so none are meant to produce immediate impact, but rather continuously move towards understanding and behaviour change that collectively shapes the organization.   Also, the sample exercises I list below are not self explanatory.  They are mostly drawn from “The Fifth Discipline FieldBook”, a great source for activities that ground the often esoteric ideas in the Fifth Discipline.  See that source for further details.

Personal Mastery

Personal Mastery, the first of the five disciplines is effectively the skills of personal effectiveness–defining and accomplishing personal vision.

Learning professionals and facilitators can guide individuals through the process of identifying and clarifying a personal vision, realistically assessing it against the current state, and help individuals to understand and manage the creative tension between the two.  The goal is to help people make better choices, and to achieve more of the results that they have chosen.

Sample exercises:

  • Drawing Forth Personal Vision: An exercise to surface, define and clarify individual purpose and goals.
  • Cycling Back: Current Reality and Revisions: An exercise to continuously define, monitor and act on barriers to achieving the vision.
Mental Models

Mental Models are ingrained assumptions and ways of thinking held by individuals and organizations.  Adjusting mental models can lead to breakthroughs in personal and organizational performance.  Learning professionals can help their clients improve how they govern their actions and decisions through the skills of reflection and inquiry and develop an heightened awareness of the attitudes and perceptions that influence thought and interaction.

Sample exercises:

  • The Left Hand Column: An exercise developed by Chris Argyris in which individuals record “what they were thinking” vs. “what was said” during important conversations.  Analysis of the result helps to surface and confront existing attitudes and assumptions (mental models).
  • The Wheel of Multiple Perspectives: Rotating roles to widen a team’s perspective and see issues from as many vantage points as possible.
Shared Vision

This is the practice of collective vision and mutual purpose vs. the individual vision of personal mastery. Management and professional networks can be guided through activities to create a common vision of the future they wish to create and the methods and means they that will most effectively get them there. In doing so meaning is created and relationships strengthened.

Sample exercises:

  • What Do We Want to Create?: Guide your team through a series of structured questions that bring pertinent issues to the forefront and results results phrases, ideas and governing ideas around which a vision can be built.
  • Backing Into a Vision: A great exercise for surfacing common goals without taking on a full fledged visioning process.
Team Learning

The skilled practice of group interaction and collaboration.  Through techniques like dialogue and skillful discussion, teams modify their problem solving, collaboration and interaction to produce results that are greater than the sum of individual members.  Team Learning is not team building although a more cohesive team is usually a result.  Instead as a facilitator you want to focus on improved dialogue and team discussion skills.

Sample exercises:

  • Fishbowl: To get immediate feedback on communication styles. Half the team discusses and issue while the other half watches and provides constructive feedback.
  • Undiscussables: A card game in which people can anonymously raise questions that never get raised.
Systems Thinking

System Thinking is the fifth discipline and it is my personal favorite.  I have found many ways to use systems thinking to help clients and understand my own work practices.   The systems perspective is a powerful conceptual framework that allows teams to understand deep inter-dependencies and forces that shape the consequences of actions. Tools and techniques such as systems archetypes, feedback loops, and various types of learning simulations help people see how to change systems more effectively.

Senge’s view of systems is more about surfacing predictable patterns and outcomes of human behaviour and decisions as contrasted with the (equally powerful) view of organizations as systems that process inputs to valued customer outputs.   Senges systems archetypes help teams understand their problems in system dynamics terms and “see” the underlying patterns that are causing their problems.

Sample Activities:

  • Organization and Process Mapping: Documenting and analyzing an organization as a system to identify disconnects and problems and to re-design for improved effectiveness
  • Problems as System Archetypes: Help clients examine problem situation in terms of typical combinations of feedback.
  • Breaking Through Organizational Gridlock: A seven step systems exercise based on Senge’s “shifting the burden” archetype
Organizational Learning Technology

Some learning technology solutions have emerged that support the Organizational Learning methods described above.  The most interesting are the use of the system archetypes to develop management simulations.

  • Decision Support Systems based on system archetypes
  • Generic management learning simulators to help managers understand the underlying system archetypes.  For example the beer game is a role-play supply chain simulation that lets learners experience typical supply chain problems based on systems theory principles.
  • Software to support system modeling of organizational behaviour and dynamics.  For example STELLA, iThink and Powersim

There is room for much more work in the use of system modeling for training and learning purposes.


Organization Learning (like organizational development) has been considered a sister profession to Learning and Performance.   I’ve seen some situations where the units compete and as a result sub-optimize their services to the organization.  As Learning and Performance begins to adopt more informal and non-formal learning solutions there is much to learn from organizational learning and development and the potential for overlap increases.   I think it makes sense to consider a combined business unit that provides service in the full range performance improvement solutions.

Learn more:

Society for Organizational Learning

Peter Senge and the Learning Organization

Learning for a Change: Fast Company Magazine interview with Peter Senge

The Systems Thinker

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:
Part 1:
  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system
Part 2:
  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning
Part 3:
  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning
Part 4:
  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices
Part 5:
  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning
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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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