What Is a Learning Organization?


A learning organization is one in which all employees are encouraged to explore new ideas and consider new ways to address the problems at hand. Learning new skills and knowledge is encouraged in a learning organization, and with everyone focused on both individual and group betterment, the organization is able to pursue innovation, enter new markets, thwart the competition, and achieve ROI for all stakeholders.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, popularized the term learning organization in the early 90s.

According to Senge, “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, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Learning organizations have a deep commitment to learning processes and structures. It’s not just L&D that’s responsible for training employees, but rather it’s a shared responsibility with the business units and even among senior management. Knowledge is shared among stakeholders internally through a variety of digital channels for reference and access whenever needed.

Learning is also continuous and “in the flow of work,” to encourage skill and knowledge acquisition even in the tiniest or most casual of interactions among employees. In a learning organization, learning never stops.

Download this free eBook, The L&D Audit: How to Ensure Your Learning Organization is Ready for Change, to assess and improve L&D fundamentals, such as your learning strategy.

Benefits of a Learning Organization

Beyond simply encouraging employees to learn new skills a learning organization has innumerable benefits:

Less turnover. Employees, especially Millennials and Generation Z, seek employers who provide on-the-job training and who care about employees’ professional development. Learning organizations generally tend to experience less turnover, which leads to lower recruiting and training costs because there isn’t a need to continually hire and train new people from outside the company.

Higher morale. When companies demonstrate to employees that they care about training, advancement, and contributions, employees care more about the company, making them more invested and willing to work harder toward fulfilling the company’s goals and mission.

New solutions to existing challenges. Not only does training provide employees with new skills and knowledge, but learning itself is a creative exercise of the mind to pursue new solutions to challenges. As Senge says, “creating an environment where employees feel heard and are encouraged to take risks” to challenge the status quo creates openness to innovative ideas and creative solutions. 

Knowledge sharing and better-informed decisions. When employees aren’t working alone in silos and instead need to depend on one other, decisions are better-informed, as they are based on input and feedback from multiple sources. This also contributes to morale because everyone can have the satisfaction that their knowledge and opinions helped drive a decision.

Competitive advantage. If each employee is able to contribute their best to the team because the company encourages more creative decision-making and continuous learning, the company as a whole will acquire a competitive advantage. More innovative products and services and higher productivity will result.

Risks of a Learning Organization

Despite the innumerable benefits, there are also some dangers that lurk in a learning organization. These aren’t so much risks as they are negative behaviors or attitudes that might result and that will need attention from management.

Lower morale. While higher morale was cited above as a benefit to a learning organization, it can also backfire, as employees might feel overwhelmed or inadequate because skill or knowledge acqusition is expected from them at all times. To combat this, L&D or the employee’s manager needs to devise a personalized learning program for employees to prevent overwhelming them with too much information all at once.

Missed deadlines. Because of so much input and feedback on projects with a team-based approach, some projects will not get completed, deadlines will be missed, customers will not receive their products or services, or other negative outcomes might result. To safeguard against this, strong project management is needed, in which the manager is able to assess upfront the capabilities of each team member as well as the needs of the users and desired outcomes so that projects do not get stalled.

Align your L&D department and stakeholders with business goals and performance with a Learning Advisory Committee. Learn more in this free eBook:
Learning Advisory Committees: How to Make L&D a Strategic Pillar in Your Organization


How to Become a Learning Organization

While it will most likely not happen overnight, an organization can take the steps necessary to become a learning organization.

Conduct an L&D audit. To truly understand any learning gaps in the organization, have L&D conduct an audit. What the audit might uncover is that employees cannot contribute meaningfully because they are discouraged from doing so, which might be related to the perception of an overall lack of commitment to learning. The findings of an audit can be brought to senior management for review, and a plan can be put in place to encourage learning and openness.

Implement a training intake system. Offering a system for managers and designated employees to make requests for training can provide insights as to the training the organization needs in order to succeed, and without it, what’s holding it back. The more detailed the request, the more insights the L&D can have, which might even help with conducting an L&D audit, cited above.

Demonstrate a commitment to learning. Learning organizations embrace a strong learning culture, at all levels. Employees should never be made to feel that they are on their own as far as acquiring skills and knowledge for them to not only perform in their jobs but also advance in their careers. When employees notice even their managers wanting to go through training, it invigorates the team and fuels the culture necessary for a learning organization.

Do you have a gameplan that’s built for tackling uncertainty? Check out this on-demand webinar recording: The New L&D Gameplan: How to Safeguard Against Uncertainty in Uncertain Times.

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What Is a Learning Organization?