1.2 What is a Learning Organization?

University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge in England, is considered one of the most reputable institutions of higher learning in the world. Image author Christian Richardt. Source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ClareCollegeAndKingsChapel.jpg

One of the most common ideas about a learning organization is that it only relates to institutions of higher learning. The focus may be on educational institutions, but a learning organization can be any establishment that fosters growth through learning, and continues to expand that growth in the future. Therefore, any operation that expands growth though learning from a small business to a Fortune-500 company, in theory, could be a learning organization. However, it would be irresponsible to leave out colleges, universities, and professional schools as main contributors in the field of education. The main concept of an institute of higher learning is that it creates and fosters knowledge passed on from professors to students.  A learning organization is not strictly related to places of instruction; but associations of teaching comprise most of the characteristics of a learning organization.

Peter Senge, one of the most prominent researchers on learning organizations, describes it as a group of people who “continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire”[6]. Its role  is to be an empowering tool not only within the walls of the building, but also outside in the community and in society. In theory, learning organizations should generate personal mastery and self-awareness within the individual. In addition, the learning organizations relate to developmental organizations which focuses all of its synergy and resources on enhancing the collective talents of its employees for the purpose of better serving customers in an efficient, effective manner. Developmental organizations have principles and outcomes that guide their direction.


Guiding Principles of Developmental Organizations Outcomes of Developmental Organizations
  1. Continuous renewal and performance capacity
  2. Servant leadership
  3. Internal systems working in harmony
  4. Changeabilty
  5. Coachability
  6. The right person at the right place at the right time
  7. Knowledge construction and continuous lifelong learning
  8. Endless possibilities
  9. Performance mastery
  10. Continuous motivation
  • Dialogue
  • Harmony through respect
  • Interpersonal reciprocity
  • Collaboration, camaraderie, and teamwork
  • Sense of belonging
  • Shared reality and purpose
  • Active engagement
  • Inspired growth and development

How does a learning organization function? Most of them are similar classic businesses in relation to their overall make-up. Theorists Burns and Stalker[7], and later Emery and Trist[8], and also Mintzberg[9], have outlined two organizational structures: mechanistic and organic. Mechanistic organizations are predominantly run as a top-down hierarchy with formal rules and a narrow span of control. Organic organizations have more of a flat span of governance, with flexible rules and a participatory model of decision making. Figure 1 describes in more depth, the different characteristics of both organizational structures.


(Stable, low uncertainty environment)


(Unstable, high uncertainty environment)

Top-down hierarchy Less rigid, horizontal organization
Narrow span of control Flexible, few rules
Specialized tasks Two-way communication
Formal rules Participatory decision-making
Vertical communication Generalized shared tasks
Structured decision-making Wide span of control

Table: Mechanistic and Organic Organizations (Source: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC-BY 4.0 license)

Most learning organizations function within the first model of a mechanistic structure. Colleges, universities, and professional schools work in a top-down format, usually with a board of trustees, president, deans, department heads, and faculty (Figure 2). Although institutes of higher learning are continuously growing with regard to developing knowledge, most have maintained a business model that follows a strict set of guidelines and have a small span of control.

Simple University Mechanistic Structure
Figure 1 Simple University Mechanistic Structure.  Long description.

The structure in Figure 2 would be characteristically described as a formal structure which compliments a mechanical design. A formal organization is defined as a set of relationships and responsibilities set from upper management to subordinates[10].  On the other hand, there are organic organizations that could also find a place inside learning institutions on a smaller scale. When looking at a research project that has been accepted, such as a grant, an organic structure may be used to work through the research. We may have a professor at the head of the research process, with other professors joining as movement through the research advances. Using the organic structure follows the method of an informal organization. Informal organizations are emergent, complex, and run as a network of different individuals with evolving relationships[10]. Figure 3 shows a simple research process that illustrates the emergent, complex style; and how different entities interact.

Simple Research Process Example
Figure 2 Simple Research Process Example. Long description.

One key factor of learning organizations is that regardless of the structure you have, all of them must have some form of departmentalization. This applies to different structures maintaining control of different departments (i.e. academics, human resources, marketing, residences, etc.), and represent unique structures that pertain to their specific sector[11]. Departmentalization is important when talking about how a learning organization functions. It is the efficient process of departments that collaborates as a whole to run a college, university, or professional school system.

Professor Gerald Kimani produced much information on higher educational institutes and how they run as places of learning. Kimani uses the term “educational organizations” and describes them as “individuals…in a specific place or institution whose purpose is to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes to students or pupils in order to achieve pre-determined educational objectives and goals”[12]. The major factors working within learning organizations are the acts of creating, implementing, and revising educational policy.

Educational policy is about creating, implementing, and revising factors of class size, teacher education, teaching methods, and curriculum. Kimani describes educational policy as the process of asking questions and seeking answers about the meaning of education inside of an institution[12]. This ties into the management of education with the planning, directing, controlling, and coordinating of a specific educational policy. The method of implementing an educational policy follows a scientific method of planning, implementing, monitoring, reviewing, and continual improving (Figure 4).

Figure 3 Stages of Educational Policy (Source: Gerald Kimani, Educational Management). Long description.

Review Questions

  1. What is the definition of learning organizations?
  2. What are the differences between a mechanistic and an organic organization?
  3. How would you define educational policy and describe its stages of development?


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Leadership and Management in Learning Organizations Copyright © by Clayton Smith; Carson Babich; and Mark Lubrick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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