Organizational Learning vs. Learning Organizations

For any organization or firm to survive in the knowledge intensive, fast-changing and volatile environment, it must carry out strategies that have the ability to simultaneously address the concerns of external competitiveness, internal efficiency and the leading industry. Organizations have to manage innovation, effective environmental response and efficiency simultaneously. For any organization to be able to address these issues (innovation, effectiveness and efficiency) they must build up capacities to sense any changes in the surrounding i.e. environmental changes precisely, pick up signals timely and accurately evaluate these inputs for shaping and defining the capabilities of the organization. This is what many scholars refer to as dynamic capabilities i.e. the capability to sense and then, to grab new openings and then to protect and reconfigure competencies, knowledge assets and complementary technologies and assets to realize sustainable competitive advantage. In simple terms, dynamic capabilities reveal the capability of the firm or organization to unlearn redundant or obsolete things, learn new things and generate value from their newly acquired knowledge. Wilson (1999) points out that organizations whose major focus is on the developing dynamic capacities, as opposed to just core capacities, have been endured with the sustain their competitive advantage for a long period of time. In this context this paper will compare and contrast two key concepts, organizational learning and learning organization, central to organization success in the competitive business. However, prior to understanding the current definitions of the two concepts are of paramount importance in understanding their central themes.

Different scholars have come up with their specific definitions of what is meant by learning organizations, but despite their differences in wording, all of them tend to have an agreement that central concept of learning organization is institutionalization of the learning in these organizations i.e. anybody working in these organizations cannot be able to avoid learning as learning has been embedded in the organization’s vision (Richard, 2009). A learning organization may also be seen as a theoretical model of a firm or organization, which is basically characterized by communicative process that are open, a flat structure, customer-focused culture that is very inquisitive and collaborative relationships that are established on a shared vision that utilizes the commitment, co-operation and curiosity of the employees. According to Lyles (2003) Peter Senge viewed learning organizations as the one that is ready to swing from perspectives intrinsic in habitual, hierarchical organizations and shift toward a viewpoint in which all members have the capacity to learn and contribute to the organization’s vision. Therefore, learning organizations may be taken to generally refer to a given type organization that is organized, both structurally and culturally to guarantee flexibility, innovation and improvement. According to (Senge 1990:3) as cited in Lyles (2003) learning organizations are those organizations whose employees and management persistently increase their capability to generate the results they desire, where individuals are constantly learning to realize the whole together, where expansive and new patterns of rationalizing are cultivated, and cooperative aspirations are set free. He further points out that a learning organization should be viewed as apparition of what might be probable. This cannot be realized through the training of individuals but through the learning at organizational level as a single entity.

It is worth noting that learning organizations borrow heavily from two forms of organizational learning: generative and adaptive learning. In adaptive learning, commonly referred to as single-loop learning only takes place within a set of unrecognized and recognized constriction referred to as learning boundaries. Within these so-called boundaries, firm or organizational competitive progress may be made, nevertheless in case these competitors are basing their learning and thinking outside these boundaries , any progress realized will not contribute sufficient input for market success. Unlike adaptive learning, generative learning, commonly referred to as double-loop learning, provides a stronger solution. In the latter case, an organization re-evaluates long-held hypotheses about its customers, strategies, competencies and mission. The questioning of these assumptions enables organizations to realize the genuine power of unlearning and learning. In the last decade, numerous organizational or business leaders have been putting much focus on learning organization since they view it as the ultimate solution to the problems resulting from bureaucracy and hierarch in organizations.

Dierkes et al (2001) points out that learning organization and organization learning concepts integrate numerous significant characteristics and dimensions including the fact that learning is an incessant, strategically utilized process, incorporated with and running parallel to work, learning is realized by organizational systems as a single entity, nearly as though the organization was a single brain, there is generative learning and great focus on creativity, members of organizational identify the crucial significance of fragmentary organization-wide learning for both current and future organizational success and system thinking is elemental.

Some of the primary characteristics of learning organization and organization learning concepts include the facts that they both view employ learning to realizing goals, relate organizational performance with personal or individual performance, promote dialogue and inquiry, provide an enabling environment for its members to take risks and share openly, provide constant learning chances, are incessantly aware of and interrelate with the surrounding, and cuddle creative tension as their primary source for renewal and energy (Huysman & DeWit, 2002). These characteristics enable learning organizations to have a competitive advantage against competitors as these characteristics confer learning organizations with the capacity of reconstructing themselves as opposed to dependence on pressure from the outside, since they have the ability of controlling their environment and not the other way round. Any learning organization knows that individuals have different learning ways, gives opportunities for the individual development of those individuals, recognizes that its success in the future is dependent on the capabilities of its members and promotes a learning, innovative and contribution culture among its members.

From Dierkes et al (2001) perspective, organizational learning takes place when employees of the organization function as the learning agents for that given organization, reacting to changes in the external and internal environments of the firm or organization by identifying and rectifying errors in current theory employed by the organization and embedding the finding of the study in the shared and private maps of the organization. For Chawla and Renesch (1995) organizational learning refers to the process of advancing actions via understanding and better knowledge, organizational learning should be looked at as the process through which a firm or organization obtains, retains and utilizes inputs for improvement , leading to improved capability for sustained self-renewal and self-learning.

From their basic definitions, both organizational learning and learning organizations consider the fundamental human need to learn, develop and realize individual mastery that stimulates and gives substance to all organizations. Both recognize that for an organization to succeed it must create a climate whereby its employees are free to learn. From the perspectives of both concepts, all employees of an organization, in spite of their positions should not only be invited but also provided with opportunities to generate, test, communicate and uphold the organization’s mission. Members are provided with the opportunity to take part in the establishment of the quality standards and goals that will in convert their organization’s shared vision into reality. Employees are also given assistance in aligning and determining their own goals and visions with those of their firm and encouraged. Members are encouraged, taught and given permission to be creative architects of individual work lives (Veltman 2006).

The central theme for these two concepts is knowledge, both acquisition and sharing among organizational members and its fundamental role in transforming these organizations in order to survive in very competitive global markets. For both concepts, individuals think and learn more things jointly relative to individually. This based on the well fact that individuals learn from each other. They also recognize the vital role played by individual learning for organizational development. That is they both view each individual member as the vital source a researcher and hence source of vital information significant for the success of their organization (Hull, 2006).

Both learning organizations and organizational learning concepts recognize the need for organizations to unburden the burdens of past inherent the company history. For these concepts, an organization’s history and past experience acts as barriers in the reception and processing of knowledge since individuals will keep on referring to the past events and precedence in defence of the current practices and eradicates the need for new knowledge.

One of central feature common to these two concepts is that they are both aiming to improve both individual organization members and the organization itself. It is also worth noting that these concepts seem to have been necessitated by events after the Second World War such economic globalization which led to the need for competitiveness, impact of information society on organizations and work, impact of technological and scientific knowledge industry. These led to new work methods, growing competition, reorganizations, technological changes, financial constraints, mergers etc forced organizations to not only learn but also adapt more rapidly to revolutionizing circumstances.

In additional to the above features common to both concepts, there are some key differences including the fact that learning organization puts emphasis on the organization as an entity as opposed to organizational learning which puts emphasis on the learning process itself i.e. the proponents of the learning organization concept are of the view that for any organization to be become a learning organization, the learning process must be embedded in the organization’s vision and mission statement unlike in the organization learning whereby employees are free to learn at their own pleasure.

Both learning organization and organizational learning concepts are of the perspective that organization employees’ acquisition of knowledge either officially or unofficially and sharing it with colleagues is central to organization success. That is, all organizations intending to be competitive in the current global market should view its employees, regardless of their positions, as their learning or research agents that contribute vital knowledge for organizations’ success. To realize these goals, organizations must create an enabling environment promoting free communication; embrace a flat structure, relationships that are inquisitive and collaborative, customer-oriented and innovative culture. There is also need for organizations to realize the importance of individual of individual learning to organizational learning.


Chawla, S., and Renesch, J., 1995. Learning organizations: Developing cultures for tomorrow’s Workplace. New York, NY: Productivity press.

Dierkes, al., 2001. Handbook of organizational learning and knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hull, G., 2006. Generalized Practices with Organization and communities. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Huysman, M., and DeWit, D.,2002. Knowledge Sharing in Practice. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Lyles, M., 2003. The Blackwell handbook of organizational learning and knowledge management. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Richard L. D., 2009. Organisational Theory and Design. 10th ed. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Veltman, K. H., 2006. Understanding new media: augmented knowledge & culture. Alberta: University of Calgary Press.

Wilson, P., 1999. Human resource development: learning and training for individuals & organizations. London: Kogan Page.

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