Learning Organization and Organizational Development

By Shawn Quigley

This blog is inspired by The Fifth Discipline Field Book, published by Double Day – New York, Peter M. Senge copyright 1994

The Learn Organization

The five disciplines of a Learning Organization are Team Learning, Personal Mastery, Mental Models, System Thinking, and Shared Vision. With that, let’s look at the items that make up an organization; Structure, Processes, and People. The structure is merely how the people of the organization are organized. The process is how the people are setup up for their task and communication between each other and each team and/or department. And last; but not least, is the people who compromise the organization. Looking at LO is this context provides a manner in which we can see how it relates to OD in a simpler manner. All the portions of LO are directly connected to individual understanding and improvement. First we should look at the correlation between the two: LO & OD.

Team Learning is based upon the individuals in a group or department sharing their ideas in an open forum. Everyone in the group or department discusses their prospective of where the group is and where it could/should go with an open mind as to the feedback from other members of the group. This shared prospective allows several things. In Team Learning the team operates as a collective not as a group of individuals. This free exchange between members satisfies this group operation. It also supports the remaining four parts of LO.

Mental Models

Mental Models are how we perceive things based on our past experiences.1 mental models are constructed from assumptions and reflected past actions, not necessarily by the same individual or organization. We all have mental models of people, places, and things we have developed over time. It is not so much the mental model that is an issue as it is the manner in which we allow them to tailor our actions on new and/or the current people, place, and/or things we are dealing with. I would refer to this as an inhibitor. I refer to it in this manner because it is human nature to apply the worse experience we have had to a new situation. It is this application that can stop us from taking an action or providing someone a chance. It is only when we effectively listen: have an open mental model, to other individual’s mental models that we allow our own mental model to be expanded to the point where it is not an inhibitor, but is a source for effective analysis of a situation. It is this effective analysis that will sponsor OD & change for the individual, team, and organization.

Personal Mastery

For the Personal Mastery portion of LO this relationship is no as obvious so we will discuss the relationship between the two. Personal Mastery is realizing what you want in life by defining your values and priorities, both personally and professionally, and aligning your efforts to reach your goal.1 One cannot properly determine a path to their goal; either personally or professionally, if they are not aware of their actual starting point.2 Not their perceived starting point. This determination of ones’ actual starting point can only be effective ascertained through obtaining input from others; personal and professional, who are involved with you. Then taking that information and conducting an evaluation of all inputs, good and bad. The mere evaluation is in itself Personal Mastery in its’ finest form. With that being said, we can now see how all the parts of LO will cause individuals to be constantly changing and how this constant change will promote OD.

Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is when we look at the system as a whole vice just looking at our portion or ourselves. Systems’ thinking encourages us to step back and look at the broader picture to see the patterns of how one action can affect an area that we thought to be totally unrelated. Systems thinking is akin to Mental Models in that we are or could be looking at something from only our own prospective: how does this affect me, my team, or department, not how it will affect the organization in its’ entirety. When we shift the paradigm of our mental model to be more open we also shift our ability to see the bigger picture, i.e. begin to perform systems thinking. It is this cycle of an evolving mental model affecting our system perception that will create an environment for organizational development. This continual evolution of our mental model and system thinking (evaluation) is a prime example of Argyis’ theory of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning. Double-loop learning is where actions are constantly evaluated and vice scrapping a plan for a new one when issues occur a course change is made to realign the direction of the action to the goal: either the new goal or previous goal. With this being said, we can astatine how systems thinking is related to and will cause OD and change.


Shared vision is identifying shared ideas for the future to achieve a common goal. This discipline requires us to build a shared vision of the future we seek to create and then define the principles and practices we will use to achieve the desired future state. As with most of the disciplines we have discussed thus far the key to this discipline is the effective communication between individuals, teams, departments, and/or even organizations. The only real difference is the extent of that communication. With shared vision the communication scheme must be throughout the entire organization or organizations involved. This would make shared vision closely related to systems thinking in that we must understand how the vision affects the entire system involved and to what extent each is affected as part of developing an appropriate communication plan for the vision. It is this understanding and communication plan and the vision that link this LO principle to OD and change.


In summation, if an organization is actively using the disciplines of LO than OD is occurring on a constant basis. And that the individuals that comprise the organization are integral to all of the sub-processes required making both LO and OD effective.  This is mainly because all the principles are based on the individual’s perception of the situation and their being open minded to both different perspectives’ and possible solutions and/or actions for issues with the plan to achieve the desired future state.

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