We ask the experts: what happened to the 'learning organisation'?

12 Dec 2017 By Emily Burt

Technology offers an opportunity to revisit L&D's holy grail, according to our panel

It’s more than 25 years since Peter Senge’s seminal book The Fifth Discipline introduced the idea of the ‘learning organisation’ – where individuals expand their capacity to create highly effective results; new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured; collective aspiration is realised; and people continually learn together.

It was a vision of a business where L&D is a central and self-sustaining discipline that encourages people to learn seamlessly from each other. But much has changed since Senge put pen to paper. Five L&D thought leaders assess the state of the learning organisation today – and where it should go next. 

“Learning isn’t just about going on courses”

Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development, CIPD

The Fifth Discipline was a visionary statement from someone who was a systems thinker. We often see people coming up with visions of where people need to be; now, 25 years on, we have the tools and the infrastructure to make these a tangible reality. There has also been a shift in our professional thinking towards a more holistic view of how learning works, and conversation between people who are passionate about what their organisation does and who understand their individual contributions to professional learning.

However, the business mindset among both leaders and L&D professionals can still be quite prescriptive. To move closer to learning organisations, we need to see that learning is now part of work, not something that you send someone on a course for. A huge mindset change is needed to accommodate this, and it requires a demand for L&D practitioners to meet in the middle and move towards more resourceful models of learning – not courses, but resources that provide in-the-flow support for people as and when they need it. We also need to understand that line managers are a crucial part of that learning performance and delivery. 

“What we learned last week may not be accurate or true today”

Charles Jennings, director, 70:20:10 Forum

In my experience, the L&D world has not really changed in the last 20 years – meaning Senge’s description of learning organisations is almost as true now as it was in 1990. We are still thinking about developing people by bringing them into a classroom; yes, we have created e-learning, but it remains modelled on the same principles as in-house. We talk about learning journeys, which are very curricular in nature; by contrast, in countries like Finland, the concept of a curriculum has been removed because they realise that in the modern world the ability to help people with critical thinking is far more important than storing information. The half-life of knowledge has decreased phenomenally in the last 10 years – what we learned last week may not be accurate or true today.

We have to extend our learning beyond that classic structure, and focus both on performance and on providing support close to the point of need. It’s about performance and agility, and a major barrier is that many of our approaches are built on methodologies developed for the industrial age. 

“Businesses today have to be willing to learn from their people”

Julian Stodd, Founder, Sea Salt Learning

I typically find learning organisations are almost 180 degrees flipped from Senge’s description, moving away from places that create space for people to learn, to ones that are willing to learn from their people.

The types of knowledge we engage with today are typically helped (or at least moderated) by the community, and then fed generously back into the business. Where previously people were connected by learning devices and tools owned by the organisation, the transformative effect of social collaborative technologies means we are now all connected in multiple ways, many of which take place outside of work.

The second transformative effect is the democratisation of technology. Devices of creativity, broadcast and communication used to be expensive and complex – today, almost every device is also one of production.

There are two key things organisations need to do to improve their L&D provision. The first is to evolve their mindsets around learning. Historically, they have shaped the learning story and put together learning programmes and solutions, building collateral; today, they need to cultivate the spaces and support for people to learn. The second thing is to consider is how organisations facilitate that, and create the conditions for learning to thrive and survive. 

“Learning is not a destination, it’s an evolving and fluid adventure”

Jane Daly, head of strategic insights, Towards Maturity

A high-performing learning organisation is one that has the ability to continuously transform itself. High performing, in this context, is leadership’s ability to create a climate for future-focused, empowering and boundaryless learning, and to align the impact of learning with four critical levers of business: growth, transformation, profit and productivity.

A learning organisation is not a destination, it’s a continually evolving and fluid adventure. It doesn’t matter where you start as long as leaders are aware that learning is unique, touching every person and facet of business. Set up to succeed, learning could be the golden thread that creates both meaningful places to work and higher-performing horizons.

It’s also about raising awareness of what high-performing learning organisations look like and offer – such as strategically focused learning leadership, diverse talent and evidence-based learning. Exploring ways to empower and embed lifelong learning rituals and habits will attract and retain the best people.

Realising these objectives is dependent on positive disruption and critical thinking, as well as collective leadership. We currently put in more hours than any country in Europe, but are the third least productive – having employers that are willing to engage with learning on a more strategic, evidence-driven and curated level could change that. Leaders have a responsibility to lead by example, learn how to learn and tell their colleagues that there are opportunities to experiment with learning during working hours. 

“It can be hard to predict where the future will take L&D professionals”

Sharron Hughes, head of leadership and development, Crown Prosecution Service

I’d like to believe I work for a learning organisation, but one of the things that strikes me as an L&D professional is that the context we operate in changes all the time – and it’s certainly shifted a lot since Senge’s Five Disciplines were written. 

One of the ways we see this is in the democratisation of the workplace. We have found that the language of the learning organisation works well with our senior leaders, but it’s equally important that line managers and their direct reports can articulate the topic too. We’ve tried to make the language we use more user-friendly – for example, by talking about networks rather than ecosystems. We have helped managers understand the concept of peer learning at work, and to relate it to the teams they lead.

Technology has also changed. We’ve had a virtual learning environment at the CPS for 11 years, but the world has become much more digital; for example, prosecutors now work from laptops in court rather than paper bundles. Employees are used to smarter ways of working, and we’re using tools like webinars or programmes that bring people together to learn digitally. The idea of a learning organisation is still valid, but it is hard to predict what it will look like in another quarter century – or what sort of skills L&D practitioners will need to take advantage of it.

The 2018 CIPD L&D Show will take place on 25-26 April in London, with the theme of driving performance through learning. Visit

HR Adviser

HR Adviser

Holborn and Covent Garden, London (Greater)

£35,850 to £40,975 per annum + excellent benefits

The National Housing Federation

HR Manager

HR Manager

Canterbury, Kent

Competitive Basic + Bonus

Automotive Company

HR Business Partner

HR Business Partner

Leeds, West Yorkshire

Salary circa £39,900 per annum

Leeds Trinity University

View More Jobs

Explore related articles