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A learning organisation

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By encouraging new thinking, questioning minds and teamwork, a learning organisation adapts and flourishes.

Learning organisations are flexibile and focused on their future. They develop staff talent to increase their scope and improve performance. 


Peter Senge’s, The Fifth Discipline, describes a learning organisation as a place where: 

  • "people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire
  • new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured
  • collective aspiration is set free 
  • people are continually learning to see the whole together."


The learning organisation:

  • thrives in situations of rapid change
  • is flexible, adaptive and productive
  • is future-focused
  • can "discover how to tap people’s commitment and willingness to learn at all levels" (Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline)
  • continually expands its capacity with  shifts of mind and changing approaches among its members. Read our Knowhow page on your professional development.
  • provides tools and guides ideas to make sense of the work
  • makes people feel they are part of a great team
  • gives people a sense of meaning in their work experience
  • has people who talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being creative.


The non-learning organisation is a place that is stuck. It has rigid thinking and is unwilling to consider change or development. To understand what makes a learning organisation, it is useful to imagine what it is not. In the non-learning organisation:

  • the old ways of doing things are best way
  • mistakes get made but no one asks why or how they can be avoided in the future
  • individuals get rewarded for personal work
  • shared delivery is not encouraged
  • there is little opportunity for joint problem-solving
  • people rarely meet to discuss how they work 
  • mistakes do not get aired - they get buried 
  • people avoid asking for help
  • there is little encouragement to go on training courses
  • knowledge is not shared - it is held by the individual 
  • the structures of the organisation do not support reflection and sharing
  • the organisation is reactive and based on survival rather than proactivity.

Five essential disciplines for learning

Peter Senge identifies five disciplines that are essential to innovative learning organisations.

Systems thinking 

This is where we understand and address the whole, and examine the relationships between parts of the organisation. It is a dynamic process.

Personal mastery

Mastery is proficiency beyond competence and skills. It clarifies and deepens our abilities and goals. 

Mental models

These are deeply held assumptions, generalisations, pictures and images. They influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Learning shows us how to see our internal pictures of the world, bring them to the surface and scrutinise them rigorously.

Building shared vision

This is a shared picture of the future. It encourages a sense of the long term.

Team learning

When teams learn together, not only are there good results for the organisation, but staff grow more rapidly. It involves discussion and the capacity of a team to overcome assumptions and enter into a genuine process of reflection. 


The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge is published by Century Business 1990 (ISBN 0-7126-5687-1).

This material was adapted and reproduced from the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education

Page last edited Sep 08, 2020

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