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The Learning Organization

An Agile perspective

24 October 2017


In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge proposes the idea of a learning organization as a firm that facilitates the learning of its associates and continuously transforms itself. The idea embodies itself in the zest to lead organizational change and to overcome learning “disabilities.”

Senge states that the “enemy is out there,” which means that when things fail, organizations shift blame to external factors. For example, if a system fails to perform the purpose for which it is designed, different functions find it convenient to pass on the blame, and the same culture rolls up to an organizational level. Another example for a learning disability, in Senge’s definition, is, “I am my position,” which underscores how a constrained outlook can do great harm. Systems thinking is needed to overcome this learning disability and create a common vision across the organization.
 

What makes a learning organization

According to Senge, the five characteristics of a learning organization are:
  • Systems thinking: The ability to see the system as a whole
  • Personal mastery: A commitment to continuous learning
  • Mental models: The ability to challenge common assumptions held by individuals and organizations
  • Shared vision: A common vision that is committed to and shared by everyone in the organization
  • Team learning: The drive to continue the process of enabling the capabilities to deliver results as a team


Agility enables the learning organization

Agile development is based on empiricism and thus does not recommend a watertight framework for practice. The learning organization disciplines provide a foundation for practicing Agile software development. We can see a strong correlation between Agile tenets and learning organization disciplines. Let’s take a look at all disciplines one by one.
 

Systems thinking

Systems thinking enables us to see the system as a whole rather than as individual pieces, and to understand the relationships among the pieces that make up that whole. In terms of an Agile implementation, the team is able to see the development process as the component of business — a large ecosystem. The interrelations between the two are also clear through constant interactions with business owners. This results in better engagement, morale, and a sense of purpose for the team.
 

Personal mastery

Personal mastery defines the urge to be better and take on the lifelong learning needed to move toward what we want to become. The Agile team consists of self-motivated individuals who seek excellence in their work. Agile teams are self-managed and work with a continuous improvement mindset, with ceremonies such as retrospectives supporting their aim. Thus the construct of Agile teams provides the framework for achieving the personal mastery discipline for an organization.
 

Mental models

The abstractions and assumptions held by an individual and organizations are called mental models. These mental models, in time, transform into organizational norms and culture. To become a learning organization, it is necessary to challenge these norms constantly and facilitate an open culture. Agile teams, in their basic structure, are flat hierarchical teams that promote open dialogue. Agile values of inspection, adaptation, and transparency also promote constant evaluation of our mental models and swiftly change if warranted.
 

Shared vision

Shared vision creates a common identity to which the whole organization is committed. The shared vision enables the individuals in an organization to focus on the common goal and have their learning efforts directed toward it. The Agile teams develop shared vision through team-level commitment and constant interactions with business. The Agile team focuses on delivering business value and welcomes the changes required to unlock it.
 

Team learning

The accumulation of individual leanings constitutes team learning. To facilitate team learning, a learning organization needs openness and shared understanding. The Agile team acts as a good building block for this discipline, as Agile principles promote team performance instead of individual performance. Furthermore, Agile teams also perform team retrospectives instead of individual performance reviews. Agile teams in their construct imbibe values, such as trust, openness, and courage, that encourage team learning.
 

Path toward becoming a learning organization

On the journey to becoming a learning organization, adopting Agile practices would be a good start. Agile values and principles promote all the five disciplines of a learning organization, as we have seen here.

Agile teams can drive the movement of transformation to a learning organization by promoting the change at a grassroots level. Leaning organizations seek to question the status quo and believe in constant transformation, and this can be put into action through the tenets of agility. The learning organization theory provides an excellent list of disciplines that can be realized by practicing Agile principles.
 

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



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