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PETER SENGE POPULARIZED THE CONCEPT of the learning organization, and several libraries have tried, with varying degrees of success, to adopt the learning organization model. This article explores why organizations consider attempting to become learning organizations, includes an overview of the theory of learning organizations, presents steps to becoming a learning organization, and describes examples of learning organization efforts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries and other libraries.
To survive in the continuously changing information environment, libraries must find ways to become agile, flexible organizations. Rigid rules, entrenched bureaucracies, and stable hierarchies will not help these organizations survive new technologies, tight budgets, competition, and changing expectations of patrons and users. Stifling bureaucracies can result in employees who are unmotivated, lack the skills needed to adjust to changes, are content to follow orders, lack problem solving skills, and develop an us vs. them mentality. To advance, libraries need to move away from being knowing organizations that emphasize one best way to do things by following rules and regulations. They need to move past being understanding organizations where organizational culture and values dominate decision-making so that change is unlikely to occur. They need to advance past thinking organizations that emphasize fixing and solving problems without questioning why the system broke. Instead, they must become organizations that create a climate that fosters learning, experimenting, and risk taking. Instead of emphasizing command and control processes, libraries need to adopt strategies that will help the organization move forward and develop proactive responses to change. They need employees who appreciate change, accept challenges, can develop new skills, and are committed to the organization's mission, goals, and objectives.
The concepts of the learning organization can provide leaders, managers, and staff with the tools they need to develop organizations that can succeed in turbulent times. Learning organizations encourage their members to improve their skills so they can learn and develop. The staff become more flexible as they acquire knowledge and are more able to move around the organization. Interunit barriers are lessened as staff share experiences, knowledge, and skills. Creativity can flourish as staff are encouraged to take risks and try new things. Traditional communication barriers are also lessened as communication is encouraged between units and between staff levels. A rigid hierarchy no longer exists and no longer prevents change. New problems and new challenges can be met faster and resolved more quickly. And, most importantly, for today's librarians the customer or patron is the first priority for the organization. Good customer service becomes the foundation for all the organization needs to do.
DEFINING THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION
What is a learning organization? A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. Without accompanying changes in the way that work gets done, only the potential for improvement exists. Learning organizations translate new knowledge into new ways of behaving. In a learning organization, managers and staff encourage work-related learning, the exchange of information between employees to create new ideas and knowledge, and continuous improvement. Staff test experiences and use those experiences to improve the organization. Flexibility becomes a core value of the organization as staff accept and adapt new ideas and seek ways to enhance products and services. In a learning organization, people are appreciated for their skills, values, and work. Staff opinions are sought and are treated with respect. Exchanging information and sharing ideas and experiences throughout the organization is encouraged. People learn new skills they can apply to their jobs. They use these skills to enhance services and improve the organization. There are more opportunities for staff to be creative, to learn from mistakes, to take risks, and to reach new levels of expertise. In a learning organization, learning takes place at the individual, group, and organizational levels.
People in organizations experience two types of learning: maintenance learning and anticipatory learning. Maintenance learning is discovering better ways to do current procedures and tasks. Maintenance learning is important in that it ensures that procedures and processes are efficient and being done the best way possible. Maintenance learning has a short-term focus, however, and often misses changes in the environment.
A learning organization encourages anticipatory learning. Here individuals acquire new knowledge and incorporate the new knowledge into the workplace so that the organization can reach its vision. Anticipatory learning is participatory, a joint venture in which individuals in a unit, department, or the organization as a whole explore alternatives, share ideas, and consider how new knowledge helps the organization reach its goals. To succeed, today's libraries need to emphasize anticipatory learning so that the organization can adjust to changing environments and reach the vision of the library of the future.
Why is it so difficult to foster learning in an organization? To answer that question, it is helpful to review the work Organization Learning, by Chris Argyis and Donald Schon (1978). In …