January 8, 2018

by Dr. Pat Galdeen

You may have heard the term “Learning Organization” at the ECS Retreat or from business people in your community. Therefore, you may be curious about what a learning organization is, how to become a learning coalition, and why becoming a learning coalition is important.

There are many reasons for an organization to strive to become a learning organization. Though this is a business concept, some of the reasons for becoming a learning organization fit very well with coalition work. Senge (1990) began talking about learning organizations, defining them as:

“…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Learning coalitions increase interaction both within the coalition, and with their community partners by using systems thinking, modeling, personal mastery, a shared vision, and team learning. The increased communication improves everyone’s understanding of how your coalition’s efforts impact your community and beyond.

The coalition’s capacity to connect relevant resources to the community’s needs:

  • Increases people orientation
  • Decreases turnover of staff and board members
  • Develops leaders at all levels
  • Builds a culture of inquiry
  • Ignites adaptive curiosity
  • Enables knowledge sharing
  • Improves your ability to embrace and adapt to change

Some changes can be made immediately, but learning organizations are not built overnight. Most successful learning organizations have carefully cultivated attitudes, commitments, and management processes slowly and steadily over time.

Any organization that wishes to become a learning organization can begin by taking a few simple steps (Garvin, 1993):

The first step to becoming a learning organization is to foster an environment that is conducive to learning. Learning is difficult when people are overworked or hurried because the pressures of the moment are superseding the learning process. Provide time for reflection and analysis, to think about strategic plans, assess what is currently being done, and create new ways to solve complex problems.

In addition to providing both time and space for learning to take place, leaders must offer practical skills training. Brainstorming, problem-solving, evaluating experiments, and other personal mastery concepts are essential to equip people to build a learning organization.

Further, it is vital to identify and eliminate barriers and boundaries so that there can be a free exchange of learning and ideas. Boundaries inhibit the flow of information; they keep individuals and groups isolated and reinforce inaccurate preconceptions. You can stimulate a free exchange of ideas through meetings and project teams that either cross organizations or sectors of the community to connect people and the coalition in new ways. Removing boundaries generates a fresh flow of ideas through the chance to consider other perspectives.

Once a more supportive, open environment is created, learning forums may be created. These forums may be programs, meetings, town halls, or other events designed with explicit learning goals in mind. They can be focused on a wide range of topics from reviewing logic models and comparing best practices in other communities to creating symposiums to share ideas and learn from others.

Each of these forums fosters learning by requiring coalition staff and members to consider new knowledge and its implications. Each activity can be tailored to your coalition and/or community. Together these efforts help to remove barriers that block learning. This process begins to move the commitment to learn and learning to a higher priority in the coalition.

Following these steps will lead to a better understanding of the meaning, management, and measurement of learning organizations and provides a solid foundation for building learning organizations.

Want to learn more?  Contact Dr. Pat Galdeen.


Garvin, D.A. (1993). Building a learning organization. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved
from https://hbr.org/1993/07/building-a- learning-organization

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New
York, NY: Doubleday.