Envisioning a Post Learning Organization: Learning in the name of what?

Call for papers for: The Learning Organization

Envisioning a Post Learning Organization: Learning in the name of what? 

Guest Editor:

Shih-wei (Bill) Hsu, Nottingham University Business School China.

[email protected]


It has been almost 30 years since Senge (1990) proposed the idea of learning organization. In recent years, debates have also appeared on the issue of “relevance”, which question whether learning organizations, like most other management fads, can often survive for a certain period of time, and then give way to another management fad. There are sufficient grounds for scholars/practitioners to make such an argument. Hoe’s (forthcoming) quantitative account of learning organization literature/articles (including ABI/INFORM/Google Trends) reveals a contradictory ontological status of learning organization. Within the academic community, there is a growing amount of academic publications on learning organization but, equally, there is a declining level of interest among causal researchers and practitioners. There can be various reasons for this but, in this Special Issue, we suggest that while learning organization, as a concept and theory, has become a well-established academic discipline, it fails to serve the wider purposes demanded by society, such as the demand for more ecologically responsible, socially equitable learning organizations (Hsu, 2013; Jørgensen et al., forthcoming; Pedler and Burgoyne, 2017; Pedler and Hsu, 2014, 2019).
In this Special Issue, we intentionally set out from a contentious argument that the idea of learning organization, at its birth, was not about learning. In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Senge (1990) identified five disciplines that can lead to a learning organization. Interesting, throughout the work, the concept of learning is not clearly defined, except for the fact that the “fourth discipline” contains some passing discussion on learning. That is, Senge’s fourth discipline implies that team learning enables people to look at things beyond an individual perspective. Similarly, while Senge talked about the obstacles faced by a learning organization (i.e., learning disabilities), the concept of learning only appears in passing in the sixth disability: the delusion of learning from experience.

Learning is a mystery in Senge’s learning organization. The mysterious status of learning is also maintained by much latter-day learning organization literature. According to Örtenblad (2002, cf. 2013), there are four types of learning organization literature: learning at work, organizational learning, climate for learning, and learning structure (Marquardt and Reynolds, 1994; Watkins and Marsick, 1993). However, it is not necessary for us to have a detailed discussion of the differences among the four types of learning organization literature because what is of more importance is their commonality. The general message delivered by the aforementioned views is that learning is the by-product of a learning organization. For instance, in the “learning structure” literature, Marquardt and Reynolds (1994) contend that “learning organizations realize that empowered workers can make better decisions than managers” (p. 56), and “the result is a flatter organization and movement away from hierarchy and unnecessary bureaucracy” (p. 258). Such a claim resonates with Senge’s (1990) appeal: “learning organizations will, increasingly, be localized organizations, extending the maximum degree of authority and power as far from the top or corporate centre as possible” (p. 287). Plainly, what is at issue is not learning, but how to generate an adequate organizational structure or organizational process (e.g. for the “learning at work” champions, cf. Garvin, 1993) that inspires learning. In other words, learning is a gift, or a by-product, bestowed by learning organizations. But, why is the concept of learning marginalized from the very beginning? And, why is the complexity of learning eclipsed from the start? The answers lie outside the learning organization literature.

In Grey’s (2017) account, management scholars in the 1980s seemed to hold an unusual consensus that can be dubbed a “holy war against bureaucracy”. The general (and ideological) assumption was that bureaucracy was bad and must be replaced by a flatter, more organic, less hierarchical, or team-/project-based organizational structure. Once bureaucracy is removed, good things will supposedly result. If this is the case, it comes as no surprise that Senge’s (1990) theory of learning organization is not about learning, but about the fruit of removing the bureaucratic organizational structure. Although Senge claimed that he was intellectually influenced by David Bohm’s New Physics which has been connected to a few postmodern thoughts (Bohm, 1988; Lyotard, 1984), we argue that Senge’s (1990) learning organization, to a large extent, is a structural functionalist project with some postmodern flavour (cf. Örtenblad, forthcoming).

This point was (re)affirmed by Thomas Supel, Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, who commented on Senge’s thesis of learning organization: “there does not seem to be much new here…. As an organizational alternative to the traditional management structure and culture, Senge presents the paradigm of a learning organization” (Supel, 1993). Clearly, learning organization is not about learning, but a managerial project against an ideological enemy, bureaucracy. Based on a similar conviction, mainstream learning organization scholars provided their insights into this field, but the fundamental questions remain be to unanswered: Who are the beneficiaries of learning? Who are the victims of learning? And, ultimately, why do we learn (and learn for whom)?

Against the mainstream tradition, in the past two decades, skeptical views of learning organization have appeared. These unconventional approaches to learning organization problematize some of the fundamental assumptions the mainstream approaches rest upon, such as the unswerving belief that “learning, like vitamins and stopping smoking, is a good thing” (Contu et al., 2003, p. 933). However, it should be noted that, while the unconventional approaches reveal the highly complex nature of learning, they do not suggest that we should completely discard the whole idea of learning organization because the contemporary state of being is very much determined by the exposure to various learning activities, and learning has become an even more integral part of modern society. The skeptical attitudes to learning organization imply the fact that learning always has a far more complex and problematic dimension, as well as wider-reaching effects than the learning organization purports to take responsibility for.

For the purpose of illustration, we identify three alternative approaches to learning organization but to date, they have less impact upon what has been described as the mainstream understanding of learning organization. First, there is an approach that sees the predominant understanding of learning organization as a highly problematic discourse because these ideas are inevitably power-laden and can serve managerial control purposes within political economies dominated by neo-liberal ideas (Pedler and Hsu, 2019). This approach problematizes the pre-given, corporatized purposes embedded in learning organization. For instance, as Örtenblad et al. (2015, pp. 213-214) described, in learning organization “the employees are assumed to reflect critically, but only on the surface, and not question the power structures” and, as such, employees are only expected to learn things “not primarily of interest to themselves” (cf. Akella, 2007; Fenwick, 1998; Jones and Hendry, 1994; Symon, 2003). Pedler and Hsu (2019) considered this as a reflexive turn of learning organization, which reveals the political and repressive nature of mainstream learning organization, and may serve as a vehicle for learning organization to move towards a more emancipatory discourse (e.g. Eijkman, 2011; Örtenblad, 2002).

Second, there is an approach that seeks to generate a discontinuity of the learning organization discourse; i.e., it sees learning as creative transformation that connects alternative voices, interests, epistemologies, or wisdom that have not appeared in the predominant learning organization discourse (cf. Jørgensen et al., forthcoming; Pedler and Hsu, 2014, 2019). This approach, to some extent, echoes the Foucauldian appeal to subjugated knowledge, as it legitimates subjugated voices and wisdom, but it also seeks to inspire a new learning organization discourse that is free from pro-managerial, corporatized and neo-liberal languages of performance, productivity and efficiency. In this latter aspect, learning organization might serve as a site of resistance to predominant power relations.

Third, there is an approach that is virtually absent in the learning organization literature, and it may usefully be termed a “down to earth” (to borrow Latour, 2018) approach to organization. For Latour, humankind is facing an all-encompassing crisis, global warming, which is so profound that he wondered how humankind could survive it. The down to earth approach has a meaning other than that of the aforementioned two academic approaches to learning organization. For instance, while Pedler and Hsu (2014) contend that, in order to address wicked problems such as climate change, the learning organization discourse should legitimate alternative forms of values and wisdom beyond neoliberalism and consumerism; the down to earth approach is informed by a practitioner’s interest: it seeks to inspire new politics with radical organizing principles that aim at finding new ways of inhabiting the earth. One example of this down to earth approach to organization is Extinction Rebellion: “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to achieve radical change in order to minimize the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse”. There is much evidence of learning within these organizations. However, should there be dialogue between learning organization and these radical principles? And, how can we develop a learning organization that is able to assist humankind to learn new ways of inhabiting the earth?  

The aim of this Special Issue is to address the shortfalls of the predominant understanding of learning organization, and under what conditions their solutions might operate. However, our ultimate intention is to trigger a discussion of fundamental issues that help to develop an alternative learning organization discourse. For example, if learning organization were to be of social value other than its economic/corporate usefulness, what would a more desirable learning organization look like? What will the desirable purpose of learning be for a learning organization? We hope to invite academics, business or non-business practitioners (e.g. environmental activists or artists) who are interested in the idea of learning organization, to express their voices and join the (healthy) debate on learning organization. Below we suggest some possible themes for contributions (but are not limited to them):

•    The (possible) criteria for an alternative learning organization.
•    The extent to which learning organization meets the requirement of the Information Age or New Media Age.
•    Knowledge and/or wisdom that may inform a new learning organization discourse.
•    Education and learning organization: the conditions under which the ideas of learning organization can facilitate education or educational institutions.
•    Insights into the existing critical literature on learning organization.
•    Alternative concepts of learning: e.g. the relationships among forgetting, unlearning and learning organization.
•    Victims and beneficiaries of learning organization.
•    Alternative practices of learning organization.
•    Learning organization and art; learning organization and music.
•    Learning organization as Social Movements Organization


Submission deadline is March 15, 2021. Please follow the author guidelines for The Learning Organization on the journal's page.


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