5 characteristics of a learning organization & how to get them

• 6 min read

Characteristics of a learning organization

In today’s world of rapid technological and social change, learning is one of the most important activities for any organization. Whether it’s making products, selling services, or running a nonprofit, you must have a culture of learning and growth. The most advanced way to approach learning is to become a learning organization. This term, introduced by American scientist and author Peter Senge, describes an organization that:

  • Facilitates learning among its team members
  • Constantly transforms itself
  • Can adapt to challenges in its environment

Want to know if your organization is a learning organization? This article explores five key characteristics of a learning organization to help you build and foster growth in your company.

What are the 5 characteristics of a learning organization?

As mentioned, the concept of a learning organization comes from Peter Senge, who outlined it in his influential book The Fifth Discipline. Since then, this concept has become widely accepted as something all organizations should strive to achieve. And yet, according to Harvard Business Review, only 10% of all organizations can be counted as learning organizations even though it’s been proven that having a learning culture offers significant benefits in terms of adaptability, innovation, culture, and competitive advantage.

According to Senge, all learning organizations share these five key traits. Let’s take a close look at each.

1. They have a collaborative culture (systems thinking) 

In a learning organization, there is a collaborative culture meaning team members openly and freely share their ideas, knowledge, and insights. Collaboration thrives when different people and viewpoints are respected and valued.

The need for collaboration comes from Senge’s concept of systems thinking, which is an approach to problem-solving and decision-making that recognizes how different components of a system are interconnected.

For example, learning and development (L&D) professionals and business leaders know that in order for corporate policies and compliance standards to be met, all levels of employee must be in adherence. This is why many compliance training programs are required for all employees rather than only a few departments. The more everyone understands about the overall system, the more accountability and comprehensive knowledge there will be to uphold such standards.

In a company, employees are an important part of the system, and for the system to work effectively toward a common goal, they must collaborate and share information.

A great way to apply this to your corporate learning initiatives is to take advantage of social learning in your learning management system (LMS). This feature lets learners easily share new skills and knowledge and fosters a collaborative learning environment.

 2. They have a “lifelong learning” mindset (personal mastery)

Learning organizations require team members to have a forward-thinking mentality and engage in continuous learning (aka lifelong learning) meaning L&D programs need to help learners embrace the idea of personal mastery. It’s an approach to learning and personal development that involves understanding one’s values, goals, strengths, and weaknesses.

The overall goal is to keep acquiring new knowledge and skills and apply them to real-world situations and problems. For example, a team leader could ask each member to set their own goals for the year and check in on their progress monthly offering guidance as needed. This builds autonomy, ensures team members are working toward things they care about, and leads to more engaged employees. An organization whose team members are pursuing personal mastery is an organization where learning takes center stage and drives innovation.

To help your learners on their way to personal mastery, take advantage of powerful LMS analytics that provide a lot of data on learner progress and performance.


Your L&D team can use this data to create personalized and team learning plans that fit the needs of your unique learners.

3. They always have room for innovation (mental models)

Mental models are collections of thoughts, ideas, behaviors, and emotions about a certain thing. They act as a sort of shorthand for perceiving complex things in the world.

An example of a mental model is the sunk cost fallacy, where a person or an organization keeps investing in a failing project because they feel quitting would be a waste of all the previous investments. Bad mental models like these can often stand in the way of progress and continuous improvement.

Don’t think that all mental models are bad, however. Systems thinking itself is an example of a good mental model that lets people understand the big picture and their place in achieving the greater good.

That’s why it’s essential to question the ways your organization collaborates, reflects, and opens itself to innovative ideas. Examining mental models means separating the chaff from the wheat and learning from mistakes. Toss out the bad, keep the good.

4. They have forward-thinking leadership (shared vision)

The commitment to learning and growth has to start from the top. Forward-thinking leadership inspires team members to self-reflect and learn from their mistakes while setting a shared vision for the whole organization.

This isn’t just for CEOs. Managers, supervisors, and trainers all need to be committed to the shared vision setting an example for all team members.

Mistakes that build real-world experience shouldn’t be punished. Instead, leadership should use them as a teachable moment to start conversations about how to avoid them in the future.

Your LMS can help you cement your shared vision by fostering open communication and sharing through webinars and e-learning blogs. Additionally, consider using an LMS with a built-in content marketplace. Docebo can match you with a content curation specialist who’ll make sure you get the most impactful content that matches your vision.

5. They champion knowledge sharing (team learning)

Knowledge sharing happens all the time in every company. For instance, a new hire might ask their onboarding buddy for help with an unfamiliar task. While that kind of informal learning is great, a learning organization also needs a more structured approach to knowledge sharing. One that makes every team member aware of the company’s learning objectives and fosters teamwork by having everyone work together to achieve them.

Individual learning is important, but it will only get you so far. Successful learning organizations rely on constant knowledge sharing to ensure everyone’s up to speed and on the same page.

E-learning can make sharing knowledge easier because it lets learners share user-generated content. It’s almost like social media but with features in place to prevent misinformation. With Docebo, your internal subject matter experts can review user content before it’s published so misinformation can’t spread.

Is your company a learning organization? Questions to ask

Here are questions to ask to determine if you are currently part of or working toward becoming a learning organization:

  • Do your employees feel empowered to suggest new ideas or challenge authority figures?
  • Is diversity championed in your organization to provide differing perspectives?
  • What tools have you given your employees to learn and share knowledge? Are these tools effective?
  • Are you encouraging risk-taking and experimentation to foster continuous improvement and innovation?
  • Is everyone constantly seeking new knowledge and skills to improve business processes?
  • Are learning outcomes being met? Are learners applying what they have been taught?
  • Are you measuring the progress of employees’ development?
  • Do the work and learning materials feel meaningful and relevant to employees?
  • Do your training programs take advantage of learning technologies such as mobile and social learning?

A new generation of employees that emphasize opportunities to learn on the job has entered the global workforce. This is why organizations must make learning a core cultural component to attract and retain quality talent.

At the same time, to retain competitive advantage, companies have to be innovative and think outside the box.

Becoming a learning organization will help to engage employees, spark creativity, and create a space for growth and innovation.

Now over to you

Learning organizations prize knowledge and collaboration to retain the best talent, upskill their workforce, be innovative, and stay ahead of the competition.

To power your learning activities in the digital and connected 21st-century business landscape, you’ll need robust learning technologies that a good LMS can offer.

To learn how Docebo can provide the foundation for your learning organization, schedule a demo today.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

At first glance, the idea of a learning organization can sound a bit daunting and academic. But don’t worry, we’ve got the As for your Qs.

Q1. What is a learning organization?

A learning organization is an entity (like a company, nonprofit, or association) that continuously learns, adapts, and grows by actively looking for new knowledge, encouraging experimentation and innovation, and nurturing a culture of learning among its members.

Q2. What is the difference between a traditional organization and a learning organization?

Traditional organizations focus on stability and consistency while learning organizations prioritize continuous improvement and innovation.

Learning organizations emphasize adaptability, flexibility, and growth. Traditional organizations maintain the status quo.

Q3. What makes an organization a learning organization?

An organization is a learning organization if it prioritizes and values continuous learning, experimentation, and innovation. It achieves this by encouraging employees to share knowledge, learn from failure, and adapt to change.