The terms “organizational learning” and “learning organization” are mirror terms – they are comprised of the same words that are ordered in reverse. Aside from making for interesting word play, the reciprocal relationship between the terms speaks to their underlying meanings. Organizational learning is a verb – the process of how organizations learn. Learning organization is a noun – an organization that learns.
Nancy Dixon (1999) points out that organizational learning has been conceptualized by multiple researchers in multiple ways. Some have very specific definitions and some have broad sketches. They all share, however, concepts related to agency, change, and growth. I resonate most strongly with Dixon’s discussion of organizational learning as the construction and reconstruction of meaning in a dynamic process. In this view, knowledge and information are separated from learning and individual learning is separated from organizational learning. Information only becomes useful when we integrate and make sense of it to form knowledge. When we take action on knowledge to adapt, grow, or change – then we are learning. Dixon also points out that individual learning is not the same as organizational learning, even when multiple individuals in an organization learn. Organizational learning requires a collective effort to share learning processes and outcomes in an integrated way.
The presence of learning does not necessarily lead to a learning organization. Learning organizations make intentional efforts to engage in learning activities. They have their eye on change. They value new knowledge, meaning making, and growth. They engage in the recursive process of learning, change, learning, and change.
In other words, they see themselves in both sides of the mirror.