Making Sense of the Learning Organisation: What Is It and Who Needs It?

The Learning Organization

ISSN: 0969-6474

Article publication date: 19 July 2011



Eijkman, H. (2011), "Making Sense of the Learning Organisation: What Is It and Who Needs It?", The Learning Organization, Vol. 18 No. 5, pp. 412-414.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

If one takes a look at the introduction to most articles on a “learning organization” topic, it is almost inevitable to find a description and/or definition that draws verbatim or virtually so from a small select band of well known authors, usually Senge (1990), Pedler et al. (1997), Argyris (1999) or Watkins and Marsick (1993). There seems to be a perfunctory obligation to perform a ritualistic obeisance to the pantheon of the LO gods and then, unproblematically continue on one's way unencumbered by theoretical doubts. Yet such unproblematic accounts are, if anything, out of touch with the views of reputable and long time practitioners and researchers. It is clear that the literature that emerges from these more critically inclined practitioners and academic researchers (see, for example, the special retrospective edition of TLO on the occasion of its 15th birthday, Vol. 15, Issue 3) reveals two overarching themes. First, that the notion of LO is problematic and remains controversial so that it is, in essence, an “essentially contested concept” (Gallie, 1956). This means that “LO” is a concept which inexorably engages its users in indeterminable disputes about its meanings and usages and furthermore that such disputes “cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic alone” (Gray, 1978, p. 344). On this point alone, for instance, a literature review by Örrtenblad (2007) identified at least 12 different interpretations. Second, that despite these disputes, the concept seems to have sufficient credence “to have had significant positive influence on organizational thinking” (Smith, 2008, p. 441).

Early career practitioners, academics, and researchers especially may therefore be excused for sidestepping this theoretical swamp and simply accept a description or definition that appears reasonably and acceptably mainstream. It is here that the brief yet erudite book by Anders Örtenblad comes into its own.

Making Sense of the Learning Organisation: What Is It and Who Needs It? is another timely work from a respected and well published academic researcher, in the field of LO. This albeit a small book of just over a 100 pages, packs considerable intellectual punch. By outlining his theoretical framework, the book takes us through a concise, yet clear, and very readable tour de force of the diverse thinking that, over the years, characterises the field of LO.

Conceptually speaking, a clear strength of the book is his comprehensive, yet very comprehensible framework, in which he identifies and explains the different usages of the concept. He not only identifies five major definitions of LO, but evaluates each in terms of five dimensions. In addition he then juxtaposes these against four key stakeholder perspectives. Even if one was to quibble about his framework, it is evident that his exposition draws on a substantive literature that enables readers to make sense of and thereby identify where they might be situated in relation to the disputes that surround this essentially contested concept.

By way of a succinct explanation, each of his definitions are discussed in terms of five dimensions, each of which constitutes a continuum. Hence, in the first section of the book he interrogates these five LO definitions in terms of their preferred position along five continua.

  1. 1.

    Learning at work.

  2. 2.

    Climate for learning.

  3. 3.

    Learning structure.

  4. 4.

    Old organizational learning.

  5. 5.

    New organizational learning.

Before listing the five dimensions (continua) against which these definitions are to be evaluated, it is worthwhile to say something about the first and last of these definitions. The first captures the increasingly important element of informal learning, while the last definition focuses on a new and philosophically speaking, non‐foundational epistemic approach to knowledge work (Eijkman, 2008). The latter very much follows on the work of Etienne Wenger (1999) and his work on Communities of Practice.

The five definitions are then evaluated against which the following dimensions:

  1. 1.

    Organizational processes … organizational forms.

  2. 2.

    It is individuals that learn … it is organizations that learn.

  3. 3.

    Learning as an end … learning as a means.

  4. 4.

    LOs exist naturally … LOs require action to come into being.

  5. 5.

    Learning occurs voluntarily … Learning is a forced activity.

Each of these definitions are then examined in terms of their advantages and disadvantages from four different stakeholder perspectives:
  1. 1.

    those of employers;

  2. 2.

    those of employees;

  3. 3.

    from a societal perspective; and

  4. 4.

    from a “fashion exploiter” perspective.

One can see from this succinct overview that the authors' approach is thorough and comprehensive. Moreover, this book is not only highly readable and user friendly to old hands and novices alike, but is equally informative for all.

Again, although this book does not aim to provide an exhaustive treatment, it nevertheless manages to cover the field extensively through the exposition of a comprehensive, well argued, though also a non‐prescriptive framework that enables readers to find their own preferences.

Given this is a book highly suitable for early career LO researchers, consultants and academics, a list of suggested books on each definition would have been helpful to promote further reading. This is especially the case in regards to Part 2 of the book where references to key components of this framework are not quite as prevalent as in the first part. Nevertheless, this is a minor issue given the value this book represents. I would certainly hope that authors who intend to write for TLO will make use of this book so that more submissions will exhibit a more informed and nuanced approach to the complexities of the Learning Organization in its theoretical as well as its practical domain.


Argyris, C. (1999), On Organizational Learning, 2nd ed., Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Eijkman, H. (2008), “Web 2.0+ as a non‐foundational network‐centric learning space”, Campus Wide Information Systems, Vol. 25 No. 2, pp. 93104.

Gallie, W.B. (1956), “Essentially contested concepts”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 56, pp. 16798.

Gray, J. (1978), “On liberty, liberalism and essential contestability”, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 8 No. 4, pp. 385402.

Örtenblad, A. (2007), “Senge's many faces: problem or opportunity?”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 10822.

Pedler, M., Burgogyne, J. and Boydell, T. (1997), The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development, 2nd ed., McGraw‐Hill, London.

Senge, P.M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Century Business, London.

Smith, P.A.C. (2008), “The Learning Organization turns 15: a retrospective”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 51 No. 6, pp. 4418.

Watkins, K. and Marsick, V. (Eds.) (1993), Sculpting the Learning Organization. Lessons in the Art and Science of Systematic Change, Jossey‐Bass, San Fransisco, CA.

Wenger, E. (1999), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Related articles