On Becoming a Learning Organization

by Jill Crawley-Low
Leslie and Irene Dubé Health Sciences Library and Veterinary Medicine Library, University of Saskatchewan

The concept of a learning organization is a model for dealing with complex systems and that is the environment in which most organizations, including libraries, operate these days. It is a model consisting of five disciplines, one of which is systems thinking. First, the individual is empowered and this positive energy flows on to become collective self-awareness which, in turn, profoundly affects the organizational culture. As management theorist Peter Senge explains, the people who contribute most to the organization are those who “… practice the disciplines for themselves – expanding their own capacity to seek and hold a vision, to reflect and inquire, to build collective capabilities, and to understand systems.”

The turbulent times in which we work in libraries are of a magnitude of complexity that requires not only individual action, but also collective action. The employees in a learning organization develop the ability to collectively learn and create new knowledge in the present and in the future to adapt and apply that knowledge to unforeseen conditions.

The University Library at the University of Saskatchewan has articulated in its vision statement the benefits it believes will be derived from becoming a learning organization. The vision remains a powerful statement that was first written in 2006 as part of the library’s strategic plan. The benefits of fostering a learning organization (with quotes from the library’s vision) include:

• an engaged and committed cohort of employees – “leaders and innovators
• effectively operating in a complex environment – “a dynamic information environment
• contributing skills and knowledge to the community – “collaborate with our community
• effectively manage change – “create a positive experience
• providing quality in a client-centred environment – “success in learning, scholarship and practice
• looking to the future proactively.

The University Library has made a long term and continuing commitment and investment in its employees through leadership development. There is quantitative evidence that leadership learning has led to increased employee engagement scores. Qualitatively, library employees have identified the changes that they have observed in themselves and others as a result of being exposed to leadership learning. These observations include increased:

• self-awareness that leads to more open feedback and collaboration
• sense of accountability and freedom to ask questions and share opinions
• knowledge of self that is rooted in reality with a deeper understanding of the behaviour of colleagues
• independence in their work decisions

The library’s focus on leadership learning has created a culture of continuous learning that rewards engaged employees. The organization is moving towards the vision of a learning organization by:

• accurately responding to or anticipating environmental changes
• developing simpler processes and showing transparency in decision-making
• building on the self-leadership that employees show in times of transition
• examining its culture in a realistic way and making it easier for employees to understand the shared vision and values

The ideal of becoming a learning organization with a culture of continuous learning and developing applied knowledge is deeply embedded in the library’s vision as a way to meet present and future challenges.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.