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NEWS | March 12, 2015

The Learning Organization is the path to innovation

By Capt. Timothy Sparks Joint Base Charleston deputy commander

Air Mobility Command is currently working a pilot program for implementing the "Learning Organization" principles into the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnel1 Air Force Base.  I have been part of the "Learn Organization" transformation at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard where the benefits greatly improved the shipyard productivity and business performance.   Yes,  I have drank the Kool-Aid and I wanted to take some time to introduce the program.

A learning organization is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment for installation support, this means, providing the best most cost effective installation support and meeting our customer base's needs.

The learning organization concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge through his book The Fifth Discipline. It encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking.  Organizations already organically develop into uncontrolled learning organizations since there are always factors (or problems) prompting their change. As organizations grow, they lose their capacity to learn as company structures and individual thinking becomes rigid.  When problems arise, the proposed solutions often turn out to be only short-term (single loop learning) and re-emerge in the future. To remain competitive, the organizations must create long term solutions to problems and work more effectively.

The five main characteristics, or disciplines, of a learning organization are: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, a shared vision, and team learning.  With systems thinking, organizations are a system of interrelationships. To become more successful, there is a need analyze these relationships and find the problems in them. This allows an organization to eliminate the obstacles to learning.  By fostering personal mastery, an individual holds great importance in a learning organization. Continuous self-improvement holds as much importance as commitment and work for the organization. Employees need to grow and work on their own goals. By identifying and understanding mental models, the company's culture and the diverse theories and mindsets  serve as a framework for the functioning of the organization. Learning organizations look for how these affect organizational development. By having a shared vision, the learning organization's employees all share a common vision. Personal goals must be in sync with the goals and vision of the organization. And finally the concept and practice of team learning, the importance of dialogue and group discussion is mastered. For a team to learn, they must be in sync and reach agreement. Do these sound familiar? They should. Each of these disciplines is executed by military and corporate personnel each day. The Learning Organization process is a model of success for all levels of an organization and fits will inside any organization that in in a support role.

There are many benefits of implementing the learning organization processes. The processes foster a foundation of maintaining levels of innovation and remaining competitive. It creates an organization that is better placed to respond to external pressures and demands.  The organization improves customer service by having the knowledge to better link resources to customer needs thus improving quality of outputs at all levels. And finally the leaning organization continually improves with increasing the pace of change within the organization.

Joint Base Charleston executes many of the disciplines of the Learning Organization. I have sat in on many meetings where outsiders wonder how we continue to provide services other installations cannot. It is a formula for success that is self-sustaining and independent of whoever the commander is.  It is a means to foster innovation and innovative thinking. It is the way of the future and I am sure you will see it implemented in many areas of the Air Force in the future.