Falling within a broad spectrum of context, a ‘learning organization’ has been defined in a myriad of ways including an agency that continually expands its potential to develop its own future and by extension, determine its own success. Within such organizations, the scenarios encountered by the leaders, various teams, and rank and file members on a daily basis become a learning opportunity if such an environment has been adequately cultivated and the relationship between teams and their allied systems become more obvious. While these concepts become basic tenets of a learning organization, they must be accompanied by notions including personal mastery and effective teamwork to facilitate learning by the organization as a whole (Cross & Rieley, 1999).
Traditional organizations embody a framework that does not bend to the diverse perspective present in many of the marketplace’s new employees. Senge describes dimensions that distinguish learning from more traditional organizations is the mastery of certain basic disciplines or ‘component technologies’ and one of these components happens to be a systems thinking approach. The remaining elements that Peter Senge identifies are said to be “converging to innovate learning organizations includes personal mastery, mental models, building a shared vision, and team leaning” (Senge, 2015). He adds that people are agents, able to act upon the structures and systems of which they are a part and that “all disciplines are, in this way, ‘concerned with a shift of mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future” (Harris, 1990: 69).
Selecting this definition from one of the pioneers of these terms compels one to then observe systems thinking as a component of a learning organization rather than an element to be compared or contrasted with the larger concept. As a rule, systems thinking represents a “management discipline that concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the entirety of that defined system” (Harris, 1990). With such an approach, the entire system presents a view of the complete organization as it operates within and relates to its environment. A systems thinking mindset provides a means of “understanding, analyzing and talking about the design and construction of the organization as an integrated, complex composition of many interconnected systems (human and non-human) that need to work together for the whole to function successfully” (Senge & Crainer, 2008).
Systems thinking as a component of a learning organizations represents an environment where individuals and teams are encouraged to expand their capacity to help determine their future and the end results they have developed with other members of their organization. Effective leaders within such agencies facilitate an environment where employees are nurtured and encouraged to utilize the knowledge and skills they have acquired over the course of their lifetimes for the betterment of their team and by extension, their organization and varied systems. Developing these individual and organizational skills enhances personal mastery and one’s abilities to mitigate negative items while building a solid foundation as a sustainable organization.
Personal mastery is a “discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively." “This discipline of aspiration involves formulating a coherent picture of the results people most desire to gain as individuals, alongside a realistic assessment of the current state of their lives today” (Nuer, 1999). Creating this self awareness is requisite for an entity to learn and as such, a collection of individuals forming a team must have individual learning characteristics if they are to be effectively combined into a learning team. If such a dynamic can be established, especially within a systems thinking mindset, these learning entities can then assist the agency as a whole in becoming a learning organization.
While challenging to measure at times, some components have been suggested to accomplish such goals. The Pearlin Mastery Scale for example, measures an individual’s level of mastery, and describes it as a psychological resource that has been defined as “the extent to which one regards one’s life-chances as being under one’s own control in contrast to being fatalistically ruled” (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978). Additionally, mastery has been shown to “provide a protective buffer for individuals’ mental and physical health and well-being, when facing persistent life stresses, such as economic and occupational hardships” (e.g., Pearlin & Schooler, 1978; Pudrovska, Schieman, Pearlin & Nguyen, 2005).
While these scientific explanations may provide a tangible definition for leaders to grasp, the intangible elements may be far more important. The benefits of an effective team cannot be debated, despite the fact that the exact recipe for constructing such a team may be challenging to say the least. Maintaining a common goal while facilitating an environment that embraces and encourages teams and individual employees to use their knowledge and skills helps to create team learning environments and team learning environments helps individuals who have achieved individual mastery to develop masterful teams and masterful teams help to create masterful organizations (Lohikoski, 2009).
A systems based mindset allows individuals to view their position within an organization from a much larger perspective. By truly embracing such a mindset, the individual employee can view themselves, their teams, and their allied agencies and stakeholders through their relationships and their operation within their environment. These groups and individuals can then react to the feedback received and address issues deemed positive and negative to the operations as a whole. By exhibiting mastery of their particular knowledge, skills, and responsibilities the individuals and aforementioned relevant connections will remain better positioned to mitigate damage and seize opportunities in becoming learning and by extension, sustainable organizations.
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