James C.R. 2002. Designing learning organizations. Organizational Dynamics. 32(1)


Setting out the design for a learning organization.

Geographic Focus: 


Key Findings: 

An ability and willingness to openly assess fundamental beliefs and organisational design is required to become a learning organisation. Old paradigms that embed systems of control through multidivisional forms (M-form organisations) have been shown to be inadequate for effectively adapting to complex systems and issues. In environments subject to rapid change and surprise events, the learning organisation (L-form) is much greater suited to the necessary skills of integration, knowledge transfer and reflexive analysis. However, becoming a learning organisation requires much more than simply adding a few ‘learning’ elements to a M-form organisation such as creating new teams, benchmarking initiatives or some experimental processes. Rather than focusing on a few components or processes, becoming an L-form organisation demands a much deeper evaluation of organisational design and the values behind this design. The L-form is a participatory approach, and this article identifies two types of learning; adaptive learning (what is being learned) and generative learning (how learning takes place). The combination of both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of learning is seen to provide a double loop learning mechanism. As the learning organization evolves, it becomes a teaching organization in which all actors are engaged in both learning and teaching.


This article highlights the deep commitment required, and some of the complexity involved, in fully embodying the concept of an adaptive learning organisation. Overcoming ‘blind-spots’ is clearly a challenge for organisations that feel they have embodied learning components within their routine practices, but have failed to become truly learning organisations that routinely challenge their own core beliefs and values. The distinction between adaptive and generative learning in this article highlights some of the conceptual difficulties that emerge across different disciplinary areas when discussing adaptive learning processes. In particular it highlights the potential benefits that may arise from applying a meta-theory approach to adaptive learning. For example, learning is a fluid process in which the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of learning are highly interdependent, occur simultaneously, and embody a multitude of learning theories and models. A meta-theory approach potentially provides an opportunity to view and evaluate these processes in a more integrative manner, an important consideration both for researchers and practitioners of adaptive learning.