How to Compete by Becoming a Learning Organization: Part I

By rooting mold shops in organizational learning—a strategy that centers on the detection and correction of errors—moldmakers can stay ahead of the competition
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In these times of worldwide competition, shifting customer loyalties and sweeping market trends, relentless change has emerged as the only constant. The world of business is littered with yesterday's greats. Make no mistake—today's glorious products will reach the end of their life cycles, lush markets will go fallow and the steepest sales curve will one day head downward. How then can a mold shop sustain its competitive edge? It has been said, "In the long term, the only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization's ability to learn faster than its competition." This article reviews some of the current business thought in organizational learning and outlines how learning initiatives can serve as a central strategy for mold shops to stay ahead in today's tumultuous times.

Mold shops can benefit greatly by applying these organizational learning principles. Customers do not go to a moldmaker for a machined hunk of metal. The focus must be on making the mold and solving any problems, not only for the customer but for the consumer as well. It takes learning about the product, the end-market and the manufacturing environment where the mold would be used. It is simply a matter of having the inclination and finding the time to learn.

Learning is important. It is the basic foundation for growth and development. An organization's ability to constantly learn, adapt and respond to various external forces determines its success and survival in challenging business environments. These external forces may be market-, customer-, technology- or strategy-driven. It is not the external environment, but rather the mold shop's chosen response based on its overall learning experience that is the key factor. A shop's failure is often rooted in a conscious decision to discard learning, and a static or stoic organizational structure is often the effect and not the cause.

Learning Organizations

A learning organization has been defined as an "organization with an ingrained philosophy for anticipating, reacting and responding to change, complexity and uncertainty."1 Learning organizations have the following characteristics:2

  • People continually expanding their capacity to create the desired results.
  • New and out-of-the-box thinking is nurtured and encouraged.
  • People are given enough rope to work out their collective aspirations.
  • Individuals continually learn how to learn together.

As business becomes increasingly dynamic, complex and challenging, the shops that will truly excel will be the ones that discover how to tap people's commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization.

The Five Disciplines

A true learning organization is a result of five interrelated disciplines: personal mastery, shared vision, team learning and mental models, which make up the foundation of the organization, and systems thinking is the cement that holds it all together.3

Personal Mastery

Personal mastery is one of the core disciplines for building a learning organization. It refers to an individual commitment to life-long learning; it is a continuous and never-ending process. The three important elements of personal mastery are personal vision, creative tension and commitment to truth.4 Personal mastery allows individuals to continuously focus and clarify their personal vision for the desired future (personal vision), look at their current reality and desired future (commitment to truth and reality) and use these gaps to create the dynamic energy to get to their desired future (creative tension).

Mental Models

Mental models are the deeply ingrained ideas, assumptions, generalizations and images that influence how we understand the world.5 Mental models are tremendously powerful as they affect our perceptions, thinking and behavior. Why do good new ideas rarely get put into practice?6 Often because they conflict with deep-seated internal images of how the world or the company works. It is essential to re-evaluate our mental models and preconceived ideas. Sometimes learning requires unlearning.

Building Shared Vision

Although goals, values and purpose are important for mold shops yearning for greatness, a dry vision or mission statement alone is not enough. Genuine commitment starts with a shared vision of the future.7 Building shared vision is necessary for a mold shop where key individuals have bought into and share the leader's vision. The leader's role is to share his/her own vision with the rest of the shop. The vision should not be forced on others, but rather describe what the mold shop stands for or wants to become. Encouraging other individuals to participate in this process allows them to share in the vision and therefore, allow it to take shape.

It would be naive to expect that the entire mold shop would adopt the vision of its leaders, by simply reading the vision statement set up for display. When an organization has a shared vision, the driving force for change comes from knowing the difference between the shared vision and what is currently happening in the shop—creative tension. Truly committed employees will drive the shop toward its goals.

Team Learning

Team learning has been described as "the process it takes to develop a team to create the desired results."8 Team learning actually provides a forum for growth, rapid learning for participants and can be faster and multifaceted compared to individual learning, contributing to personal mastery. The discipline of team learning starts with dialogue and the capacity of members of a team to think together.9

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is the cornerstone of a true learning organization, integrating the above disciplines. Often, shops are looked upon as a collection of departments rather than the complex network of interrelationships between departments and the outside world. Mold shops are complex adaptive systems. Systems thinking is a way of approaching solutions to complex problems. It is somewhat counterintuitive to the typical approach of breaking complex tasks into simpler subtasks. The systems-thinking approach does not take away the manageability of dividing complex tasks, but it avoids oversimplification. It allows patterns and interrelationships between work systems, procedures, departments and teams to be seen.

These five disciplines are key ingredients for fostering learning within an organization and for building and sustaining learning organizations. It starts with individual learning. In a learning organization individuals strive to contribute toward a shared vision. Well-adjusted mental models are constantly challenged and refined in pursuit of personal mastery. Personal, department or business unit goals are aligned with the mission of the organization. Furthermore, in learning organizations teams are empowered to learn together and see their work as a part of a whole, with respect for interrelationships and processes that are dependent on one another. Group or team learning leads to additional individual learning and higher levels of personal mastery. Thus, a powerful learning loop is created. Lifelong commitment to organizational learning and the continuous learning cycles leads to competitive advantages and higher levels of organizational success.


1 Malhotra, Yogesh. (1996). Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations: An Overview [WWW document]. URL http://www.kmbook.com/orglrng.htm.
2 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, Currency Doubleday, New York, NY (1990).
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid. pages 139 Ð 167.
5, 6, 7 Ibid. pages 8 Ð 9.
8 Ibid. page 236.
9 Ibid. page 10.