The Learning Organization in Libraries

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This annotated bibliography describes 12 core texts about the learning organization model in academic libraries.


Farrell, R. (2017). The chief learning officer: A model role for integrating HR and strategic planning functions in libraries. ​Library Management; Bradford​, ​38​(6/7), 380–392.

The author argues in favor of a senior-management position of chief learning officer in libraries that would integrate all aspects of strategic human resource development, from developing the workforce, recruitment, and onboarding; to planning and assessment; and learning initiatives. He demonstrates how corporations facing extinction due to outdated skills among the workforce have responded by institutionalizing the learning function in this way. His survey of learning organization attempts at academic libraries finds that they are often limited to individual professional development and human resource functions that lack the positional authority needed to strategically guide the organization to efficiency and effectiveness. Empirical research similar to Harland et al. (2017) would benefit the author’s argument; it is not clear how comprehensive his survey of existing learning librarian positions was, for example. This article’s recency, its summary of existing scholarship on learning organizations and its critique using real examples from libraries make a helpful contribution to understanding how libraries’ implementation of learning organization concepts has been limited. The author offers clear, workable suggestions for libraries.

Harland, F., Stewart, G., & Bruce, C. (2017). Ensuring the academic library’s relevance to stakeholders: The role of the library director. ​The Journal of Academic Librarianship​, 43​(5), 397–408. ​

The authors seek to fill a gap in theory based on empirical research about how academic libraries can ensure their relevance to university stakeholders in the future. Through interviews with library directors in Australia and the U.S. about their strategies and processes for keeping their libraries relevant, the authors identify a five-part conceptual model. The model shows a cyclical pattern that includes: aligning strategic vision with the university, continuously reinventing the library, engaging with stakeholders, building an agile and engaged culture, and demonstrating the library’s value. The article discusses both dynamic capabilities and learning organization frameworks, and builds from Örtenblad’s (2015) idea that library contexts need their own learning organization frameworks. I learned that existing research about learning organization approaches in academic libraries is limited to case studies and about how the library director sets the tone for adapting to change and focusing on customers.

Henrich, K. J., & Attebury, R. (2010). Communities of practice at an academic library: A new approach to mentoring at the University of Idaho. ​The Journal of Academic Librarianship,​ ​36(​ 2), 158–165. ​

A cohort of librarians each starting their first tenure-track position sought a mentorship program at work, which took the shape of a community of practice about scholarly research and publication. This model was chosen due to limited mentors for traditional mentorships and because of the benefits of group learning within a learning organization. Security of intellectual property was one challenge, given the competitive academic environment for research; participants wanted assurance that ideas presented in meetings would not be taken, so they created and signed a group agreement. Though it is more than a decade old, this article continues to be cited in peer-reviewed work on communities of practice and mentorship in academic libraries. In sharing the importance of structure in the meetings, the work done in between meetings, and the hands-off but encouraging support of management, this piece provides a case study in how to develop and run a community of practice in an academic library.

Howell, S. L., Carter, V. K., & Schied, F. M. (2001). Making workers visible: Unmasking learning in a work team. ​Journal of Workplace Learning,​ ​13(​ 7/8), 326–333.

The authors use critical approaches to study a customer service team within an organization that uses quality management techniques, including human resource development courses. Entry-level hourly workers regularly interact with angry customers, and the courses teach them strategies for handling these interactions by being friendly and helpful. The authors argue that, in the name of benefiting the organization, this training breaks down barriers between workers’ private and public lives in ways that are harmful for workers and that require workers to perform emotional labor. Data collection is described, but it is not clear how the researchers approached data analysis. Though outside of a library context, this article introduces important critiques of the learning organization that should be considered in libraries, especially regarding hourly workers and learning. The article questions who benefits from practicing Marsick and Watkins’ emphasis on feedback and self-disclosure, and states that workers as stakeholders may have interests that do not match the interests of the organization.

Lowry, C. B. (2005). Editorial: continuous organizational development--teamwork, learning leadership, and measurement. ​Portal: Libraries and the Academy​, ​5​(1), 1–6.

The author describes the University of Maryland (UMD) libraries’ continual organizational development (COD) program, based on an interpretation of Senge’s learning organization. UMD libraries slowly built up to an organizational structure that supports continuous planning, self-managed teams, a comprehensive learning plan, and measurement. This resulted in four full-time staff positions focused on COD, and the creation of a Management Information Systems office and Library Assessment Review Committee to carry out and review assessment to support shared decision-making. This piece is an editorial, and the author comes across as pitching the idea that external parties should support this approach to ensure long-term success. The author later became the executive director of ARL, but the program at UMD appears to have been phased out at some point after this was published in 2005 (still, it was cited as an example in Farrell’s 2017 article). Interestingly, this piece does not report any results of how patrons were impacted by the restructuring; I see this as a learning opportunity for libraries undertaking structural changes to become a learning organization in the future.

Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1999). Looking again at learning in the learning organization: A tool that can turn into a weapon! ​The Learning Organization​, ​6​(5), 207–211.

The authors of one of the core texts on learning organizations address a shadow side of how the concept is sometimes used as justification to downsize, or taught in a few hours by consultants. They argue that an organization’s accumulated knowledge capital is held by longtime employees, who are critical in its growth. The authors also address how reinventing an organization is a long-term process, and that those who claim to be a learning organization may not actually be engaging in this work. Hearing their reflections is a helpful reminder that the phrase itself does not define a learning organization in practice, and that at its core, this concept is about learning to build a long-term capacity to survive.

Mufeed, U. & Mir, A.A. (2017). Relationship of leadership and learning organizations: An empirical study in select academic libraries of J&K. ​Trends in Information Management​: 11​(1), 16–26. 9-4cea-a291-13c0feb74149.pdf

The authors seek to measure to what extent library assistants and other support staff at five academic libraries in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir feel favorably toward learning organization practices and transformational leadership practices. They find overall favorability; among the five disciplines identified by Senge, team learning is most favorable, followed by systems thinking. Though the research methodology is described, it is not clear how the research tool measured sentiments about learning organizations, nor it is clear if respondents were familiar with this approach or working in libraries that had already adopted it. The article’s sampling of support staff is an important addition to research on the learning organization.

Örtenblad, A. (2015). Towards increased relevance: Context-adapted models of the learning organization. ​The Learning Organization,​ ​22(​ 3), 163–181.

The author argues against an uncritical adoption of the learning organization model in some sectors, but also pushes back on a wholesale rejection of it, instead encouraging use and further adaptation of the industry-specific adaptations presented in the article. The recommendation for universities cautions against loosening bureaucratic and disciplinary structure too much, and suggests a “listening organization” model that takes into account employee ideas. Recognizing that bureaucratic structure supports fairness in public service organizations including libraries, this model suggests an adaptation with cross-departmental communication and some decentralization. The models are based on a review of critical literature; selection criteria for inclusion are clear, but the extent of the literature search is not disclosed. The author extensively cites his own findings from previous research; he has published about learning organizations for more than a decade. I noted that the two models relating to academic libraries both include limiting the extent to which Senge’s idea of a learning structure is fully adopted.

Renner, F., Clark, C., Shilkin, B., Benn, J., Albatis, M., & Howard, R. (2014). ‘Thanks for being awesome’: Using the learning organisation model to enhance university library and IT client service. ​The Australian Library Journal​, ​63​(2), 118–128.

This case study discusses how Senge’s learning organization model was used in implementing student IT support at the information desks of every library branch on campus. Through working groups, affected staff identified the need for training, which they then completed in teams in the months before IT support was offered, initially with backup from expert staff members. Use of evidence-based assessment tools found that staff had more confidence with systems that they worked with most often, and that the nature of IT content limited the extent to which the learning organization model applied (for example, solving basic IT problems is simpler than a scenario for which different approaches might be considered). An Australian gap assessment tool similar to LIBQUAL was used to survey students and showed improvement and satisfaction levels above comparable research universities. The survey tool used for staff had limited value as its benchmarks are generated from senior executives in a different context. This article is helpful as a case study, showing especially how team learning was effectively utilized after a departmental merger between information technology and libraries.

Rowley, J. (1997). The library as a learning organization. ​Library Management,​ ​18(​ 2), 88–91.

The author summarizes how the need to survive has led organizations to the learning organization concept. She suggests that while many libraries prioritize public service, they are affected by the market, and thus need to seek competitive advantage. She draws on adult learning theory to explain how individual learning should build on employees’ existing learning patterns, and the importance of relationships between managers and staff in the identification of learning opportunities. She raises questions about organization and individual commitment to learning for part-time and hourly staff and potential challenges around uncontrolled staff learning outside of the library. This article has been cited frequently, including by Örtenblad (2015) and Harland et al. (2017), but it is more than 20 years old and its arguments are dated. The author continued to consider the learning organization model in later work, including putting forward the concept of a “practically wise organization” in 2008.

Saarti, J., & Juntunen, A. (2011). Bringing out the best of everyone: A systematic approach to the workplace coaching and learning at the Kuopio University Library, Finland. ​Library Management,​ ​32(​ 8/9), 579–588. ​

The authors explain that due to Finland’s shift to more independent universities in recent decades, along with the changing digital environment, running academic libraries has become more like commercial management. They present a case study from their own library, where strategic management at the organizational level includes extensive documentation of standard ways of doing work; and self-directed teams carry out library services, planning and reporting their work on an annual basis. All staff self-evaluate and track their progress toward a set of core competencies defined by the Finnish University Libraries Network; a baseline for the library’s overall competence was set in 2007, and the aggregate progress helps identify staff recruitment and training needs. The authors only scratch the surface on challenges faced in implementation. This article contributes a model for a learning organization tied to national and organizational standards.

Senge, P. M. (2006). ​The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization.​ Currency.

The author outlines five components of building an organization that can continually enhance its capacity: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning. He calls these “disciplines” because they involve theory and technique that can be developed through practice. The learning organization approach goes beyond adaptation, also including generative learning that enhances the capacity to create. This is a core text about the learning organization, and is widely cited in higher education and other industries. It builds on W. Edwards Deming’s ideas about the transformation of management through Total Quality Management (TQM). Its focus on how corporations can sustain competitive advantage in some ways has limited applicability for academic libraries, though management can use this mindset to improve service quality, garner more resources within the university, and compete with external alternatives for patrons.

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