10 Dimensions of a Learning Organization (Schein)

10 Dimensions of a Learning Organization (Schein) - Toolshero

10 Dimensions of a Learning Organization: this article explains the 10 dimensions of a learning organization in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful change management tool.

What are the 10 dimensions of a learning organization (Schein)

The 10 dimensions of a learning organization were introduced in Edgar Schein’s book ‘The Learning Culture and the Learning Leader’. In this book he identifies 10 dimensions of a learning corporate culture. In other words, 10 tips to become a learning organization that prioritizes learning and development over production, stability, survival, comfort, etc.

Definition of leadership and learning organizations

There are many definitions of the word leadership. Some people confuse leadership with management.

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Peter Drucker defines the two concepts as follows: management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. John Kotter indicates in his book ‘What Leaders Really Do’ that management is about dealing with complexity, whereas leadership is about dealing with change.

According to Edgar Schein, the essence of leadership is the development and control of dynamic processes of culture. Leadership is the source of the beliefs behind the organization and is highly sought after by employees to reduce fear and uncertainty.

The requirements to facilitate change and enable learning are described in the following 10 dimensions.

1. Proactivity

Edgar Schein points out that proactive problem solving is a critical skill that helps employees and leaders develop a culture of learning. Instead of passively waiting for instructions on a problem, employees can actively try to solve the problem themselves. They learn the most during this process.

Learning through problem solving is at the heart of Lean-methods. Mike Orzen emphasized at the Lean IT Summit that the problem-solving system within an organization is one of the most important systems.

2. Commitment to learning for the sake of learning

Edgar Schein emphasizes that learning is done through feedback and reflection. Only when people actively receive constructive feedback and reflect on their input is it possible to ‘learn to learn’.

Learning to experiment and reflect

Success in organizations and in industry depends to a large extent on the ability of organizations, leaders and employees to learn. The challenge is the fact that the people behind successful organizations often think they are the best. In many cases this is not the case. Many professionals are almost always successful and experience few failures. According to Edgar Schein, lessons can be learned from failures. The ability to learn therefore stops when they need it most.

Effective leaders are indispensable. They lead the organization towards more learning and development. It is the task of leaders to enable experimentation and reflection on a large scale.

3. Positive assumptions about human nature

The dynamics of a learning organization are inconsistent with Douglas McGregor’s management theory, which states that employees are naturally lazy and unmotivated. This would mean that teams do not learn and therefore do not develop.

Instead, Edgar Schein argues that ‘learning leaders’ must be convinced that employees want to learn. However, they only want that if they are working in the right and safe context. In addition, Schein’s works call for the removal of heroic leaders. They must be replaced by learning leaders who themselves also depend on experts within the organizations.

The core of this dimension is that belief in people is crucial and that people can and will learn when given the resources and psychological freedom.

4. Believe the environment can be managed

Learning organizations and their leaders must believe that they can change the status quo, according to this principle of the 10 dimensions. Controlling the changing environment is crucial to transforming into a learning organization.

In his description of this fourth dimension, Edgar Schein indicates that fatalism and a culture of being do not survive in a rapidly changing, competitive environment.

5. Commitment to Truth through Pragmatism and Questions

Due to the competitive and changing environment, it will increasingly happen that no one has enough expertise to provide an answer to a given issue. That is why, according to Edgar Schein, it is important that learning organizations are flexible in how they learn things. This also means that they will sometimes have to choose between:

  • Scientific methods
  • Knowledge from experience
  • Clinical research processes (developed by Edgar Schein)

The latter in particular is indispensable, according to Schein. Helpers and clients work out things together, in this case organizations and their customers. Leaders need to come to terms with their own lack of knowledge and wisdom.

6. Positive orientation towards the future

“When the environment becomes turbulent, the assumption that the best orientation is to live toward the past or the present seems clearly dysfunctional.” Schein thus suggests that the best orientation is not toward the past, but somewhere between the distant future and the near future.

Embracing new technology and experimenting with new possibilities is an example of a practical elaboration of this dimension.

7. Commitment to Open and Full Communication

A learning culture should be based on the assumption that communication and information exchange are central to the organization. Ideally, therefore, a communication system should be implemented with multiple channels through which everyone can connect with each other. This dimension emphasizes the role and utility of social software in learning organizations. Edgar Schein emphasized that this openness should be limited to task-relevant information. This is to prevent interpersonal problems about, for example, hierarchy and culture.

8. Commitment to Cultural Diversity

In the 8th of the 10 dimensions, Edgar Schein describes that cultural diversity within an organization stimulates creativity and the way in which employees deal with unforeseen events. The task of learning leaders is therefore to ensure diversity within teams and good intercultural communication and understanding.

Involving subcultures in learning organizations

Here too, social software provides value. The simplicity with which everyone can communicate with each other is invaluable and offers the possibility and space for intercultural communication between different subcultures. These subcultures would otherwise hardly get a chance to connect with the right teams.

9. Commitment to Systems Thinking

According to Ray Kurzweil, the economy in the information age is no longer linear, but exponential. Schein’s view is in line with this claim. The learning leader knows that the world is rapidly changing and complex.

Systems thinking, or overcoming dependence on simple linear causal logic, will become increasingly important in a world that is intrinsically complex, “overdetermined” and interconnected, according to Edgar Schein. Overdetermined means that most events have multiple causes.

10. Believe that cultural analytics is an effective lens to understand and improve the world

In a learning culture, there is a belief that analyzing feedback and reflecting on one’s own corporate culture is a necessary part of learning and development. To make the learning permanent, managers and other leaders also need to look critically at themselves, at their own behavior and the ways in which they unintentionally contribute to problems. They should also adjust their own behavior accordingly. This takes courage.

This principle has already been fully adopted in the Lean methodology and Social Business.

Summary 10 dimensions of a learning organization

According to Edgar Schein, organizations only survive if they develop the ability to learn. A learning organization prioritizes learning over production or sales. For this reason, Schein wrote the book behind the 10 dimensions of learning organizations.

The first dimension describes the need for proactive problem solving, rather than passively waiting for someone else to tackle the problem. The second dimension states that there must be a commitment to learning for the sake of learning. This means that an active feedback and reflection system must be implemented within the organization.

The third dimension goes against the theory X of Douglas McGregor, and states that people in general are willing to learn, provided they consider themselves in a safe environment. The fourth dimension states that managers and leaders must have the conviction that the environment can be managed. Adequate management is therefore a requirement for the learning organization.

The fifth dimension prescribes a pragmatic approach. According to Schein, organizations have a choice of scientific methods, knowledge from experience and clinical research processes as described by Schein himself. The sixth dimension concerns the desired orientation of companies. Schein argues that the ideal orientation is towards a period between the distant and near future.

The seventh dimension is about the required commitment to simple and open communication. Multiple channels must be set up for all employees. In the eighth dimension, Schein describes that cultural diversity within an organization is a strength that should be used where possible.

The ninth dimension highlights the power of systems thinking in an age that is becoming increasingly complex and in a society that is more often based on models and data. In the explanation behind the tenth dimension, it is described that in a learning culture there must be the conviction to analyze and adapt one’s own company culture.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about the 10 dimensions of a learning organization? Do you recognize one or more dimensions in your own workplace? Do you think enough attention is paid to organizational learning and staff training? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Schein, E. H. (1991). What is culture. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 243-253.
  2. Schein, E. H. (1993). On dialogue, culture, and organizational learning. Organizational dynamics, 22(2), 40-52.
  3. Schein, E. H. (1996). Three cultures of management: The key to organizational learning. MIT Sloan Management Review, 38(1), 9-20.
  4. Schein, E. H. (1996). Organizational learning: What is new?.

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Janse, B. (2021). 10 Dimensions of a Learning Organization. Retrieved [insert date] from toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/change-management/10-dimensions-of-a-learning-organization-schein/

Published on: 05/10/2021 | Last update: 08/17/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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