The Future of Organizational Learning

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor and Professional Development Coordinator at The Ohio State University Libraries, Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring

I recently asked a colleague and friend in the library field, who’s had much experience in observing and consulting on organizational change processes, what is meant by the phrase that we often hear, “organizational learning.” She replied, it’s when an organization decides collectively to pivot together toward new ways of operating based on new understandings achieved together, shifts in mindset accomplished together, and new agreements enabling that new way of being together. I found this explanation compelling both for its succinctness and its depth. Organizational development and the well-known “learning organization” model of Peter Senge have become commonplaces in the business and management literature, and are staples of strategic planning-speak, but we have not always understood well enough what in libraries, real organizational learning entails. This concept also needs to be distinguished from the “learning organization” idea, because the latter may for some suggest an endpoint, a static place or arrival, rather than the idea of continuous learning conveyed by “organizational learning.” We need to reflect on what continuous learning means and develop the mental and emotional stamina to engage in it.

Our own leadership institutes, workshops, and other professional development events in our field address this issue of organizational learning only in part. The Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians, for example, has drawn on the work of Kegan and Lahey in helping individual leaders understand their own “big assumptions” and “immunity to change”  in advancing initiatives, and such frameworks are broadly congruent with the work of Heifetz in his well-known distinction been “adaptive learning” and “technical learning” in creating organizational change—that is, how organizations and those leading them must understand that adaptive change requires learning, working through ambiguous and messy processes, addressing values and complexities, rather than deciding quickly on what the “problem” is and devising a solution for it. Technical or more routine learning assumes clear-cut answers; adaptive learning assumes no easy answers and uses uncertainties and opportunities as opportunities for learning. With the Heifetz model, however, it is still the mindset of individual leaders in making this shift that matters. The role of the leader in making that shift is crucial, but the model needs further elaboration in developing collective leadership in order to enable organizational learning in a deeper way.

In reflecting on the organizational complexities of academic libraries in recent years, I have tapped into other thinkers to consider organizational learning in a broader way. We have too often become self-referential and inward-looking in reflecting on what organizational learning requires, and the leadership necessary to catalyze it, or have assumed that there is always a “fix”—a technical solution—for deep cultural barriers to change.

One of the foundational thinkers I’ve become familiar with in the field of organizational development is Henry Mintzberg of McGill University, well-known scholar, speaker, writer, and often contrarian on issues of strategic planning and organizational learning. While his investigations have most often occurred in corporations and nonprofits, they resonate for higher education and libraries as well. His views on the fallacies and weaknesses of traditionally rigid strategic planning are well-known. Less well-known is his view of leadership qualities and how organizational leaders enable, or fail to enable, organizational learning. Mintzberg asserts, based on his career of consulting in organizations, conducting research on their behavioral patterns, and getting a grounded view of organizational realities, that organizational learning develops only through building communities within them, not through imposing hierarchical structures.  He saw emergent strategies—those developed through improvisation and reacting to events and responding creatively, such as the IKEA corporation did with its disassembled furniture—as just as important, if not more so, than carefully detailed and crafted strategic plans, because in the emergent world of creative responses and reimaginings, collective learning happens. He coined a new term, “communityship”, to replace the too-often used “leadership”, to convey the idea that creating communities within organizations, and fostering learning through them, helped organizations forge new futures for themselves. Leaders in his view are designers and agents for promoting learning through, and across, organizations, and should be capable of rethinking much on their own, as co-learners with front-line members.

Mintzberg’s ideas, even if sometimes controversial, find fresh evidence in the work of a very well-regarded management consultant, Adam Grant, who writes on management and leadership for a wide audience in the New York Times, and who has published a new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. If I fast-forward from reviewing the body of Mintzberg’s scholarship on organizational change to the present, I find the through line of his iconoclasm about organizational leadership and leadership most clearly in the ideas of Think Again. Its most succinct message for leaders and organizational learning is: be prepared to challenge assumptions, your own cognitive biases, your conventional views, and do it intentionally, in order to continue learning as a professional in any field. Grant suggests that each individual apply a kind of scientific method—thinking like a scientist—to test data and evidence, to form hypotheses, to change practices and routines based on ongoing rethinking and challenging of oneself, and one’s colleagues. The rethinking on a continuous basis enables continuous organizational learning when done in concert with colleagues.

However, such organizational learning occurs only in high-trust environments, according to Grant, who in turn draws on the research of Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School.   Edmondson’s extensive research studies of organizations and their productivity identifies the one crucial feature for their success: the ability of staff at all levels to engage in what she calls fearless conversations. In her book The Fearless Organization, the key element is psychological safety, a condition where ideas can be freely expressed without fear, even if those ideas are controversial, risky, or uncertain. In such organizations where psychological safety is paramount, innovation is more likely because learning itself is more likely. Mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, rather than as blunders to be called out for opprobrium or punishment. Edmondson’s deep research offers organizational leaders at all levels perspectives on creating safe environments where learning happens at an organizational level. Among the essential abilities for leaders in her scheme are setting the stage for psychological safety; inviting participation by asking good questions; setting up welcoming structures and processes for participation; and responding productively to all ideas offered, while also destigmatizing failure. The goal is to encourage continuous learning, collectively, in a place where all feel safe to speak freely and to learn from others. Edmondson identifies “situational humility” as a key attribute for leaders to foster in promoting organizational learning, an attribute similar to the “confident humility” that Adam Grant identifies as crucial for rethinking and relearning in any organization.

With Mintzberg identifying community leadership and community formation in organizations as essential for innovation, over twenty years ago,  and with Grant and Edmondson identifying relearning and psychological safety as essential for learning to occur in teams or organizations,  I see a long trajectory of organizational and management theorists calling for less status and hierarchy, more trust, more willingness to engage in real dialogue rather than conversations that don’t produce collective learning,  and an acquired trait among more organization members to challenge assumptions and  practices, and to become “internal consultants” who offer evidence in doing so. In effect, these habits of organizational learning require a suite of group metacognitive practices: of challenging status quo thinking and norms, of group self-reflection; and of pivoting toward new priorities and goals based on rethinking and learning together.

Another recent entrant into the “rethinking” mode is Julia Galef, whose regular podcasts and just-published book, The Scout Mindset, reinforce the idea of challenging one’s own assumptions for individual learning, usually on difficult scientific and social issues, through open-mindedness and curiosity. Galef’s emphasis on rational evidence-based approaches to any issue continues the line of inquiry about individual rethinking becoming a prerequisite for organizational learning, and the willingness to think unconventionally, even in spite of risks, means potential sparks of collective learning as well. In effect, Galef shows how we all are prone to cognitive errors, primarily that of motivated reasoning; the consequences of biased decisions or cognitive errors on an individual level are greatly consequential when proliferated throughout organizations.

Another management theorist, John Maxwell, identified a core paradox about expertise that often undermines learning, whether individual or collective: he noted without the rethinking championed by Grant and Galef, that the “greatest enemy of learning is knowing.”* Extending Maxwell’s and Galef’s ideas about rethinking, overcoming motivated reasoning, and learning to demystify the problem of expertise in our sphere of library practice suggests that real organizational learning requires moving beyond siloed expertise and functional knowledge into a metacognitive awareness of strengths and challenges, a fearless willingness to challenge pieties and assumptions, and the growth of an organizational learning mindset on everyone’s part, separate from hierarchy, privilege, or access to special information. Everyone is assumed to be a learner who contributes to or is capable of contributing to a grounded strategic vision that creates the multiplier effect of collective learning for all. That collective learning can be further strengthened by strategic partnerships across our campuses to create a network of influential relationships that amplify learning at scale.

These writers, theories, and leadership consultants from beyond libraries should challenge all of us within academic libraries to reinvent our organizational learning processes, beyond our own individual and staff training programs. I would also place the new organizational learning imperative for libraries against the broader higher education backdrop, because the current pandemic and the opportunities for reflection afforded by it, and the renewed calls for commitment to higher education in an uncertain time, have large implications (and consequences) for libraries and library staff. One thinker who speaks eloquently of an essential shift in mindset for college and universities is Kathleen Fitzpatrick, digital humanities scholar at Michigan State University.  Her 2019 (and pre-pandemic) book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, addresses one issue, that of the state of the arts and humanities in higher education, as part of complicated set of issues facing large public research universities themselves, and by extension, much of higher education. The lack of understanding of research and teaching agendas among the broader public continues to plague colleges and universities, and institutions themselves have been on such a prestige arms race for so many years, that real understanding of the many agendas and commitments within institutions themselves clouds the broader message to the public. Fitzpatrick calls for a renewed commitment to building community within institutions, finding new ways to assess and reward what is valued, and creating new forms of community engagement for scholars and researchers. For Fitzpatrick, organizational learning at scale only occurs through building community, through listening to a wide range of diverse voices, and through giving up some of the focus on prestige and status in order to make community possible, and the core mission of the institution more visible.  This larger backdrop for libraries speaks to moving even more into an organizational learning mode rather than a conventional resource acquisition mode, and building capacity through partnerships with other stakeholders on campus—partnerships which will in turn amplify organizational learning across boundaries.

To sum up my investigations into organization learning that builds on individual professional learning, I think libraries and librarians are well-positioned to advance to another level of organizational learning through projects and initiatives afforded by consortia, major professional associations, and by numerous professional development opportunities in higher education.   However, for real pivots toward transformed organizational practices to occur, the perspectives of some unconventional thinkers discussed here suggest a need for community formation, fearless conversations, real dialogue, more “confident humility,” and more curiosity about evidence in order to rethink on a continuous basis. I also believe that opportunities for partnerships with other campus stakeholders for forming larger communities—for example, at Ohio State, the Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning, the Office of Research, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Student Academic Success—need to be amplified, and the learning gains from them shared in a more intentional, integrated way, in order to create more pathways for all of us to learn and grow together. By engaging in the “generous thinking” of which Fitzpatrick writes, we can amplify that learning together and become a real community.





Edmondson, Amy. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.   Hoboken NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2019.

[For the Fearless Organization scan, available free, go to this link and register, to learn about your own assessment of yourself in psychological safety]

Test your psychological safety straight away – Fearless Organization Homepage


Fitzpatrick, Kathleen.  Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2019.

Galef, Julia.   The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Grant, Adam.  Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.   New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Heifetz, Ronald. et. al.   The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.   Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.   Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Mintzberg, Henry.  “Communityship Beyond Leadership.”  Blog post, November 18, 2018.

Communityship beyond Leadership | Henry Mintzberg

*Maxwell, John.  Beyond Talent: Become Someone Who Gets Extraordinary Results.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011, pp. 184.

Reconsidering Professional Learning

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor and Professional Development Coordinator at The Ohio State University Libraries, Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring


“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future, while the learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer


In the midst of the myriad of specialized seminars, webcasts, webinars, short courses, institutes, and other venues and formats for advanced, continual learning, it is, almost certainly, an unusual circumstance to write about professional learning as a separate topic. The overwhelming abundance—especially in this pandemic-inflected and teleworking year—of face-to-face events—conferences, workshops, and institutes—have converted to virtual formats and occasionally gained traction with their intended audiences. Despite the shift to online or hybrid formats, the hyper specialization within our library profession continues: the opportunities advertised on listservs, websites, twitter feeds, and in organizational forums abound for continued learning in archival work, intellectual access and description, data visualization, geospatial projects, digital scholarship projects, information literacy and virtual instruction, and reference and research support. Leadership training offers appear regularly as well, in addition to engagements of various types on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. The offerings are legion.

How to engage in sense-making as professionals, among this welter of opportunities? Do we construct tracks or thematic threads among these opportunities? How do we make the best choices among them? Can we learn from them in an ideal way that benefits ourselves, and also our organization? Do these professional development opportunities create real value, or are they just “check boxes” to note on an annual report or a resume? Can they be organized collectively to augment organizational learning? These are questions many are reflecting on across higher education, as we ponder our current pandemic work lives, and consider possibilities for returning to whatever “normal” looks like in the future.

These questions are compelling ones, but I am stepping back from them here to offer a broader view of professional learning in our organization, and more generally, in the library profession. I take for inspiration some readings of several key texts outside the library field altogether, because I have found our own LIS literature offers only rare examples of what we need to think about collectively about this ever-more-important topic. In doing so, I relate this particular topic of “professional learning” to the separate but related one of “organizational learning.” I also relate here some highlights from conversations with colleagues, who have informed my own thinking in this arena.

At the outset, I want to point out an important distinction between “professional development” and “professional learning.” For many years, the former term was used, to convey a continuing focus on gaining competencies, knowledge, skills, and awareness of new trends, technologies, and areas of practice, through a series of discrete “updates”: one-off events designed to offer the professional continuing education credits (CEUs), certifications, or other external signs of completion of a particular series of events signifying new knowledge or skills gained. This “professional development” model is familiar across all professions, and certainly in the library field we’ve used the term frequently and have sought to incentivize colleagues to participate in it. However, over time, a newer term “professional learning” has begun to supplant the previous one. The reasons are complex, but underpinning it are theories of adult learning and ideas about professional growth spanning a career, through developing the self individually but also in community with others. The shift from “development” to “learning” also suggests a change from a deficit model—where the individual lacks expertise or is deficient in some way—to an empowerment model—where the individual brings pre-existing knowledge to a new learning opportunity and engages in more complex learning and self-development with others. Learning in community and building shared knowledge together is now the new aspiration. Cohorts, learning communities, reading circles, communities of practice, and other learning-focused groups honor the expertise and knowledge of each group member amplifying that expertise and knowledge communally, building new understandings and opening up new questions for the group to investigate together.

The shift from “professional development” to “professional learning” is more than a semantic one: it signifies the important principle of “self-authorship,” drawn from adult learning theory (Kegan & Lahey; Baxter-Magolda). Individual professionals create their own meanings and are responsible for their own identity formation over time, whether working with a mentor, with colleagues in a cohort, through attending formal training, or through multiple work-placed based conversations and informal learning opportunities as part of their daily practice. It is the learning, and continuous learning that matters, not the externally mandated “development” requirement for CEUs, certifications, or other formal requirements. Professionals control their own destiny, not through pure autonomy, but through their own choices over time that inform their practice and their professional growth with others. They reconstruct their mental universes in concert with colleagues and continue to ask questions about what they don’t know and need to learn to become better in their professional lives.

In our library field, we are very adept at providing multiple learning opportunities through conferences, webinars, institutes, and workshops, but we don’t provide often enough those opportunities for self-reflection and a visioning of self-authoring according to the theory of Kegan and Lahey. However, we also do not amplify grassroots knowledge and practice sufficiently (though the recently developed Library Collective conference is an exception), and we don’t provide enough interdisciplinary professional learning opportunities. Too often, we remain locked within functional silos that impede real learning across our organizations and across our profession. We need to take note of other models developed by Student Life organizations (like communities of practice focused on a particular aspect of student life) and by Centers for Teaching and Learning where professional learning communities—sometimes called faculty learning communities—are a well-known venue for faculty learning and interdisciplinary conversations about teaching improvement.

Ann Webster-Wright investigated professional learning across professions in depth and found that the most effective professional learning is not accomplished through externally imposed “add on” events or through didactic workshops or lectures. Instead, based on interviews with professionals in a variety of fields, she found that authentic professional learning occurs through both informal and formal learning opportunities, and is situated, contextual, social, and sustained over time. Real professional learning occurs through a seamless blend of conversation, questioning, training, mentorship, reading, listening within the context of the work environment, though formal training opportunities may augment those ongoing learning opportunities that are “moment to moment” and ongoing. Webster-Wright’s investigations suggest that asking about the lived experiences of professionals—what works best for them, where have they learned most deeply in the past—should inform ongoing plans for professional learning. Such an approach calls for commitment around genuinely engaging learning where individuals or cohorts themselves are empowered to investigate and learn together—as opposed to compliance mandates for training.

Webster-Wright provides several approaches to professional learning focused on authentic learning. She suggests that one specific method for professional learning is “action research,” which amplifies both individual and collective learning, and involves a kind of practical investigation into one’s practice, one’s work, based on a gap, a hypothesis, some informal data collection, an inquiry into an improvement process, or a change in practice. She places this kind of activity within a larger array of “professional practice knowledge.” This is a repertoire of personal traits, ethical codes, technical skills, situational and propositional knowledge, and professional judgment that develops within the context of professional growth. Beyond the individual, “professional knowledge landscapes” convey the organic complexity of the fields of activity that can be integrative based on interests of individuals that also amplify strategic goals of the organization. Such profession-wide landscapes are important for managers and leaders to ponder, to understand, and to cultivate for the greater good.

What are the implications for this perspective on professional learning (as individuals) for organizational learning? How can the “professional knowledge landscapes” described in Webster-Wright’s research be turned into specific programs for organizational learning? The second part of this post (forthcoming in May) will present some options for change based on other scholarship and thinking beyond libraries, and further afield from higher education itself.



Baxter Magolda, M. B.. Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2001.

Baxter Magolda, M.B.  Authoring your life: Developing an internal voice to navigate life’s challenges. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.   An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization.   Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2016.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.  Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.   Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2009.

Webster-Wright, Ann.   “Reframing Professional Development Through

Understanding Authentic Professional Learning,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 79, no. 2 (June 2009), pp. 702-739.  DOI: 10.3102/0034654308330970