Forming The eLearning Organization With Peter Senge’s Five Learning Disciplines

The eLearning Organization
Summary: Peter Senge's publication of The Fifth Discipline defined workplace learning for decades, but modern technology requires us to reconsider how to apply its insights and lessons. This article provides examples of how to integrate the principles of the learning organization in an eLearning context.

Defining The eLearning Organization

First published in 1990, Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline was perhaps the first work to popularize the concept of a learning organization [8] in the lexicon of American business. These organizations possess a corporate culture that sustains continuous growth, performance improvement, and innovation. For this to occur, employee motivation, development, and organizational resources must be unified and directed toward realizing a common purpose.

5 Learning Disciplines To Form A Learning Organization

According to Senge, five distinct learning disciplines are necessary to cultivate an organization of this type [8]:

1. Mental Models

By our nature, humans rely heavily on mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to cope with the complexity of life. However, these generalizations rarely contain or anticipate all factors pertinent to a particular problem. As a result, organizations must encourage open dialogue between employees across the organization, where long-held assumptions can be scrutinized in a way that is productive and supportive, and that fosters a more seasoned view of the situation at hand.

2. Personal Mastery

Few business investments compare to the profound benefits that result from facilitating employee development. By implementing organizational policies and incentives that promote personal growth, employees become more emotionally and spiritually invested in the work they do, and with the organization itself.

3. Shared Vision

Employees perform at their best when they feel their work is making a positive impact on the world. The process of developing a shared vision is to align an employee’s personal aspirations and motivations with those of the organization.

4. Team Learning

Organizations are by definition made up of groups of people, combining their labor to accomplish a shared task. Consequently, learning must also occur within this collective context. To enable productive exchanges of knowledge and information within these groups, dialogue must be unrestricted and team members must engage regularly with one another to share their thoughts.

5. Systems Thinking

The titular fifth discipline, systems thinking compels us to afford allowances for all those elements that impact an organization’s performance. Often a significant change in one aspect of an organization will result in a ripple effect that permeates all other organizational structures. As a result, both positive and negative events within an organization can sustain lasting changes long after the initial event has passed. While not necessarily a discipline that requires specific implementation strategies, effective implementations concerning the aforementioned four disciplines requires that any change initiatives give due consideration to all contributing factors on the individual, team, and organizational level.

How The Learning Organization Became The eLearning Organization

In the three decades since its publication, Senge’s vision for the learning organization remains as relevant as ever. However, seismic shifts in the business environment compel us to reconsider how to effectively implement the learning organization in light of recent technological advances and what opportunities and challenges have surfaced as a result.

Certainly, the most impactful event since the start of the new millennia has been the widespread adoption of computer technology, fueled by the invention of the internet and early web browsers during the early 90s. In 1995, only 3% of Americans used the internet [7]. By 2021, that number had increased to 93% [6]. It was only inevitable then that computers and the internet would come to dominate many of the operational processes of today’s organizations as individuals continue to interact and work with one another more and more through the digital space, and organizations continue to adapt to this new way of being.

In the subsequent sections of this article, three strategies for developing a learning organization in light of the ubiquitousness of information technology will be considered, including how these technologies enable new opportunities to better train and empower employees in a way that enables the organization to successfully adapt and evolve within the constantly changing business environment.

Welcome to the eLearning Organization.

1. Training On-Demand

The most common implementation of eLearning in the workplace today involves the use of asynchronous training modules hosted within an organization’s Learning Management System. Normally, these courses are created within specialized software packages, such as Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline, and resemble a PowerPoint slide deck in functionality. Additionally, various forms of multimedia elements are often incorporated in this type of online training, such as videos, animations, graphics, and audio.

This form of eLearning works particularly well in situations where the training needs to scale to the size of the organization, without increasing the overall costs and complexity of the program, or in situations where a lack of physically available trainers or training space is a problem. Related to the learning organization, asynchronous training can be effective at facilitating both personal mastery and challenging preconceived mental models in a particularly cost-effective and easily adapted format.

Best practices for designing asynchronous eLearning modules involve splitting up the training into manageable sections [4] and presenting the information in an audiovisual format [5], while ensuring that redundancy is kept to a minimum to reduce confusion [3]. This modality can be either teacher or learner-centric in design depending on the purpose and motivation for the training provided, whether the training is supposed to resolve specific organizational needs, or for the professional development of employees.

2. Online Learning Communities

Another common form of eLearning used by various organizations is learning communities. Referred to as communities of practice in academic circles, these terms describe groups of learners that share a common set of practical needs, goals, and vision that they strive to achieve through collaboration and knowledge sharing.

The knowledge and skills gained from participating in these communities are often considered situational learning due to the contextual sensitivity of the knowledge generated, whereby an individual's interpretation, improvisation, and interaction between the relevant tools, environment, and other members all come to coalesce and form a distinct meaning and function in their mind [10]. Essentially, the resulting knowledge is constructed from personal experience, and no two individuals will come away from the same learning experience with identical outcomes, and thereby new and innovative ways of thinking come into existence.

Learning communities can serve other functions beyond merely the creation of knowledge. Indeed, they also serve the critical role of storing and disseminating knowledge throughout the organization. The increased information sharing that occurs in learning communities serves as a powerful additive force for driving increased responsiveness to environmental and operational changes, while also allowing for greater recognition of opportunities to innovate [2]. In addition, these efforts can reduce redundant work efforts being undertaken by what would otherwise be separated employees, while also decreasing the learning curve for new hires [2].

Implementing learning communities across cultural and geographic boundaries has become substantially easier in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the maturation of teleconferencing, file sharing, and various other online applications readily allowing for collaboration on a variety of operationally relevant projects. The requirements for cultivating virtual communities of practice remain largely the same as they exist for those taking place in person. First, the community must create a shared vision and identity around their work. Second, any activities performed by the community must catalyze the development of each member’s own practice and fuel their personal mastery. Finally, knowledge must be shared between members both new and old to ensure the relationship-building necessary to sustain group or team learning within the community is properly maintained [11].

3. Virtual Reality, Real Expertise

The last and most recent addition to the eLearning organization's toolkit comes from the burgeoning field of Virtual Reality. While technological advancement in the field has faced a bumpy ride of stop-and-start over the last few decades, the abundance and affordability of modern Virtual Reality headsets now place Virtual Reality within reach for many firms as a novel instructional strategy to solve training needs in a variety of organizational contexts.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of virtual training is the opportunity it provides for employees to learn and practice skills in a simulated environment that would otherwise be infeasible or dangerous to attempt in a real-world training scenario. Additionally, several headsets can be used simultaneously to enable virtual mentorship, community engagement, and training facilitation through online services, thus allowing employees to engage in meaningful team learning experiences independent of their physical location.

Another powerful tool within the virtual space is haptic training. Through specialized controllers, trainees can interact with and manipulate objects within the simulation, allowing for a more dynamic and responsive training experience. This is particularly relevant when employees need to learn sequential motor skills [1]. In this case, simulated practice can provide a more authentic training experience than mentorship or asynchronous training can provide sans training workshops using the actual equipment.

Virtual Reality fits within the eLearning organization as a tool for addressing poorly performing mental models, due to its ability to provide immediate feedback, vis-à-vis reflection-in-action [9] to the trainee, while also affording employees’ personal mastery of skills they may otherwise not be able to practice.


After having demonstrated three possible avenues for integrating eLearning with Peter Senge’s conception of the learning organization, I hope that you will come away from this article with an optimistic and forward-thinking perspective for the increasing tools available to deliver varied and impactful learning experiences, independent of factors that once limited our reach as Learning and Development professionals. As technology continues to advance at an alarming pace, I encourage you to keep the time-tested principles of performance improvement in mind and approach industry trends with a healthy dose of skepticism, while embracing opportunities to move the field forward toward achieving our shared goal of making organizations better places to work and grow through the limitless potential of human learning.


[1] Abate, A. F., Guida, M., Leoncini, P., Nappi, M., and Ricciardi, S. 2009. "A haptic-based approach to virtual training for aerospace industry." Journal of Visual Languages & Computing, 20(5), 318–325.

[2] Lesser, E. L., and Storck, J. 2001. "Communities of practice and organizational performance." IBM Systems Journal, 40(4), 831–841.

[3] Mayer, R. E., Heiser, J., and Lonn, S. 2001. "Cognitive constraints on multimedia learning: When presenting more material results in less understanding." Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 187–198.

[4] Mayer, R. E., and Moreno, R. 2003. "Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning." Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.

[5] Mayer, R. E., and Moreno, R. 1998. "A split-attention effect in multimedia learning: Evidence for dual processing systems in working memory." Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 312–320.

[6] Pew Research Center. 2021. Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet. The Pew Charitable Trusts.

[7] Pew Research Center. 1995. Americans Going Online…Explosive Growth, Uncertain Destinations. The Pew Charitable Trusts.

[8] Senge, P. M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

[9] Schön, D. A. 1984. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

[10] Wenger, E. 1999. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[11] Wenger, E., McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. 2002. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.