Learning Organizations and Systems Thinking

For organizations to grow and sustain themselves, it is essential that they take a learning stance. What is a “learning stance,” you ask? Well, learning organizations: encourage new ways of thinking and doing business, focus on employee learning, and build the organizational capacity. These companies focus on learning about the organizational systems within a business, such as interconnected actions and patterns of behavior. However, only understanding the systems themselves are not enough. Systems thinking requires the creation of a shared vision within and between teams, because teams are the core learning units in organizations. Leaders cannot lead and learn without a deep understanding of these systems and the interconnectedness of them.

Therefore, it’s important to understand the concept of systems, as people are influenced by their environment. Open systems have a continuous outflow and inflow and maintain a steady state (not to be confused with a state of equilibrium) as long as the system is alive. Closed systems only interact with themselves; there is no outside influence and all information is only shared within the system. An example of a closed system in an organization is intranet; this system is only accessible to employees and the information is not shared outside of the intranet system. An example of an open system is an HR department, which is constantly influenced by governmental policies, organizational changes, personal issues, and internal ideas and suggestions. Another example of an open system is the medical laboratory, where samples are moved between multiple people and specialties within a system. A chemistry analyzer that tests cholesterol levels might be a closed system in and of itself, but in order for it to be effective (namely, diagnosing a patient) it needs to be open because a phlebotomist collects the specimen, a laboratory professional inspects the specimen and releases the results to the clinician, who then communicates the results to the patient, who then makes adjustments to their diet (which creates a whole additional open system). It is clear from this example how intricate open systems are and how they are all connected to other aspects and possibly other systems.

In order to create an effective organizational culture, leaders need to see people and events as systems. There are twelve key systems, namely: role description, selection to role, task review, performance planning and review, performance evaluation, salary admin, career assessment, career development, succession planning, discipline, and fair treatment. When implementing a new process, structure, or project it is important to consider the impact on all these systems to check if you need to take them into account. A change in one of these key systems can have a tremendous impact. For example, having the wrong job title can not only be demotivating it can also be detrimental to productivity and outside communication.

It is also important to note that small changes in systems can become catastrophic, especially over a longer period of time. Errors and conflicts that seem inconsequential can indeed be the reason why companies fail. Such critical points often become clear in hindsight, because the impact of these points was overlooked. However, using a systems thinking approach can bring these critical points to the surface before the results are catastrophic. Systems thinking allows organizations to locate these seemingly random events, because it focuses on the underlying structures and actions that create the conditions for certain events. These events have impacts in the long-term and it allows leaders to understand and prepare for them before their negative impact occurs.



-Lotte Mulder earned her Master’s of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2013, where she focused on Leadership and Group Development. She’s currently working toward a PhD in Organizational Leadership. At ASCP, Lotte designs and facilitates the ASCP Leadership Institute, an online leadership certificate program. She has also built ASCP’s first patient ambassador program, called Patient Champions, which leverages patient stories as they relate to the value of the lab.