Becoming a Learning Organization

In his 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization,” Peter Senge, PhD, a systems scientist and lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, describes a “learning organization” as a place “where people continually expand their capacity to create  the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

I was recently reminded of this notion during one of the most thought-provoking days of the year here on campus: our annual Lewis Landsberg Research Day, during which students, staff, faculty and trainees share the fruits of their labor throughout our research enterprise. Implicit in every poster on display is the goal of creating new knowledge, and using that knowledge to grow and develop — not just in individual careers, but within departments and centers, the institution overall, and across a variety of investigative interests. Aptly, one of the recent additions to Research Day is a special category and award for medical education research, which highlights evaluations of new approaches to educating the next generation of medical students — right in line with the notion of championing a learning organization.

Eric G. Neilson, MD
Vice President for Medical Affairs
Lewis Landsberg Dean

Our new curriculum, now entering its sixth year, is similarly rooted in research and iteration. We set ourselves apart from many medical schools by employing simulation-based Mastery Learning because our research shows that this approach improves providers’ skills and patient care, while reducing patient complications and healthcare costs. In fact, simulation-based curricula developed at Northwestern Simulation for both adult and pediatric surgery have been disseminated throughout Chicago and the United States. Additionally, we offer students hands-on programs such as the Area of Scholarly Concentration (introducing students to scholarly research) and Education-Centered Medical Home (a unique longitudinal clinical experience).

What’s most noticeable, however, is that no one at Northwestern Medicine seems to be standing still. Our faculty, trainees and medical students are all about creating new ideas. The lessons learned from these projects eventually feed back into our curriculum and the delivery of patient care, and help us engage in a process of continuous improvement and transformation — a mindset we believe will ultimately lead to improved health outcomes.

We engage in a process of continuous improvement and transformation — a mindset we believe will ultimately lead to improved health outcomes.

In this issue of Northwestern Medicine, one story in particular speaks directly to the importance of building upon earlier research. In the late 1990s, Jaime García-Añoveros, PhD, professor of Anesthesiology, Neurology and Physiology, and Anne Duggan, PhD, were doctoral candidates studying nerve cells in worms. Some 20 years later, the findings from that research led to new discoveries regarding the role of INSM1 in outer hair cell development in the ear, published in Nature in late 2018, providing new hope for the elusive goal of restoring hearing for the more than 36 million Americans suffering from varying degrees of deafness.

This fascinating journey is explained in detail here. It reminds me of something that’s at the heart of what we believe at Feinberg: What you discover today — even if you set it aside to address other pursuits for a while — may fuel future understanding and accomplishment.

As Peter Senge writes in his book, a true learning organization continually searches for a better way. This shared spirit is on display every year at Research Day — and every day across our institution.

Eric G. Neilson, MD
Vice President for Medical Affairs
Lewis Landsberg Dean