What makes a learning organisation? Part 1

Organisations, like people, are now required to engage in ongoing learning.

The Industrial Revolution, which started in the United Kingdom, mainly in textiles, steel, coal mining and machine industries, created factory or mining sites as the primary workplace. In fact, the factory became the symbol of manufacturing activities in the first Industrial Revolution. A learning organisation is an organisation skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and at modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights. Learning organisations discover what is effective by reframing their own experiences and learning from that process. They are selfaware organisations that constantly scan their environments. People are continually learning how to learn together in learning organisations. The stories of successful organisations show that success and effectiveness come from the ability of firms to scan the environment, to update their knowledge, and to learn from potential threats and opportunities.

In learning organisations, companies have to be examined from an historical perspective. In order to get a full view of a company as a learning organisation, one has to look into the different variables and join the relevant parts to view the company as a whole. Here, not only companies but their five major departments, namely, manufacturing, marketing, finance, R and D, and HR are also examined and ranked in order of their capabilities as learning organisations.

A learning organisation is one that seeks to create its own future, that assumes learning is an ongoing and creative process for its members and one that develops and adapts and transforms itself in response to internal and external changes. Senge (1990) defines learning organisations as organisations 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 to see the whole together. Senge’s understanding of learning organisations has been supported by Pedler (1991), who defines them as organisations that facilitate the learning of all their members and continuously transform themselves.

This cannot be brought about by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole and organisational level. A learning organisation also tests its assumptions and continually strives for improvements. Watkins and Marsick (1992) state that learning organisations are characterised by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted and collectively accountable change directed towards shared vision or principles.

Huber (1991) and Day (1994) still view the concept of the learning organisation in information processing terms. Campbell and Cairns (1994) define it as a company that
improves and transfers knowledge which enhances individual learning. David Garvin (1993) describes the techniques that companies have developed to master five key activities associated with learning thus indirectly defining the learning organisation. These five activities associated with learning organisations are: systematic problem solving, experimentation, learning from past experiences, learning from others and transferring knowledge. Several researchers in this field have raised the following issues regarding learning organisations:

Bi-modal world: By conceiving of “learning organisations” and advocating for their creation or development, theorists effectively bifurcate the world of organisations. When learning is used as an adjective to describe a particular type of organisation, one underlying assumption is that some organisations learn while others do not learn. Such a division suggests that learning is optional and not indigenous to the life of organisations.

Source of Learning: Why do some organisations learn and others do not? Learning, as a mechanism to foster organisational improvement, does not occur through chance or random action but through the development and use of specific skills. Without disciplined action or intervention from their leaders, organisations fail to learn due to the impact of the many forces that constrain learning.

Culture and Learning: For organisations to learn, they must have the right culture, a learning culture. Mayo and Rick (1993) claim that a learning organisation can be recognised by the interdependence of language and culture. In a similar vein, Beckhard and Pritchard (1992) discuss building a learning organisation by creating that which values learning and rewards progress, not just results.

Organisations as homogeneous, structured systems: Duncan and Weiss (1979) explain that learning occurs when organisations match their structure to their environments in order to maximise the understanding of members of action-outcome relationships. Purser and Pasmore (1992) claim that learning is dependent on the design of knowledge work. To maximise learning, the design of knowledge work must be formalised and aligned with the influence of decision-makers.

Learning style: An oftcited theoretical distinction in learning styles is Argyris and Schon’s familiar contrast (1978) between single loop learning and double loop learning. More recently, “tripleloop learning,” that is, learning about learning, has been identified as yet another learning style. Learning organisations promote double and triple-loop learning since these styles are considered more advanced.

Managerial focal point: Learning disabilities occur due to fundamental ways in which individuals have been trained to think and act (Argyris and Schon, 1974, 1978; Senge, 1990) and from organisational barriers to discuss and utilise solutions to organisational problems. Watkins and Marsick (1993) address three barriers to learning, namely, learned helplessness, truncated learning, and tunnel vision – with the latter paralleling Senge’s call for a systems perspective. To avoid or solve learning disabilities, organisational leadership must establish the normative conditions essential for learning to take place. The focus may be on enhancing competencies of individual members or teams, changing the organisational culture, or redesigning structures or systems. According to Calvert (1994), the learning organisation has the following characteristics. They:

• provide continuous learning opportunities;
• use learning to reach their goals;
• link individual performance with organisational performance;
• foster enquiry and dialogue;
• make it safe for their employees to share openly and take risks;
• embrace creative tension as a source of renewal; and
• are continuously aware of their environment and interact with it.

The concept of the learning organisation plays a pivotal role in contemporary management theory and practice. The learning organisation is a system perfectly suited to the unstable environment in an information society. Flexibility and innovation in this system are achieved by reversing the traditional top-down flow of information from managers to workers. The idea that an organisation could learn in ways that are independent of the individuals within it is the key breakthrough, which was first articulated by Cyert and March (1963). Before the idea of a learning organisation developed, the idea of organisational learning became popular because of the work of Cyert and March (1963). Both these ideas are interrelated.

Cyert and March (1963) propose a general theory of organisational learning as a part of models of decision making within the firm and emphasise the role of rules, procedures and routines in response to external shocks and which are more or less likely to be adopted according to whether or not they lead to positive consequence for the organisational learning. Cangelos and Dill (1965) produced the first publication in which the phrase “organisational learning” appeared in the title. This paper is based on tendentious data against the non-rationality underlying the Cyert and March model.

Cangelos and Dill (1965) proposed a model based on tensions between individual and organisational levels of learning, which is similar to the notion of organisational learning being a discontinuous process, and is reflected in the contemporary work. The book by Argyris and Schon (1978) was important, since it laid out the field as a whole clearly, and the distinction between organisations with and without the capacity to engage in significant learning received a great deal of attention. In it, the authors take a different critique of the rationalist assumptions of Cyert and March (1963) by pointing out that human behaviour within organisations frequently does not follow the lines of economic rationality. Both individuals and organisations seek to protect themselves from the unpleasant experience of learning by establishing “defensive routines.”

The idea of the learning organisation is of more recent origin. It emerged towards the end of the 1980s largely on the basis of European work, with UK authors such as Garatt (1988) and Pedler (1989) making early contributions. The paper by De Geus (1988), which was published in the Harvard Business Review (1980) brought the concept to wider attention.

Nevertheless, the major watershed was the book by Senge (1990), which attracted enormous interest, particularly because companies and consultants were searching for new ideas to replace the largely discredited concepts of corporate excellence. Senge’s book was both a foundational work and popular because it rapidly became a key source for academics as well as an inspiration for practitioners. Senge’s ideas were highly attractive because they provided the potential for renewal and growth, with an underpinning of both technical and social ideas drawn from the system dynamics developed by Jay Forrester at MIT, the psychodynamics organisational theory developed by Chris Argyris and the process consultation of Ed Schein.

In the United States, Chris Argyris may be one of the earliest scholars engaged with the study of learning organisations. Initially, the argument was merely around the question of whether there is such a thing as the “Learning Organisation”, “Do Organisations Learn?” “Can Organisations Learn?” Scholars know that individuals were not certain whether organisations, which possess no brain and no nerve system, learn. Argyris and Schon (1978) argue that although the social organisation does not have a physical brain as the human body does, it has a collective brain that is made possible by communicative exchanges between and among the brains of the individual organisational members. Argyris and Schon (1978) contend that one evidence of the existence of “organisational learning” comes from such daily statements as:

• “The management decides that …”;
• “The company made a serious mistake and should draw a lesson from it …”; and
• “The R and D department thinks that …”.

The establishment of the existence of “organisational learning” or the “learning organisation” helped to pave the long road along which Argyris and Schon pursued their of the “learning organisation.”

Dr Archan Mehta has a PhD in Management and is based in India. He has over 10 years of work experience in sectors like Media, Food Services, Hospitality, Education and Security. He is currently a Consultant.

This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of HR Future magazine.

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