While the visionary concepts of the learning organisation are inspiring, the reality is that implementation of such systems requires a massive change of attitude that is not always easy to achieve. Success rests in creating a high-trust organisation where knowledge is readily exchanged.
In practice, however, there are many barriers. After all, knowledge is seen as power and jealously guarded. Its possession and use can further ambitions. A culture of openness may be difficult to achieve, particularly in organisations where suspicion has been the norm. Thus, knowledge management has serious implications for communication structures, employee involvement schemes, reward systems and industrial relations. Some of the most common obstacles to becoming a learning organisation that should be avoided are:
• Operational or fire-fighting preoccupations, that is, not taking the time to sit back and think strategically;
• Too great a focus on systems and process – example: ISO 9000 – to the exclusion of other factors, that is, bureaucratic versus thinking;
• Reluctance to train (or invest in training), other than for obvious immediate needs;
• Too many hidden personal agendas or ulterior motives; and
• Too top-down driven, over-tight supervision (micromanagement), leading to lack of real empowerment.
The most significant problem resides at a quite fundamental conceptual level. Through conceiving of “the organisation” as in itself engaging in “learning,” as “having” an intelligence of its own, the organisation gets an existence in and of itself and its existence beyond the level of the individuals who are the units of its constitution. This is something which is quite different from proposing that the “whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
To clarify, while it is one thing to claim that one cannot properly understand a system if one does not conceive of it as a whole, and that organisational change cannot be reduced to isolated individual actions; it is another matter to claim that the organisation has an existence beyond the level of human beings. It is almost as if the organisation had a “life of its own.” However, such a formula is highly problematic. At a more pragmatic level, a major problem with the ideal of the “learning organisation” is that it demands that senior management within organisations have an almost boundless faith in the value of continuous development. Moreover, it gives the practitioner few tools with which to assess the extent to which investment in development has improved organisational competitiveness.
No perfect learning organisation
An example of a genuinely learning organisation is still hard to find. It appears there is no organisation yet that learns so well as to be able to receive the complete title of a learning organisation. An organisation that manifests learning is not necessarily a learning organisation. In fact, an organisation must have so much learning as to make learning an omnipresent trend in its organisational fabric in order to be worthy of the title of “learning organisation.” Thus, the functioning of a learning organisation depends on an integrated system rather than piecemeal practices.
Furthermore, a learning organisation requires, among many other things, a communicative system that is almost as elaborately developed as the nerve system of a living organism. Such a system enables an organisation to have an immediate, constant and accurate response to environmental changes, both internal and external. Even the best-run companies in the world cannot match up to this standard. Human organisations probably still need to evolve for a long time in order to be able to function as learning organisations. Today, most organisations are not learning organisations. However, many organisations show major features of a learning organisation through knowledge creation and sharing and rewarding their employees for it.
Some basic issues in learning organisations. These issues are still hotly discussed by scholars in the field. They are crucial to our understanding of a learning organisation. These six issues are:
1. Learning organisation and organisational learning: There is a relationship between the two, and both fields have profoundly influenced each other. It is contended that there cannot be a learning organisation without organisational learning, though its opposite may not necessarily be true.
2. Theories of Learning in learning organisations: We cannot understand learning organisations or organisational learning without understanding two basic theories of learning which are their underpinnings: individual learning theory and social learning theory.
3. Problem of knowledge sharing: There cannot be a learning organisation if its employees do not share tacit and explicit knowledge. However, there are several obstacles to knowledge sharing within organisations which are discussed.
4. Learning organisation and performance: There is no perfect learning organisation in the world. Therefore, there is no way to measure the performance of a non-existent entity. Of course, some positive relationship has been found between learning organisations – however imperfect they may be – and their performance, but studies have been far from conclusive. Some scholars deny that all types of learning result in positive performance.
5. Learning through acquisitions and alliances: An important source of learning for an organisation is through external linkages, especially with its joint ventures, alliances, acquisitions and subsidiaries. Several scholars have found them as important sources of learning, provided certain conditions such as mutual trust, mutualities of knowledgeseeking behaviour and reciprocal give and take are fulfilled. This issue is especially included because many respondent companies in my study have considered external linkages like alliances and acquisitions as important sources of learning. Following discussions on each of the five issues mentioned above will further clarify each of them.
6. Learning organisation and organisational learning: The first issue concerns the difference between learning organisations and organisational learning. Many times, however, these terms are used interchangeably. Some researchers argue that individuals are the only proper subjects of learning and that learning cannot be attributed to organisations. Thus, only individuals learn and organisations cannot learn. But the idea that an organisation could learn in ways which are independent of the individuals within it was the key breakthrough which was first articulated by Cyert and March (1963). Cyert and March proposed a general theory of organisational learning as a part of a model of decision-making and emphasised the role of rules, procedures and routines in response to external changes in the organisation’s environment. Their noteworthy idea is that it is through the organisational learning process that the organisation adapts to its environment and that the organisation learns through its experience. The book by Cyert and March (1963) could be described as the foundational work of organisational learning.
Organisations do learn
Organisational learning can be taken to mean learning by individuals and groups within organisations while, in learning organisations, employees learn through the organisation as a total system. By the organisation as a total system, there are systematic features to learning beyond the activities of a particular individual, who may come and go. However, organisational learning is not reduceable to individual learning. Organisations remember and learn, and the notion of learning is different from the additive sum of individual contributions.
Much as individuals learn in different ways, so too organisations. These differences are a function of the diverse environments in which organisations must operate. Learning differences between organisations also occur due to the result of differences in history, culture, size and age. For example, new entrepreneurial firms learn differently from large established firms. This created opportunities for firms like Apple in the 1970s and 1980s to take market share away from IBM. Even so, some researchers advocate that, if the term “Organisational Learning” means anything, it means learning on the part of individuals who happen to be functioning in an organisational setting.
In response to this criticism, Huber (1989) suggests that “an organisation has learned if any of its components have acquired information available for use, either by other components or by itself, on behalf of the organisation.” According to the above criticism, organisational learning is a process in which whole organisations or their components adapt to changing environments by generating and selectively adopting organisational routines. The theory of organisational learning takes account of the interplay between actions and interactions of individuals as well as actions and interactions of higher level organisational entities such as departments, divisions or groups of managers. Although the meaning of the term “learning” remains essentially the same as in the case of individuals, the learning process is fundamentally different at the organisational level. Chris Argyris in his book, On Organisational Learning (1996) argues that the key concept here is that of enquiry, the intertwining of thought and action carried out by individuals in interaction with one another and on behalf of the organisation to which they belong in ways that change the organisation’s theory of action and become embedded in organisational artifacts, such as maps, memories and programmes.
Indeed, it is possible for individuals to think and act on behalf of an organisation because organisations are collective entities in a fundamental sense of the term. Thus, it makes conceptual sense to say that individuals can act on behalf of an organisation. It also makes conceptual sense to say that individuals can undertake learning processes that can, in turn, yield learning outcomes as reflected in changes in an organisation’s theories of action and the artifacts that encode them. Anthony J. Disbella (2003) starts with the major presumption that learning is an essential process of all organisations. From this core, a set of related characteristics can be derived:
• All organisations learn: Rather than face a bi-model world consisting of organisations that learn and those that do not, it is presumed that all organisations learn. Hence the notion of learning organisations is as redundant as the notion of hot steam. Organisations do not have to be developed so they can learn; they already do.
• Sources of learning: learning occurs through the natural social interactions of people being and working together. Organisations as contexts for social interaction naturally induce learning. Learning occurs through the very nature of organisational life.
• Learning is rooted in culture: as cultures, all organisations have an embedded learning process. For example, all organisations socialise their new employees through the process of induction and orientation. However, for organisations to learn, they must have a learning culture, that is, a culture that values and rewards learning.
• Learning styles: organisations learn in different ways. There is no way to learn or better ways for organisations to learn. In fact, learning styles vary across an organisation which may have different learning styles in its different divisions, departments or sections.
• Managerial focal point: Managers need to understand how existing behaviour and routines generate learning in their organisations. Even so, it must be mentioned here that the concept of organisational learning includes both learning and action. In fact, the concept emphasises the interrelationships between cognition and behaviour, and it encompasses both cognitive and behavioural change. Individuals and groups learn by understanding and then by acting and then interpreting. Thus, organisational learning is the process of change in individuals and shared thought and action, which is affected by and embedded in the institutions of the organisation. When individual and group learning becomes institutionalised, organisational learning occurs and knowledge is embedded in non-human repositories, such as routines, systems, structures, cultures and strategy.
The learning organisation
The main point made here is that it is not possible to create a learning organisation without organisational learning. Learning organisations have become synonymous with long-term success and ability. It is asserted that the ability to learn faster than your competitor may be the only sustainable competitive advantage. As Peter Senge says in his book, The Fifth Discipline, a learning organisation is an organisation that is continually expanding its capacity to create the future. For such an organisation, it is not enough merely to survive. Survival learning or what is more often termed as “adaptive learning” is important – indeed, it is necessary. But for a learning organisation, “adaptive learning” must be joined by “generative learning,” that is, learning that enhances our capacity to learn.
In the learning organisation, motivation is recognised as being inherent in each and every person. With shared vision and commitment to that vision, people motivate themselves. Rather than being threatened to learn, it is assumed that individuals and the team will proactively set their own learning agendas. However, the learning organisation perceives itself as a living system. Thus, every part is connected to every other part. As in a living organism, there is enormous pressure to maintain homeostasis. But systems thinking allows the organisation to focus on systemic change rather than searching for one person or section who is to be blamed.
Types of learning in organisations
Perhaps the greatest challenge in creating a learning organisation is to see that the learning flows in every part of an organisation. Here, I want to mention different styles of learning for a member in an organisation and a learning organisation will find all these forms of learning of its employees.
• Spontaneous learning: Learning goes on all the time in greater or lesser degrees. Sometimes, the learning is spontaneous to the project or task at hand.
• Accidental learning: Accidental learning occurs as an unexpected outcome of a situation. In a complex situation, an employee learns from his interactions with others in unplanned situations.
• Passive learning: In accidental learning and spontaneous learning, the learner does not take a conscious decision to learn. The learning in this situation is not proactive. Rather, it happens unintentionally and is an outcome of an experience. This passive approach to learning is how most people say they learn. They say they are learning all the time. However, when awareness of learning is raised, people become more attuned to learning opportunities. They see what was always there but may have been overlooked.
• Planned learning: In contrast to accidental, spontaneous and passive learning, planned learning is conscious. It is a goal which is purposefully set. It can happen within or outside of an organisation. The critical variable is that learning is the desired result. One key to creating a learning organisation is to increase the emphasis on and commitment to planned learning rather than believing that it will happen on its own.
• Unlearning: Increasingly, the task of an employee is not to add what he/she knows or to learn something now but to unlearn what he/she knows. They say: “We have always done it this way.” This phrase reflects a desire to maintain the status quo. In unlearning, an employee has to unlearn what is obsolete and has to make room for something new.
• Transformational learning: The last type of learning is called paradigm shift or transformational learning. This is the most basic of all types of learning because it shifts an employee’s point of view at a functional level and causes a cascade of incremental learning and unlearning at the same time. In addition, Argote (1999) lists several tensions or trade- offs in the learning process, which defines a learning strategy for an organisation. These are the tensions between group and organisational learning, heterogeneity and standardization, learning by planning and learning by doing, and the tension between fast and slow learning. Resources have also to be allocated between gathering external knowledge and internal knowledge, and knowledge for more exploration and knowledge of immediate use.
Convergence of learning organisation and organisational learning
The majority of definitions of the learning organisation revolve around the management literature’s individualistic approach to exploit organisational learning. Garvin’s (1993) following definition likens organisational learning with a learning organisation in several respects. According to Garvin, a learning organisation is “an organisation skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and modifying its behaviours to reflect new knowledge and insights.” In reviewing the relevant literature it can be seen that many of the insights researchers have produced about “organisational learning” ought to translate into a better understanding of “learning organisations,” especially given the apparent intent to create a more macro conceptualisation of collective learning.
One of the original intents behind the conceptualisation of a “learning organisation” is to make learning more explicit and to bring it to a level of awareness so that learning in organisations and by organisations could be better studied and practised. An organisation cannot be a learning organisation without organisational knowledge, which is stored in its employees’ minds and in files and documents. Only learning organisations create and utilise this knowledge to adapt to changing circumstances.
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 April 2019 issue of HR Future magazine.