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Learning Organizations Essay

In the 1990, Peter Senge published a book called The Fifth Discipline that created a flurry of change within management thinking, or at least that is what people say has happened as they avidly quote him. In the September/October 1999 issue of the Journal of Business Strategy, he was named a “Strategist of the Century”; one of 24 men and women who have “had the greatest impact on the way we conduct business today. ” (Smith 2001) In recent book reviews on amazon.

com he is still lauded and his work touches the international business community as evidenced by reviews from UAE and India: (The emphasis within the reviews has been added by the author) Amazon. com Peter Senge, founder of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, experienced an epiphany while meditating one morning back in the fall of 1987. That was the day he first saw the possibilities of a “learning organization” that used “systems thinking” as the primary tenet of a revolutionary management philosophy.

He advanced the concept into this primer, originally released in 1990, written for those interested in integrating his philosophy into their corporate culture. The Fifth Discipline has turned many readers into true believers; it remains the ideal introduction to Senge’s carefully integrated corporate framework, which is structured around “personal mastery,” “mental models,” “shared vision,” and “team learning.

” Using ideas that originate in fields from science to spirituality, Senge explains why the learning organization matters, provides an unvanished summary of his management principals, offers some basic tools for practicing it, and shows what it’s like to operate under this system.

The book’s concepts remain stimulating and relevant as ever. –Howard Rothman [pic]The Book that began a fad, January 26, 2003 | |Reviewer: ggxl from Bangalore, India |This book was written quite a long time ago (in 1990) and shifted the boundaries of management from concentrating on silos (marketing, HR, finance, production) to looking at organizations as open systems which interact with outside systems and put into motion forces that may not be easily understood using traditional systems to assessment. This ability of Systems Thinking Senge called the “Fifth Discipline”, the other four being: 1) Building Shared Vision 2) Mental models 3) Team Learning 4) Personal Mastery The field of Systems Thinking was developed in MIT under Prof Jay W.

Forrester, but Senge gave it the ‘managerial’ flavour, cross-fertilising [sic] it with folk beliefs, spirituality and scientific thought from around the world. The belief being, once an organization has mastery of all the five disciplines, the organization can become ‘a learning organization’. This book, therefore triggered the craze and fad on part of organizations to become ‘learning organizations’ and the rise of the ‘knowledge economy’ was perfect timing for it. Now when the hoopla has settled, it is time again to revisit the true essence of Senge’s work and what he REALLY means.

[pic]An inspiration… , February 7, 2002 | |Reviewer: la-layl from Dubai, UAE | The Learning Organization remains one of the most talked-of management concepts in today’s business world, and nobody is as capable of explaining exactly what is a Learning Organization or what are the requirements for such an elusive concept than Peter Senge. Senge’s five disciplines are common concepts in many corporate offices. Often quoted in the management literature, he is considered by many to be the founder of the concept of the learning organization.

Thirteen years later, the buzz has died down, and while Senge is still quoted, have the principles of the learning organization been implemented? Are organizations learning? A search of the term “learning organization” produces 133,000 hits on google. com, so people still embrace the concepts. This paper will endeavor to examine the literature on the learning organization in an attempt to define it and review some of the theories about it. It will also provide examples of the attempt to experiment with the concepts of the learning organization in two organizations.

The first, an education department of a church undergoing transformation and the second, the training department of a large managed healthcare network provider. What does it take to become a learning organization? Are organizations by nature, learning entities? This paper is an attempt to answer these questions. Defining the Learning Organization Learning organization, organizational learning, organizational development, knowledge management… these are key terms to differentiate at the beginning of the journey of this discovery process.

These are my definitions: Organizational development is a defined methodology of looking at an organization from a holistic perspective with the intention of improving it. Organizational learning is what happens as an organization matures and improves; in essence, recognizing and changing the widget-making/serving process it is involved with to build a better widget maker/server. The learning organization is an organization that takes a step back to look at the big picture of how it benefits from new ideas and errors with the intention of continuous improvement.

It is a deliberate process, and one component of organizational development. Knowledge management is the storage and retrieval of the tacit and implicit information contained within an organization, whether it is procedural or content oriented. Knowledge management makes information that is within individuals available and externalizes it for the availability of the organization. Others define these differently and have written much about them. In the research literature, there does not appear to be a common, well accepted definition of these terms, though they are used frequently. The next section will explore the theories and definitions of others.

From the Experts Peter Senge In the opening (page 3) of Senge’s flagship book, The Fifth Discipline, he defines the learning organization as “…organizations 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 1990) As mentioned earlier, he defines the core of learning organization work based on five “learning disciplines”. To expand on them, in Senge’s words they are Personal Mastery

Learning to expand our personal capacity to create the results we most desire, and creating an organizational environment which encourages all its members to develop themselves toward the goals and purposes they choose. Mental Models Reflecting upon, continually clarifying, and improving our internal pictures of the world, and seeing how they shape our actions and decisions. Shared Vision Building a sense of commitment in a group, by developing shared images of the future we seek to create, and the principles and guiding practices by which we hope to get there.

Team Learning Transforming conversational and collective thinking skills, so that groups of people can reliably develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of individual members’ talents. Systems Thinking A way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and the interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems. This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic world. (Senge, Roberts et al. 1994)

Senge believes that “the learning organization exists primarily as a vision in our collective experience and imagination. ” ( p5, 1994) He also believes that the impact of practices, principles and essences are highly influential. Practices are “what you do”. Principles are “guiding ideas and insights,” and essence is “the state of being those with high levels of mastery in the discipline. ” (Senge, 1990, p 373) He looks at leaders as teachers, stewards and designers—quite a different metaphor than the traditional business practices of the time.

It is the leaders who must pave the way to the creation of the learning organization, and they must also model the process. The authors of the companion work The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (1994) see the learning organization as something that develops within a team, and is part of a “deep learning cycle” where team members develop new skills and abilities, which in turn create new awareness and sensibilities, which it turn creates new attitudes and beliefs. These new attitudes are the things that can change the deep beliefs and assumptions inherent in an organization and product transformation.

Within the learning organization a sense of trust and safety are established and the members are willing to reveal uncertainties and make and acknowledge mistakes. This cycle provides a “domain of enduring change” within the organization. The architecture of a learning organization is considered a “domain of action” and consists of guiding ideas, innovations in infrastructure, and theory, methods and tools. The guiding ideas include the vision, values and purpose of the organization. They have philosophical depth and are seen as ongoing.

They include the philosophy of the whole, the community nature of the self and the generative power of language. The development of tools and methods test these theories and cause them to be shaped and refined, and bring about the cyclical nature of this domain of action. These changes create infrastructure innovations and “enable people to develop capabilities like systems thinking and collaborative inquiry within the context of their jobs. ” (1994, p34) Senge’s philosophy has been graphically illustrated using the domain of enduring change as a circle and the domain of action as a triangle (Figure 1).

It is the interaction between the two that creates the dynamic of the learning organization. [pic] Figure 1 Adapted from Senge, et al, 1994, p42 It is difficult to assess the results in this type of a system because “deeper learning often does not produce tangible evidence for considerable time. ” (p. 45) The core concepts contained in this model are: “At its essence, every organization is a product of how its members think and interact…Learning in organizations means the continuous testing of experience, and the transformation of that experience into knowledge—accessible to the whole organization, and relevant to its core purpose.

” (p 48-49) The creation of this type of learning organization comes from establishing a group that learns new ways to work together: discussing priorities, working through divergent thinking, clarification, then convergent thinking to come to conclusions and implementation of the solution. The learning organization discovers how to best work with individual styles, allowing for reflection and other individual needs. It becomes a safe place to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the results.

The learning organization also works through the five disciplines of 1) building shared vision, 2) creating mental models 3) reinforcing team learning, 4) developing personal mastery and 5) understanding systems thinking. Much of what occurs is the creation of shared vocabulary to produce common understandings. Learning about systems thinking concepts of links, reinforcing and balancing loops helps to define problem issues. Following the publication of The Fifth Discipline, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Senge, Roberts et al. 1994) and The Dance of Change (Senge, Kleiner et al.

1999) were released with exercises to assist in the organizational development process and support the changes it created. Both contain resources helpful in the implementation process. To summarize, Senge’s model is based on the interaction and the learning that goes on between individuals in an organization. It is an intangible process, but one that can be enhanced by taking certain measures to foster development. Peter Kline Peter Kline’s work on learning organizations, Ten Steps to a Learning Organization (Kline and Saunders 1998) focuses primarily on cultural change.

He believes “to have a Learning Organization, you must begin by having an organization of learners, then show them how to function in such a way that the organization as a whole can learn. ” (p8) He differentiates how individuals learn versus how organizations learn: The most obvious difference between the way organization and individuals learn is that individuals have memories, which are essential to learning, while organizations don’t…The main difference between a learning individual and a Learning Organization is in the information storage process.

Individuals store their learning primarily in their memories, augmented by libraries, notes and other aids to memory. Organizations store it primarily in their cultures, with a secondary backup in documentation that is useful only if the culture is committed to making use of it…In simple terms, individuals learn through the activation and updating of their memories while organizations learn through change in the culture. (p24) Kline discusses the difficulties of creating change in the organization, realizing that people in general are resistant to change.

He defines ten conditions to build a learning organization, allowing people to be able to cope with the ambiguity of the change process. These conditions are: 1) Assess the current learning culture to create a benchmark, Then have: 2) Positive expectation that dilemmas can be resolved. 3) Support for the learning process itself. 4) Willingness to delay closure long enough to arrive at significant Gestalts rather than forced and trivial ones.

5) Communication processes that bring people together to consider in a friendly and noncompetitive atmosphere many different perceptions, templates, habits of thought and possible solutions, from which the most useful may then be chosen. 6) A cultural habit that encourages exploring apparently meaningless ambiguities with the expectation that meaning can be found in them—as an expression of both a personal and organizational commitment to learning over the long haul. 7) The establishment of contexts within which meaning for new possibilities can be found as they emerge.

8) A set of modeling skills, strategies and techniques or mechanisms that allows people more easily to construct meaning out of apparent chaos. 9) A cultural understanding which is shared throughout management of the systemic interactions that will inevitably be present as complex Gestalts are formed. 10) An intuitive feeling for how complex interactions will be likely to occur. (p32) Kline’s third point is one of the key elements of creative thinking—learning to continue to look for solutions rather than just accepting the first one that fits as best.

His fourth point is similar to Senge’s concept of the team learning to work together in new ways, and incorporates convergent and divergent thinking. Kline presents his change model as “The Great Game of Business,” with three elements: 1) know the rules, 2) keep score, and 3) have a stake in the action. (p 35) Knowing the rules is working to choose rules that emerge from self-organizing systems to select the ones that lead to the most productive behavior. Keeping score is about measurement, and having a stake in the action is about employee buy-in.

He encourages that one of the rules must be the breaking down the cultural barriers between managers and workers. Rules should also include integrative learning, (the restoration of the natural learning of early life), strategic micromanagement tools for decision making, communication and problem solving, generally originating from the people who use them; and expanding the scoring system beyond financial reports. (p 38-39) Kline also acknowledges that the most valued asset of the organization is people, and the development of relationships between them if highly important so they can work together well.

In the end of his book, Kline equates business to a theatre metaphor, by “getting the show on the road. ” He speaks of improvisation, ensemble work, and creativity; then continues the metaphor making workers the actors and leaders the directors. He emphasizes the need for continuous improvement and awareness of what everyone is doing while excelling in one’s individual role as would occur in a theatrical production. He begins the process with an assessment of the culture from an institutional perspective: to learn what everyone thinks, then from an individual perspective: take responsibility for what you think and what you do.

He stresses looking for fear, which can be disabling to an organization. Kline has created an assessment to look at the culture of the organization. It is designed to be filled out by the members of the organization, and discussed as a group to explore differences. The assessment may be scored by averaging the rating numbers for each question to provide an overall score of the conditions for creating a learning organization, or the individual scores may be entered in a matrix, which assigns the different questions to one of the ten steps of his later plan.

Using the matrix, scores are obtained for each of the ten areas, providing a more specific idea of which areas the organization needs the most work in. In filling out the form within an organization, it is anticipated that different groups within the establishment will have different perceptions of the organization itself. He recommends creating an overall report for the organization and asking the members to voice agreement or disagreement with the results. He also encourages that at this stage, the ideal state of the organization is discussed to determine where it would like to be at the end of the process.

A large portion of the learning comes from the discussions and the decisions for direction that follow afterwards. This is a similar pattern to DiBella’s model of assessment. After the assessment is completed, the organization is instructed to work through steps two through ten. Kline provides numerous activities that focus on a variety of thinking skills, working to change attitudes and behaviors of individuals. Learning to reframe things in a positive way by “looking in two directions at once: at the current reality and the positive outcome that can be developed from it” (p 70) is just one of the many ideas given for step two.

He deals with learning styles, mind mapping, and teaches people how to listen to one another. He creates safe ways for people to take risks. Unlike some of the more theoretical books on Learning Organizations, Kline’s book contains practical steps for developing a group to become a Learning Organization. Working through the ten steps as a team would do remarkable things within the group as they learn to learn together. Chris Argyris/Donald Schon Argyris is best known for his concepts of single and double-loop learning. In a book written with Donald Schon (1974), they believe that organizations learn through individuals acting as agents.

Organization learning is the detection and correction of error. Their key concepts revolve around single- and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning results in the organization continuing in the existing policies while remedying the situation at hand, while double-loop learning examines and modifies norms, policies and objectives as necessary. There are needs for both types of learning. Argyris’ model is much earlier than most of the other organizational learning literature, and he is revered as a founding father by others and like Senge, often quoted in discussions on the learning organization.

As a side note, Argyris was one of Senge’s influential teachers: Despite having read much of his writing, I was unprepared for what I learned when I first saw Chris Argyris practice his approach in an informal workshop… Ostensibly an academic presentation of Argyris’s methods, it quickly evolved into a powerful demonstration of what action science practitioners call ‘reflection in action’…. Within a matter of minutes, I watched the level of alertness and ‘presentness’ of the entire group rise ten notches – thanks not so much to Argyris’s personal charisma, but to his skilful practice of drawing out… generalizations.

As the afternoon moved on, all of us were led to see (sometimes for he first time in our lives) subtle patterns of reasoning which underlay our behaviour; and how those patterns continually got us into trouble. I had never had such a dramatic demonstration of own mental models in action… But even more interesting, it became clear that, with proper training, I could become much more aware of my mental models and how they operated. This was exciting. (Senge 1990, p. 182-183)

In the December 2002 issue of Reflections, the Society of Organizational Learning Journal on Knowledge, Learning, and Change, Argyris’ article on Teaching Smart People How to Learn is reprinted as a “classic. ” In this article, he references single- and double-loop learning, but discusses the need for “managers and employees [to] look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act.

” He makes the observation that the individuals in leadership in an organization are not accustomed to failing, therefore they “have never learned to learn from failure…they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘blame’ on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most. ” He sees the learning from mistakes something that must become a “focus of organization learning” and part of the continuous improvement programs within an organization.

He discusses how often individuals “turn the focus away from their own behavior to that of others [which] brings learning to a grinding halt. ” This type of behavior creates what he calls the “doom loop” where people do not follow the theories they espouse, acting inconsistently. He calls what they do as behaviors that apply “theories-in-use. ” This type of behavior without examination creates repetition without reflection, and doesn’t promote improvement. His first recommendation is to step back and examine what is occurring, and challenging it beginning with the uppermost strata of the organization.

Argyris and Schon’s model involves governing variables, action strategies, and consequences. The governing values are the individual’s theories-in-use, and the action strategies are what keeps their behavior within the boundaries created by the theories-in-use. The resulting actions are the consequences. The interaction between these concepts is illustrated in Figure 2. [pic] Figure 2 from (Smith 2001) When the consequences of the action strategy used are what the person anticipated, the theory-in-use is confirmed because there is a match between intention and outcome.

There also may be a mismatch between intention and outcome. Sometimes, however, the consequences may be unintended or not match, or work against the person’s governing values. This is where double-loop learning needs to be applied and processes and concepts revised. When only the action is corrected, Argyris refers to this as single-loop learning. (figure 3) [pic] Figure 3 (from Smith, 2001) Anthony DiBella DiBella defines organizational learning as “the capacity (or processes) within an organization to maintain or improve performance based on experience.

This activity involves knowledge acquisition (the development or creation of skills, insights, relationships), knowledge sharing (the dissemination to others of what has been acquired by some), and knowledge utilization (integration of the learning so that it is assimilated, broadly available, and can also be generalized to new situations. )” (DiBella, Nevis et al. 1996) DiBella’s work in How Organizations Learn (DiBella and Nevis 1998), overviews the Learning Organization literature of that time, and classifies the writing into three categories: the normative, the developmental and the capability perspectives.

In the normative perspective, the “learning organization presumes that learning as a collective activity only takes place under certain conditions or circumstances…The role of organizational leaders is to create the conditions essential for learning to take place” (DiBella 1995) Senge’s model fits this category. In the developmental perspective, the learning organization is a stage in the development of a maturing organization or in parallel, the development phase of the organization determines its learning styles and character.

The third perspective, capability, identifies that organizations develop and learn as they mature or by strategic choice, and that “all organizations have embedded learning processes. ” Rather than ascribing to perspectives one or two, DiBella and his colleagues believe that all organizations have learning capabilities. These seven areas are labeled “learning orientations” and each runs on a continuum of opposites. For example, the knowledge source may be internal or external. These seven orientations and their descriptors are: Seven Learning Orientations.

|Orientation |Spectrum |Description | |Knowledge source |Internal/External |Where does the organization get information from? Primarily | | | |from the inside or outside world? | |Content-Process focus |Content/Process |Which is more important: the content of the information, or | | | |the process of doing it? | |Knowledge Reserve |Personal/Public |Where is information stored? Is it accessible to all, or in | | | |the heads of individuals? | |Dissemination Mode |Formal/Informal |How is information given out in the organization? Through | | | |informal conversations, or in official meetings or written | | | |communication?

| |Learning Scope |Incremental/Transformative |When learning occurs, are the changes little by little or | | | |dramatic ones? | |Value-Chain Focus |Design-Make/Market-Deliver |Is the focus more on how something is created and made, or | | | |promoted to the customer? | |Learning Focus |Individual/Group |Is intentional learning geared toward individuals, or | | | |groups? | Figure 4 These orientations are facilitated by ten factors called Facilitating Factors. These factors enhance certain orientations, and increase the likelihood of the organization functioning as a learning organization. Facilitating Factors

|Facilitating Factor |Description | |Scanning Imperative |Gathering of information on best practices and conditions outside of the organization | |Performance Gap |Shared perception in the organization between the current and desired performance | |Concern for Measurement |Desire to measure key factors and discussion about the statistics | |Organizational Curiosity |Interest in creative ideas and technology, with support for experimentation | |Climate of Openness |Sharing of lessons learned, open communication about all areas at all levels | |Continuous Education |Commitment to quality resources for learning | |Operational Variety |Valuing different methods; appreciation of diversity | |Multiple Advocates |

New ideas can be advanced by anyone in the organization; multiple champions for learning exist | | |throughout | |Involved Leadership |Management is personally involved in the learning and perpetuation of the learning organization | |Systems Perspective |Recognition of interdependence among organizational units and groups; awareness of the time delay | | |between actions and their outcomes | Figure 5, adapted from DiBella In the analysis process utilizing DiBella’s methods, the organization determines its current status and desired status using the learning orientations and facilitating factors.

There is an interrelationship between the ten facilitating factors and the seven orientations, and focusing on specific factors can help an organization become a better learning organization. In an article written with DiBella, Edwin Nevis calls learning “a systems-level phenomenon because it stays within the organization, even if individuals change…Organizations learn as they produce. Learning is as much a task as the production and delivery of goods and services. ” (Nevis, DiBella et al. 1995) Nevis et al sees “three learning-related factors important to an organization’s success: 1. Well developed core competencies that serve as launch points for new products and services 2. An attitude that supports continuous improvement in the business’s value-added chain. 3. The ability to fundamentally renew or revitalize. ”

They see these factors as “some of the qualities of an effective learning organization that diligently pursues a constantly enhanced knowledge base. ” There is also an assumption made about the learning process following three stages: knowledge acquisition, sharing and utilization. There is the belief that all organizations are learning systems, that learning conforms to culture, there are stylistic variations between learning systems and that generic processes facilitate learning. The model supporting all this is comprised of the learning orientations and facilitating factors. Other perspectives Consultants online define the learning organization in similar ways.

From the UK, David Skyrme (Farago and Skyrme 1995) quotes several other theorists on his website: “The essence of organisational learning is the organization’s ability to use the amazing mental capacity of all its members to create the kind of processes that will improve its own” (Nancy Dixon 1994) “A Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continually transforms itself” (M. Pedler, J. Burgoyne and Tom Boydell, 1991) “Organizations 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 learn together” (Peter Senge, 1990).

Fargo and Skyrme use these thoughts to create their own definition: “Learning organizations are those that have in place systems, mechanisms and processes, that are used to continually enhance their capabilities and those who work with it or for it, to achieve sustainable objectives – for themselves and the communities in which they participate. ” They speak of four elements that create learning organizations: learning culture, processes, tools and techniques and skills and motivation. They define these as: Learning Culture – an organizational climate that nurtures learning. There is a strong similarity with those characteristics associated with innovation. Processes – processes that encourage interaction across boundaries.

These are infrastructure, development and management processes, as opposed to business operational processes (the typical focus of many BPR initiatives). Tools and Techniques – methods that aid individual and group learning, such as creativity and problem solving techniques. Skills and Motivation – to learn and adapt. They also define things that inhibit learning organizations: • operational/fire fighting preoccupation – not creating time to sit back and think strategically • too focused on systems and process (e. g. ISO9000) to exclusion of other factors (bureaucratic vs. thinking) • reluctance to train (or invest in training), other than for obvious immediate needs • too many hidden personal agendas.

• too top-down driven, overtight supervision = lack of real empowerment Fredrick Simon and Ketsara Rugchart define a learning organization as “one that is continually enhancing its ability to get the results it truly wants. ” (Simon and Rugchart 2003) They see organizational learning as “facilitative of knowledge management by first aligning common vision reduces competitiveness…allowing for greater demand for the shared knowledge (the information retrieval side of the equation)…

The greatest learning takes place in failure, when things don’t go as expected…[sharing] leads to a willingness to be open and to risk vulnerability by sharing the learning from failure (the input side of the equation. ) …Organizational learning does not replace knowledge management tools, but can provide a substantial accelerator to the KM effort. ” DaeYeon Cho looks at the connectio.


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