Learning Theories/Organizational Learning: Influencing Factors

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Typical general influencing factors in organizational learning[edit]

The factors for gathering and managing knowledge are many and diverse within a learning organization. Three of the typical general issues or influencing factors in learning organizations are context, history, and survival. The idea of context is intrinsically tied to socially constructed elements. Lane (2001) discusses this factor saying, “assumption of most organizational learning theory is that learning is socially constructed, that is, what is learned and how learning occurs are fundamentally connected to the context in which that learning occurs” (p. 704). How the culture, or context, of an organization functions is part of an influencing factor on the type of learning organization it will be.

One key aspect of organizational learning to remember is that an organization should not lose out on its learning abilities when members of the organization leave. The concept of organizational memory means that effective learning organizations should not only influence the current members, but also future members due to the experiences, beliefs, and norms that are accumulated along the way. Creating a learning organization is only half the solution to a challenging problem (Prahalad & Hamel, 1994). Equally important is unlearning some of the past that has not moved the company forward on a path of healthy growth.

Developing a work culture that values creativity and encourages innovation is imperative to an organization that desires to learn and produce new ideas or products (Kiely, 1993; Prather, 2000; Sternberg, 2003; Thompson, 2003). In an early article, Shallcross (1975) shares the role of the leader in creating an open environment to new ideas - “the role of the leader in creativity training is one of providing a climate that is nonjudgmental, of helping each individual to realize personal uniqueness and the uniqueness of others” (p.626). Suh (2002) concurs with the importance of managerial encouragement for the innovating thinking of the worker in the areas of planning, learning, and production.

Amabile (1998) points to six general categories of effective management practice in creating a learning culture within an organization: (1) providing employees with challenge; (2) providing freedom to innovate; (3) providing the resources needed to create new ideas/products; (4) providing diversity of perspectives and backgrounds within groups; (5) providing supervisor encouragement; and (6) providing organizational support.

Second is the issue or factor of history. The implications of past endeavors and attempts at growth or learning will affect the long-term view of learning overall within that organization. Lane (2001) wrote, “A related aspect of the process of learning is a view of the organization as an embodiment of past learning. The concept of memory as the storehouse of either individual or organizational knowledge is further explicated by reference to the there term ‘mental models’… guide the acquisition and organization of new knowledge” (p. 702). The ability of an organization to assimilate and diffuse both new and old information will determine the longevity of developing a learning organization through healthy means.

Lastly, the issue of survival is the basic premise for becoming a learning organization. Ortenblad (2002) says, “according to the critical literature most or all organizational learning theorists indicate that survival is an important object for learning” (p. 95). This concept is basic to human nature, survival of the fittest. In order for an organization to exist long term, it must learn more than just new fads or moments of knowledge, it must learn consistently over time for this is a learning organization.

Neilson and Pasternack (2005) provide a convincing example of this survival anxiety in their account of Caterpillar’s change from what they term to be an over-managed organization to a resilient organization. Komatsu’s early 1980’s attack on Caterpillar and the first losses in Caterpillar’s history were anxiety provoking to the point that excessive bureaucracy, centralized authority and a highly political culture were jettisoned successfully.

Human resource factors influencing organizational learning[edit]

Organizations vary greatly in all aspects. Establishing an understanding of what influences organizational learning for the vast majority of organizations is extremely valuable. This would allow individuals in many different organizations to benefit from examining some key factors that would increase organizational learning in their setting.

Lohman (2005) found the factors of initiative, positive personality traits, commitment to professional development, interest in the profession, self-efficacy and love of learning enhanced the motivation for informal organizational learning. Conversely, an unsupportive organizational culture, others who were unwilling to participate, lack of time, and lack of proximity with colleagues negatively impacted this organizational learning.

Shipton, Dawson, West, and Patterson (2002) investigated the manufacturing environment and found that only two of five variables were associated with organizational learning: approach to human resources management and quality orientation. Profitability, environmental uncertainty, and structure were not significantly related to organizational learning. Albert (2005) found that top management support and involvement of consultants also facilitated organizational learning and change.

A European study showed that lack of motivation, extra work, unclear roles, lack of confidence, perception of role, insufficient learning culture, lack of innovation, lack of time, and lack of resources negatively impacted organizational learning (Sambrook & Stewart, 2000). From the positive perspective, motivation, enthusiasm, involvement, clarity and understanding of role, increased responsibility, perception as a strategic partner, a developed learning culture, senior management support, organization re-structure, job redesign, and investment in human resources, and the learning environment made a significant difference in organizational culture.

Time factors influencing organizational learning[edit]

Weber and Berthoin Antal (2003) describe six key dimensions of time that influence organizational learning: the organization’s time perspective and orientation to time, time pressure, simultaneity, synchronization and windows of opportunity, learning cycles and life cycles, and history (p. 354).

Time perspective 
Within an organization, individuals, groups, departments, or functions, may all hold very different perspectives of time and the implications time horizons hold for the necessity of learning. Therefore, it is important that the top leadership of the organization clearly determine the time orientation for the organization as a whole, such that decision-making and learning take place in a manner consistent with the organization-wide time orientation and perspective.
Time pressure 
Time pressure can influence learning from within the organization (top-down, bottom-up, peer-to-peer) as well as from external sources such as competitors, suppliers, customers, and communities. Time pressures can actually slow learning, as in the case when the organization is threatened by internal or external forces that paralyze the organization for fear that taking action could risk undesirable consequences. Likewise, learning and performance can be accelerated, for example, by the threat of deadlines or competitive maneuvers in the market.
Simultaneity 
External events and opportunities happen simultaneously and at a pace so frenetic that no organization can take advantage of all of them, given finite resources and levels of knowledge. This aspect of time presents a risk to organizations that they will lose control over the timeframes of those activities they pursue.
Synchronization and windows of opportunity 
This dimension refers to the sequence of events or the specific windows of time when organizations are best positioned and open to learning. The sequence refers to knowing which learning activities are best for certain times. Simply put, the right activity or learning moment at precisely the right time will lead to more effective learning. Windows of opportunity are relevant because there are times when organizations may be better positioned to embrace learning, for example during periods when the perceived threat to their survival is greater than the difficulty of learning.
Learning cycles and life cycles 
Just as individuals learn through observation, experience, reflection, and transference to other situations, so too do organizations incorporate learning cycles into their culture and behaviors. The success of an organization often depends on how quickly the learning cycles can take place. The life cycle of the organization also has implications for organizational learning. For example, the age of an organization - especially the older that it is, can lead to difficulty when adopting new practices and new learning because these organizations can become set in their ways. At times an older organization will battle "legacy" behaviors and cultural norms that are contrary to change and learning and adoption of new practices.
History 
Weber & Berthoin Antal (2003) state, "History has an identifying effect for organizations" (p. 358). How an organization has applied learning in the past can be used to apply to learning opportunities in the future. The history, or identity, of an organization is in part built on the collective learning of individuals and groups within the organization over time. It is this historical dimension of time that actually captures all of the others and presents them as a composite of the effects of time on the organization’s ability to learn. Weber and Berthoin Antal (2003) state that “the influence of history on the organization can be positive as well as dysfunctional" (p. 358). Organizations can use to their advantage and potential success their collective and stored knowledge. However, they must beware of obsolescence that may come with strict adherence to past practices and procedures, without the consideration of new learning and opportunities.

Individuals, when given time, opportunity, and resources are quite often capable of implementing change 'expediently' when compared to teams or organizations. The lag in time that so often hinders organizational change is called 'organizational inertia' – a situation Starbuck and Hedberg say can arise from “slow sense-making processes and ineffective information systems...[or when] individuals learn without their organizations also learning” (Dierkes, et al., 2003, p. 335). One possible resolve to this dilemma is the Japanese concept of Kaizen – an applied system for implementing continuous improvement through small steps (Maurer, 2004). If we conceive of organizational learning as a necessary means for continuous improvement, then it is not a far stretch to also realize that learning – taken in small, applied steps, makes sense. Starbuck and Hedberg state that “continuous improvement, the daily challenging of status quo, supports the notion that everything can be improved….[and that] evolutionary learning in small steps seems to work better than does revolutionary learning, [especially] during periods of repeated success” (Dierkes, et al., 2003, p. 337).

Group factors influencing organizational learning[edit]

Factors that influence group learning are explored by McConnell and Zhao (2004). In their study, they designed a diagram to show group learning in by integrating factors together. The first step was group planning. The planner has to be very clear about the learning task and the objectives. The learning community has elements that must be considered such as "creativity, norms, belief, and status"(p.7). Factors that must be considered "interaction, communication, negotiation, skills, strategies, feedback, leader, role play, brainstorming, and motivation" (p.7).Lastly in evaluation , the following factors must be considered, " performance, effectiveness, outcomes, contributions, history, experiences, and productivity" (p.7).

Follower factors influencing organizational learning[edit]

Though shallow on the surface, Maxwell's (1993) definition of influence substantiates the effect influence can have within an organizational structure, particularly as it relates to lower level employees affecting organizational change. Maxwell states, "Leadership is influence" (p. 1). Peter Drucker, as cited in Goldsmith, Morgan, and Ogg (2004), states, "‘the great majority of people tend to focus downward,' writes Peter Drucker. 'They are occupied with efforts rather than results. They worry over what the organization and their superiors owe them and should do for them'" (p. 19). What is missing in this mindset is the ability to affect, or influence, change within an organization regardless of position. Goldsmith, Morgan, and Ogg (2004), state, "Organizations in all fields suffer when key employees cannot effectively influence upper management" (p. 20). These authors go on to suggest 10 guidelines for affecting change in an upward fashion:

  1. When presenting ideas to upper management, realize that it is your responsibility to sell---not [upper management's] responsibility to buy.
  2. Focus on contribution to the larger good, not just the achievement of your objectives.
  3. Strive to win the big battles. Don't waste your ammunition on small points.
  4. Present a realistic cost-benefit of your ideas. Don't just sell benefits.
  5. "Challenge up" on issues involving ethics or integrity.
  6. Realize that your upper managers are just as human as you are.
  7. Treat upper managers with the same courtesy that you would treat partners or customers.
  8. Support the final decision of the team.
  9. Make a positive difference.
  10. Focus on the future--let go of the past (pp. 20-24).

The board of directors as an influence in organizational learning[edit]

Another area of influence is the Board of Directors. Tainio, Lilja, and Santalainen (2003) suggest, "Boards represent the interests of the firm's shareholders...they have the power to hire, fire, and compensate senior executives and to provide high level counsel.; By performing these tasks, boards can facilitate or limit organizational learning" (p. 428). The insurgence of shareholders involvement is due largely to the mismanagement of many high profile companies in the 1990s, according to Tainio et al. (2003). This insurgence in board activity and influence on organizations has prompted significant changes in organizational learning. In turn, the situation has redefined the role of boards in many organizations. Tainio et al. (2003) suggest, "There is actually a fine line between managing a company and contributing ideas for managing a company" (p. 432). Boards who have become more active do not manage the nitty-gritty of daily operation, they press organizations to maintain high standards, closely watch goals and planning, and take a more active role in management succession (Tainio et al., 2003).

Case studies & workplace examples[edit]

The factors for influencing organizational learning were evident in a significant change that took place in a school setting. The administration presented a challenge to the high school: students were apathetic in living what they acknowledged to be true; find a way to help students apply what they are learning. A relative newcomer to administration, the high school principal began talking with his teachers, students and other administrators and listening to the feedback. Out of this came a program which meant restructuring the whole high school week. Each Wednesday afternoon, the entire high school was going to participate in small group interaction and then go out into the community for community service. The school was able to secure four mini-buses dedicated for transportation during this time period. This program has re-vitalized the high school. The program has been embraced by the majority of students and the remaining students are facing positive peer pressure to grow and change. The key to success was presenting the challenge, giving the decision-makers the freedom to innovate, providing the resources necessary including time and transportation, listening to the diversity of perspectives, encouraging the principal with all the roadblocks that presented themselves, and committing to the program as an organization. (Amabile, 1998)

Organizational culture holds profound implications upon those organizations who wish to increase their effectiveness through organizational learning. Burke (1985) quotes Schein who theorizes that organizational culture is the "basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously, and that define in a basic 'taken for granted' fashion an organization's view of itself and its environment" (pp. 6-7). These assumptions and beliefs are learned responses to a group's problems of internal integration. They come to be taken for granted because they solve those problems repeatedly and reliably. "This deeper level of assumptions is to be distinguished for the 'artifacts' and 'values' that are manifestations or surface levels of culture, but not the essence of the culture" (Burke, 1992, p. 10-11).

When persons within organizations operate in and unconscious manner due to the organizational culture, one can readily see how attempting to develop organizational learning in a suspicious, distrusting environment could be highly difficult. Developing organizational culture that prizes learning, growth, and knowledge sharing must be tackled in order to promote organizational learning. Subtle and undermining forces in an organizational culture can sabotage attempts at improving components of the organization, or even attempts at organizational culture change. Leaders must be in touch with the pulse of their organizational culture prior to or while seeking to implement change.

Leaders do well to understand the history of their organization. In the process of making significant changes, one cannot fully or adequately understand the culture, relationships, nor underlying forces at work. In a local church organization with modest length of history, this author found it highly beneficial to do an elongated review of the full history of the nonprofit organization. Understanding our roots and driving values and forces across the years deepened our appreciation for our history in honest fashion.

Individuals who had been involved for several decades helped us appreciate our strengths and passions while candidly assessing difficulties and even failures. While listening to individuals share their individual, family, and organizational stories, we gained valuable insight into the past and some of the personalities who influenced for good or ill the culture of the organization. While understanding one’s history does not assume understanding of culture, it does at least help people gain a sense of where they fall within the history of the organization. While assessing the successes and becoming aware of failures, individuals and the whole of the participating persons discover more deeply the values, mission, and driving forces of the organization. In this instance, recalling previous instances of entrepreneurial behavior and resulting successes helped people to be open to new changes and new direction for the local church. Such success stories lessened the fears of change, while creating positive inclinations toward change in the future.


Organizational Learning: Triggers · Organizational Learning: Agents

Organizational Learning: Triggers · Learning Theories · Organizational Learning: Agents
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Organizational Learning : Contributions by Discipline · Triggers · Influencing Factors · Agents · Processes · Interorganizational · Practice
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