Learning Theories/Organizational Learning: Practice

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Introduction[edit]

We have all heard the old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” This saying still holds true, especially when it comes to learning. However, you cannot replicate something until you know how it works.

An organization cannot become a learning organization until it understands how it learns and transfers that learning from individual to corporate routines. Part of understanding an organization and its ability to be a learning environment can be found by studying the history of that organization. Fear wrote, in order “to illuminate organizational learning, a historian would need to deconstruct the way legitimacy was rhetorically and symbolically created within the organization over time, not just in a particular snapshot of time. To examine this process of change, organizational learning theorists could analyze crucial turning points in time when previous forms of legitimate reasoning made way for new ones” (Dierkes, Berthoin, Antal, Child & Nonaka, 2001, p. 183). By analyzing the steps of development as they occur, an organization can refine it's practices to best know how they learn, develop, and grow. They then can begin to establish an appropriate organizational learning framework.

Architectural framework for organizational learning[edit]

Direkes, et al. (2004) “emphasize that organizational learning…requires both the appropriate structural mechanisms and the cultural conditions that promote habits of inquiry, experimentation, and reflection” (p. 755). This reference to structural mechanisms and cultural conditions is very similar to Senge’s (1994) suggestion in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, that organizational learning is put to practice within a triangular architectural framework constructed of three elements: guiding ideas (or visions), means, and practical resources for application.

Imperative to the development of a learning organization - through practice, is the existence of each one of the aforementioned elements; the lack of any one element leads to a collapse of the triangular framework. For example, learning would be constrained if the cultural conditions (means) of the organization were such that there exists a lack of commitment to learning or intolerance toward errors. Employees operating in such an environment will not be inclined to realize new concepts nor apply new methods so long as the means – the cultural freedom to practice learning – is non-existent or is constrained. “Leaders intent on developing learning organizations must focus on all three of the architectural design elements” (Senge, 1994, p. 36).

Dimensions of learning practice[edit]

There are many theoretical positions and conceptual models of organizational learning. Additionally, there are many tools and instruments available in the literature – a sort of “how to” guide to organizational learning. Absent are the criteria that would indicate which tool or instrument is best suited to a specific learning opportunity. However, Pawlowsky, Forslin, and Reinhardt (2003), suggest that no matter the underlying theory, all approaches to learning practices share similar dimensions. These include (Pawlowsky et al., 2003):

  1. Reference to a system level, especially the transfer of knowledge from the individual level to the organizational level.
  2. A distinction between learning types – single-loop, double-loop, and deuteron.
  3. A reference to cognitive, cultural, and action approaches.
  4. A definition of process steps or phases in which learning occurs.

The authors go on to define learning tools as “instruments or interventions designed to bring about one or more of the process phases involving the various dimension of organizational learning (system levels, learning types, and learning modes)” (Pawlowsky, Forslin, & Reinhardt, 2003, p. 776). In other words, there is no single learning tool or practice that will suffice for all learning applications. Looking forward, this definition and the framework of learning dimensions described above, allow for empirical study on the effectiveness of specific tools for various learning opportunities, learning types, and steps in the learning process.

Critical factors for organizational learning[edit]

Garvin (1993) cites three critical factors that are essential for organizational learning in practice: meaning, management, and measurement, each further defined as follows:

Meaning. For learning to be a meaningful organizational goal, it must be widely understood, have application to the work being performed, and be supported by the organizational leadership. A key means of support is the tolerance of mistakes or failures. The organizational culture must embrace reasonable risk-taking such that mistakes or failures become learning opportunities that can be spread throughout the organization.

Management. The generation of new ideas does not necessarily indicate an organization’s ability to learn. Until those new ideas, or knowledge, are accompanied by a change to the way an organization performs work, then only improvement is taking place. For an organization to learn, a change must take place and that newly gained knowledge must be intentional and managed. That is the learning must be by design, not by chance. Learning practices and policies must be the foundation of “managed” organizational learning. Garvin suggests five basic practices that organizations can manage to enable organizational learning: systematic problem solving, experimentation, the use of demonstration projects, experiential learning, and learning from others on the outside, e.g., benchmarking.

Measurement. There is an old management saying that “you get what you measure”. So, if you want to know whether your organization is indeed learning, how do you measure it? The earliest measurements, those developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s were learning curves and manufacturing progress functions. But these are not necessarily sufficient for the level of organizational learning we are looking to measure. Measurements must effectively gage the stages of organizational learning: cognitive -- where members are exposed to new ideas or knowledge; behavioral changes – where members actually alter their behavior based on new learning; and finally, performance improvement – where behavioral changes actual lead to positive business results in safety, quality, market share, and profitability (Garvin, 1993).

Core disciplines of organizational learning[edit]

Organizational learning focuses on the practice of five core disciplines. Those disciplines are the foundation of organizational learning. They include: 1) Systems thinking-seeing things as a whole yet being tuned into the parts ; 2) Team learning- the creativity or synergy of the group, which practices open, honest communication and mutual trust; 3) Shared vision- when the organization is aware of the goal or vision and the practice requires the knowledge of how the whole organization works together; 4) Mental models- how we see the world and the practice of bringing these assumptions out and assisting other to do the same; and 5) Personal mastery - the identification and questions about your life purpose and the practice requires deep inter exploration and the ability to take risks.

Organizational learning goals[edit]

Why would an organization want to go through the time consuming process of establishing a learning organization? One goal for putting organizational learning concepts into practice is innovation. When all available resources are effectively used across the functional departments of an organization, creativity and ingenuity can transpire. As a result, the process of an organization working together to overcome an obstacle can lead to a new innovative process to serve the customer's need. Before an organization can be innovative, leadership must create a culture of innovation as well as shared knowledge and organizational learning. Angel (2006), explains the Continuum approach as a method being used to help organizations reach a higher level of performance.

The Continuum approach consists of three levels: foundation, advanced, and breakthrough. In the foundation level, organizations normally improve their performance by working harder while terminating employees not performing up to standards. The advanced level of the Continuum allows for cross-functional collaboration of individual departments in an organization. At the advanced level, productivity and flexibility increases because operational decisions are allowed at lower levels. However, "the advanced level will only take an organization so far" (Angel, 2006, p. 4). To move to the breakthrough level and help the organization reach a new level of performance and innovation, "an adaptive, knowledge and learning culture" must be established (Angel). At the breakthrough level, organizations achieve organization-wide self-actualization because they support self-directed teams, implement robust learning information systems, and constantly analyze the needs and values of their customers.

Impediments to organizational learning[edit]

Anxiety and stress can impede and sometime paralyze effective learning. Landy and Conte (2004) explain a common approach to stress management often used in organizational settings – stress inoculation. This cognitive-behavioral learning consists of:

  1. An educational component: gaining insights into the “how and why” a person responds to stressful experiences.
  2. A rehearsal experience: learning and experimenting with coping skills and problem solving techniques.
  3. A controlled opportunity of application: time of practice skills under simulated conditions.

There are some impediments that are unique to individuals in the organization. These hindrances are potential pitfalls in working towards a culture of embracing learning. Impediments such as individualism, self-centeredness, lack of motivation, reluctance, established behavior, and past negative experiences all impact the organization's overall efforts in organizational learning.

Once an organization is aware and anticipatory of individual stress responses to the implementation of organizational learning practices, they can begin to affect the anxiety and stress factors in positively. Learning can occur when the anxiety that surrounds learning is outweighed by the anxiety tied to fighting for survival. The two ways to promote learning are either to decrease learning anxiety by creating a safe environment or to increase survival anxiety by threatening jobs if the individual does not learn. Educating employees on the economic climate which influences survival and creating a safe environment where they can learn is a healthy balance between the two (Coutu, 2002).

Creating conditions for organizational learning[edit]

The practice of organizational change must address issues within that limit and hinder and organization’s growth and progress. Organizational learning seeks to address the full spectrum of assumptions, behaviors, and values within, and the organization’s interaction with the systems, persons, and groups surrounding the organization. While much of the surrounding systems and environment cannot be controlled by an organization, they are able to grown and change to address the challenges and issues within and without through organizational learning.

Friedman, Lipshitz, and Overmeer in Dierkes, Antal, Child, & Nonaka (2003) “define organizational learning as a process of inquiry (often in response to errors or anomalies) through which members of an organization develop shared values and knowledge based on past experiences of themselves and of others" (p. 757)

The goal of organizational learning is to foster “critical and reflective attitude towards the information being processes, and that lead to actions to which organizational actors feel internally committed” (p. 757).

This will involve both single-loop learning, which the processes by which individuals and organizations detect and correct errors in their behavioral strategies and double-loop learning, which involves processing the underlying values, objectives, and standards for performance.

“In order to make double look learning possible, Argyris and Schon (1974) took the visionary step of prescribing a ‘Model 2 theory-in-use’ (p.7), which is based on three simple values (or variables): valid information, free and informed choice, and internal commitment to the choice and monitoring of its implementation” (p. 757).

Individuals capable of internalizing values will display a variety of attitudes and skills while in dialogue with other learners. They will “combine advocacy with inquiry, making statements that are discomfirmable, openly testing their own inferences, inquiring into the reasoning of others, working with others to design means of protection, and jointly controlling tasks” (p. 758). These attitudes and behaviors form the foundational framework of genuine organizational learning and change.

Summary[edit]

"There used to be a sense among managers that learning simply happened intuitively: organizations succeeded and survived, or they failed" (Berthoin Antal, Child, Dierkes, and Nonaka, 2003, p. 932). However, research has proven that the practice of learning, whether it is individual or organizational, promotes learning in other individuals and/or organizations. And that it must be practiced to be effectual. Effective learning is not something that happens accidentally or simply by chance. Effective organizational learning is developed as a part of the culture, integrated into daily practice. New learning is emerging in organizations and corporate environments and is driven by the fast paced introduction of knowledge and new ideas from a variety of sources. It is imperative that organizations understand the rhythms of the information tides and the emerging learning practices will have to be far different than those of the past. Trends suggest that learning practices will be from a variety of sources and not necessarily organizationally or theory driven. Berthoin Antal, Child, Dierkes, and Nonaka (2003) posit, "The extent to which these practices actually help organizations achieve learning goals will depend on how earnestly and critically their members engage in assessing their experiences" (p. 933).

Case studies & workplace examples[edit]

The Toyota Production System (TPS) has become a global movement to streamline an organization’s practice toward efficiency and productivity. Liker and Morgan (2006), share insights into TPS demonstrating the integration of three primary foci for the system: people, process and technology.

Four keys to “process” in the TPS involve, 1) develop, align, track and activate customer-driven objectives throughout the organization; 2) prevent problems with a wide range of research and alternatives prior to productivity; 3) evaluate the flow of the process in order to create a waste-free process; 4) utilize rigorous standards to reduce variation and produce predictable outcomes.

Six principles comprise the TPS approach to people:

  1. Establish a “chief engineer” to integrate the entire product process.
  2. Organize a balance between functional expertise and productivity.
  3. Develop technical competence in all hires.
  4. Fully incorporate suppliers in the product development system.
  5. Insure continuous organizational learning and improvement.
  6. Build a culture of excellence and relentless development.

The third focus, tools and technology, has three foundation stones:

  1. Adopt technology to fit your people and your process.
  2. Use simple and visual means of communication to unify your organization.
  3. Use standardization tools to provide organizational learning from program to program.


Organizational Learning: Interorganizational · Knowledge Management: Challenges

Organizational Learning: Interorganizational · Learning Theories · Knowledge Management: Challenges
Introduction · References ·  This box: view  talk  edit 
Theories : Behavioralist · Constructivist · Post-Modern · Adult Learning
Organizational Learning : Contributions by Discipline · Triggers · Influencing Factors · Agents · Processes · Interorganizational · Practice
Knowldege Management : Challenges · Processes · Leadership · Change