Learning Theories/Organizational Learning: Processes

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Introduction[edit]

The purpose of organizational learning often leans toward positive organizational change. In some cases, entire organizational change is desired or necessary for increased effectiveness or just continued existence. Most organizations are imperfect, and positive change, even at significant levels would be welcomed. The agents of organizational change, organizational development, and organizational learning often work together in synchronous fashion. In fact, it may be difficult at times to distinguish between them. What kinds of processes are necessary to create a value for organizational learning, knowledge sharing, and even wholesale organizational change?

A study by Dr. V. Balasubramanianhe sites Huber's literature review as identifying four processes that contribute to organizational learning. The first process, knowledge acquisition, happens when the organization gains knowledge by observing the environment, using storage systems to maintain knowledge and carrying out research. Information distribution, the second process, occurs when the organization shares the knowledge they possess with their members. The third process, identified as information interpretation, is information that has shared meaning among the members. The fourth and final process - organizational memory process, encapsulates how knowledge is stored for future use and to what extent it is considered proprietary information belonging to the corporation.

Knowledge acquisition process[edit]

Buchel and Raub (2003) state that "A match between the learning process and media richness and scope is necessary in order to foster learning within organizations" (p. 531). There exists a tradeoff between rich media and media that is high in scope. For example, face-to-face communication is a medium-high in richness, but it has limited scope. Conversely, formal written communication has a broader reach, but lacks the richness that face-to-face communications can provide. New introductions of technologies have challenged the original scale, prompting consideration for other variables such as speed of communication, storage capability, interconnectivity between people and organizations, and the integration of multiple computer technologies and their effect on organizational learning.

Nonaka, Toyama, and Byosiere write that, historically, the knowledge-creation process has been considered within the context of two types of models: top-down or bottom-up. The top-down model is representational of a bureaucratic organizational learning system whereas the bottom-up model depicts autonomy with an emphasis on individual learning (Dierkes, et al., 2004). The authors suggest that “a third [model] - the middle-up-down management model, as the most suitable for knowledge creation…given the limitations of the top-down and bottom-up models…” (p. 505). While the new model does not discredit the need for top-down and bottom-up contributions, it does more clearly define the “cooperative relationships and interactions between top, middle, and lower managers” (p. 505) with an emphasis on the roles that each level plays in the organizational learning process.

Trompenaars and Hampton-Tuner (2004) agree that a middle-up-down approach can give a balance to organizational learning. The key to effective communication and knowledge sharing is the middle manager, who serves as an interpreter between the language of the "ivory towers" and the language of the "trenches." The middle manager must become fluent in corporate philosophy and policy as well as in grass-roots jargon that permeates the employee culture at any given time. For this approach to work there must be significant trust in the middle manager granted from both the top and the bottom. In pragmatic reality, the middle manager is the most important administrative position and the most valuable employee for without him/her organizational learning is ineffective or counter-productive. Trompenaars and Hampton-Tuner summarize the vital concept of middle-up-down by sharing, “middle management is the bridge between the standards of top management and the chaotic reality of those on the front lines.” (p.16).

Information distribution process[edit]

Based on theories that suggest adults learn largely through their experiences, organizations would be well served to develop learning processes that use experience and reflection as the foundational elements. Similar to Kolb’s learning cycle for individuals, organizations have developed learning processes based on the same assumptions; that is, learning comes from an event; reflection upon that event; extracting learning and planning for new actions; and finally, applications of the learning to the next cycle (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). For example, in manufacturing operations, new introductions (both product and process) often begin with the formal reflection of experiences with the current product or process. This formal reflection is started by assembling a cross-functional project team, responsible for the new introduction. To the extent that companies utilize these cross-functional teams to develop and introduce new products and processes, they elevate the learning and reflection from that which is meaningful to individuals, to that which involves and benefits the entire organization. New technologies, such as those discussed by Buchel and Raub (2003), can be enablers to improving the effectiveness of cross-functional teams that are increasingly global in nature and demand process capability for fast and effective storage and retrieval of organizational knowledge, history, and experience.

Many companies rely on media to help aid their organizational learning processes. In order to ensure the success of learning processes, organizations must consider two factors when selecting from various communications mediums such as face-to-face communication, tele-conferencing, telephone, voice mail, fax, electronic communication, and formal written communication. (Sitkin et al, 1992). Thus, they must find a balance between media richness and media scope. The proper selection of media richness provides organizations with the "ability to process information of appropriate richness to reduce uncertainty and clarify ambiguity" (Daft and Lengel, 1984, p. 194). As for media scope, this factor deals with how well followers "keep messages in memory, and reach, referring to the ability to address multiple people simultaneously" (Dierkes et al, 2003, p. 522). However, before selecting a communications medium to aid the organizational learning process, organizational leaders must determine each medium's ability to provide feedback, multiple cues, tailor messages, and express emotions.

In addition to the media, physical space is also a consideration for specific activities designed to encourage organizational learning. Lewis and Moultrie (2005) found that there are several factors important in the design and structure of the physical space dedicated to promoting organizational learning and innovation. They suggest that investing in a laboratory designed for the process not only produces better interaction, but also shows the organization’s commitment to the goal of organizational learning. The facility should remove the individual from ordinary daily activity, de-emphasize traditional hierarchy such as rectangular tables and traditional chairs, and encourage participation by all. This environment facilitates the process for organizational learning. Others would suggest that these "learning laboratories" should replicate the actual workplace in which the student will apply the learning. While this lab may be physically separate and removed from the routine daily activity, it should be similar enough that the adult learner can see the value; that is the learner must be able to see application opportunity in their return to regular duties as soon as possible after the new knowledge is gained.

Information interpretation process[edit]

According to Maira and Scott-Morgan (1997), organizations view learning more narrowly than they should. "Organizational learning actually needs to take place in many different parts of an organization and on many different subjects" (p. 211). The authors proceed to articulate the process of learning within an organization, suggesting that this process may be divided between two fields on a learning matrix:

  1. Who is learning (horizontal)?
  2. What the learning is about (vertical)?

The horizontal column establishes who is learning, which is delineated into four separate columns:

  1. Individual
  2. Team
  3. Organization
  4. Community (interorganizational)

According to the authors, what must be established are the learning needs of each of the four organizational subgroups. "[The organization] cannot assume that large investments in the education and training of individual employees will create effective organizational learning, nor can it ignore the need to invest in individual learning and growth" (p. 212). On the vertical dimension of this learning matrix are the details of what is being learned within the organizational sub groupings:

  1. Procedure
  2. Business process
  3. Mental model
  4. Vision

As an organization embarks upon a learning process, knowing who is learning and what is being learned should be gauged for measurable effectiveness.

Organizational memory process[edit]

Knowledge is the key asset of the learning organization. Organizational memory extends and amplifies this asset by capturing, organizing, disseminating, and reusing the knowledge created by its employees. The term organizational memory is sometimes used to refer to whatever exists today in the way of social conventions, individuals’ memories, etc.

There is an important step in the process of learning. This step is taken when there is a shift from being an individual learner to leading or managing an organizational learning scenario. An organization has to take specific steps in development to adopt or diffuse information from individuals to corporate routine. This is what Levitt and March (1988) refer to as the encoding of inferences from history into organizational routines. These “organizational routines are transmitted and improved upon through socialization, education, imitation, problem-solving, and personnel movement” (Levitt and March, 1988, p. 320).

In the global environment, a new learning dilemma faces organizations and firms. Macharzina, Oesterle, and Brodel (2003) contend, "It is maintained that the major characteristic of internationalization processes is the incremental nature of successive learning through stages of increased commitment to diverse foreign markets" (p. 638). This slow, tedious process that Macharzina, et al. (2003) suggest is essential to successful international involvement. However, the process is streamlined by organizations willing to invest human capital toward developing cross-border "synergies of knowledge" (Macharzina, et al., 2003, p. 640) that will facilitate a broader understanding of cultural, political and economic differences.

Case studies & workplace examples[edit]

Anderson and Maize[edit]

Anderson and Maize (2005) share the story of Canon USA who experienced significant growth in an extended sales and distribution organization through the establishment of a system of learning and development. They have created the “Learning Zone”, utilizing cutting edge technology to blend product information, training and support. Motivated because of the increasing demands of product complexities, Learning Zone realized that high-quality training and information were keys for their learning organization.

The Canon Learning Zone was launched four years ago and supports five distinct distribution channels with 12,000 users, each of whom may need different courses and product information. Based upon the markets he/she serves and the products he/she sells, an individual will qualify to enter into a specific mix of courses. One Canon dealer shared the effectiveness of the training this way, “Now, within a span of 45 minutes in the Learning Zone, I can better understand the new product solutions I have to offer from Canon.” Direct salespeople have access to the Learning Zone for support and preparation of customer presentations. The Imaging System Group (ISG) at Canon USA has expanded views of the Learning Zone to extend the Canon brand and product training to all registered dealers, distributors and partners carrying Canon products.

Mitch Bardwell, assistant general manager of the sales training division stated, “By strategically targeting each new sector with relevant content and training appropriate to their business goals, in just a few years, we have doubled our size of our audience and increased the value of the Canon brand to a loyal community of users who rely on the Learning Zone.”

Schools[edit]

At the start of each school year, one school has an orientation which includes new staff and returning staff. At one of the orientation sessions, the question is posed to the returning staff, “What one thing would you like to share with the new staff that you think would be helpful?” The returning staff each shares a statement with the entire group of new and returning staff. The statements are sometimes as simple as “Keep the secretaries and janitors happy – they wield the real power” or as profound as “Don’t be afraid to ask questions – we all make mistakes and we all try to learn from them.” New staff is encouraged to record, evaluate and share their experiences because a newcomer often has the unique opportunity to help change an existing paradigm that the rest of the staff is too involved in to evaluate objectively. This process introduces the concept of organizational learning and encourages involvement in the process.

Burke (1992) proposes that the kind of change necessary to qualify as organizational development (OD) must happen at the cultural level. It is not enough to modestly change functions, or organize and communicate better. "For change in an organization to be OD it must (1) respond to an actual and perceived need for change on the part of the client, (2) involve the client in the planning and implementation of the change, and (3) lead to change in the organization's culture" (p. 8-9). Hence, the most effective change needed is at the core and culture levels. It is the norms and values which underlie basic assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. Changing these underlying values is the ultimate goal of knowledge management and organizational development. This goes beyond “fixing a problem or improving a procedure” … it means, “That some significant aspect of an organization’s culture will never be the same” (p. 9). “It might be a change in the organization’s management style, requiring new forms of exercising authority, which in turn would lead to different conformity patterns, since new norms would be established, especially in decision making” (p. 9).

Change at this level requires significant planning as well as willingness to make difficult choices and adaptations to present norms, values and behaviors. It requires a willingness, especially of leaders, to look within themselves at what drives and motivates them as they seek to motivate an organization. The processes are internal and external, personal, relational, and organizational.

The process of learning in an organization, processing that learning into tangible change lies at the heart of effective leadership. Organizational ages and histories, among other factors affect the willingness to change in individuals, departments, and organizations. The processes used to develop learning organization and change can be widely varied. This case study offers a unique process of catalyzing learning and change.

Congregation[edit]

A local congregation had been experiencing meaningful decline in attendance and strength over a span of three decades. Engaging in a learning exercise became part of a change process. Members of the local church were asked to study the New Testament to discover various mental pictures and identities of the church. After a modest length of time, these individuals met to develop a list of ideas about what the church is. Many of the lists had repeated identity descriptors. When the lists were then compiled and synthesized, three specific categories seemed to cover adequately the full spectrum of suggestions. The three descriptors of the church included:

  1. The Bride of Christ
  2. The Body of Christ
  3. The Family of God/Fellowship of Believers.

The final identity listed here seemed to be looking at very similar qualities, yet convey them uniquely enough to be coupled together. We then processed these identity descriptors borrowing the idea of ‘BEING.’ We asked the question, if the church is the “Bride of Christ” in its being, what should it be DOING in its behavior … and if there is a gap between our BEING and DOING, what should change, what should we be BECOMING? For each of the three we detailed this question format of BEING, BECOMING, and DOING.

This process significantly challenged some assumptions about our values, mission, and function as individuals and as a church. Clearly, we are seeing ourselves differently. We are intending that our behaviors, our mission, vision, and values flow out of these elements of our identity. That identity is a faith issue, for this is what God calls his church. Significant changes came about because we needed to change and grow. However, this process drives change from an identity, values, and purpose vantage point.

Canton Salvation Army[edit]

The Canton Salvation Army is moving through a process that is introducing a new leadership structure within the local organization. The fundamental leadership structure is top-down autocratic. The move of the local Corps is toward a lateral leadership model with more open dialogue and input into the structure, process and decision-making that is involved in every day ministry. The results are on-going as the Corps attempts to integrate a seemingly foreign model into a structure that has been in place for over 100 years. However, there are some positive results that are presently being realized. Teams and team leaders have been developed and put in place. Monthly team leader's meetings are take place, as well as monthly full staff meetings. Each team meets at least monthly and some even meet weekly. Periodic fellowship luncheons are becoming routine. These specific steps are making the transition toward a lateral leadership process easier. This has become an organizational learning process that is unfolding as a continual process and not a quick movement into a new leadership structure.


Organizational Learning: Agents · Organizational Learning: Interorganizational

Organizational Learning: Agents · Learning Theories · Organizational Learning: Interorganizational
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Organizational Learning : Contributions by Discipline · Triggers · Influencing Factors · Agents · Processes · Interorganizational · Practice
Knowldege Management : Challenges · Processes · Leadership · Change