Learning Theories/Organizational Learning: Agents

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The organizational learning dynamic can be facilitated by one, or any combination, of "Organizational Learning Agents". Dierks, et al (2003), in "The Handbook of Organizational Learning" identifies five agents of organization learning: the individual, the senior leadership of the organization, boards and/or governing bodies, labor unions, and consultants. Each one of the aforementioned "Organizational Learning Agents" is able to contribute to the learning process and facilitate learning in a unique manner. Below are descriptions of various learning agents and the unique aspects they bring to the organizational learning dynamic.

The individual as agent of organizational learning

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Victor J. Friedman defines organizational learning as “a process that can be fully understood only at the group or organizational level.” However, Friedman is also quick to acknowledge the fact that several “seminal theorists…have tended to agree that organizational learning begins and often ends, with the individual” (Dierkes, et al., 2003, p. 398). It would seem, from this author’s perspective, that common rationale would, without doubt, accept the notion that individuals are agents of learning in organizations. However, this author also contends that some individuals would appear to proffer more knowledge within their organizations than do others – this coming from personal experience. But what explains this phenomenon? Friedman suggests that from his own agent profiling studies, and that of others, there exists a “complexity and constructive tension of…contradictory attributes [i.e., proactive but reflective, and so on] that lead these persons to take on the role of agent despite the potential costs” (p. 404). In other words, it would appear that agents of organizational learning in all likelihood possess an ability or the characteristics to “move from contradiction – that painful condition where things oppose each other – to the realm of paradox [italics added], where [they] are able to entertain simultaneously two contradictory notions and give them equal dignity” (Johnson, 1991, p. 85); resulting in synthesis, exponentially.

Learning is an essential and continual function of the individual agent as he adapts in an ever-changing world. If the world would not be in a perpetual change, agents would not face new information and would not be induced to learn. On the other hand, because of frequent changes in the state of the world, agents have to perpetually modify their behavior in order to stay adapted to world evolutions. Because of these factors, individual agents play a critical role in the learning of the entire organization.

Maira and Scott-Morgan (1997) state that organizational learning "is the creation, adaptation, or replication of knowledge by an organization to improve its performance" (p. 203). The authors add that some companies have realized the importance of organizational learning to the extent of creating special executive positions to assist in focusing everyone's attention on organizational learning. These companies include Dow Chemical (U.S.), Skandia (Swedish insurance company), and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. According to Maira and Scott-Morgan (1997), these created positions have titles, such as Director of Intellectual Asset Management and are responsible for "measuring the value of knowledge in the firm and of developing ways to increase that value by improving the 'knowledge acquisition' or 'learning' processes of the organization" (p. 203).

The leader as agent of organizational learning

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Sadler (2003) states that in the learning organization, the organizational leader has three distinct functions: designer, steward, and teacher. The design work is about creating systems, strategies and policies and making them come together in such a manner that makes the organization effective and efficient. The stewardship function relates to the leader’s responsibility to ensure the organization’s long-term survival. The teacher role is manifest by the leader helping others to see the ‘big picture’. The leader helps others understand the reality of the current situation and the vision of the organization. Filling the gap that lies between these two paradigms and creating a learning environment where that can occur is the focus of effective leaders (Sadler, 2003). Coutu (2002) places this role of teacher in the context of a continual learner. She would advocate that unless leaders become learners themselves then transformational learning can not take place. It is as leaders engage in self-directed, life-long learning that they can effectively teach others. Only by learning can they lead by good example and create a “safe” context for others to learn. The leader should hold the position of chief learner and carry the responsibility of maintaining an environment and culture where learning is valued and rewarded.

What kind of leader can facilitate the learning that is required of an effective organization in the 21st century? Surprisingly, it does not have to be the typical heroic or charismatic leader. In fact, Sadler (2003) suggests such leadership styles may be less effective at creating an environment where team learning and participation are practiced. This is not to say that such leaders cannot be learning agents, rather the type of learning they tend to facilitate is quite different from those who fit within the ‘Designer, Steward, Teacher (DST)’ model. Charismatic leaders tend to invite passive learning, whereas leaders who fit within the DST model tend to act as facilitators of active learning and serve more as a role model for learning than a teacher.

There is no question that learning is the ultimate responsibility of the individuals within the organization. And, there is no position that is more important for the individual to visibly and demonstratively value learning than that of the leader. The leader, and his/her understanding of his/her role as a facilitator of learning and an example of learning, can set the tone and create the environment for learning to take place. As agents of organizational learning, leaders can shape the culture and encourage learning to take place. Gigenrenzer (2006) purposefully designed a culture that would encourage members of the staff to talk, work, and publish with one another. Individuals were encouraged to interact as equals, often socially, and with everyone. As leader of the organization, Gigenrenzer instituted rituals to support each of these four principles for interaction to promote information sharing.

Boards/Governing bodies as agents of organizational learning

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The governing authorities of organizations are often at the forefront of providing learning for their employees. Workshops, seminars, training sessions and other formal opportunities are often part of the learning plan developed by the governing body of the organization. Landy & Conte (2004) reference corporate universities such as General Motors University, Xerox’s Document University, and McDonald’s Hamburger University that provide lifelong learning opportunities for their workers. Many of these universities are well established and extensive in the training they provide. Hamburger University, for example, operates in Japan, Germany, England, and Australia and offers electronic and computer-based training courses in 22 languages (Landy & Conte, 2004).

Boards serve as unique agents in organizations. Boards fill wide varieties of roles as it relates to the overall oversight and or operation including organizational learning. In many cases, boards are not actively involved in knowledge management or organizational learning.

Tainio, Lilja, and Santalailen in Dierkes, Antal, Child, & Nonaka (2003) suggest that many boards have historically filled a more traditional role in organizations that tend to function more passively, reactively and normally only would increase their influence if problems arose, functioning in a type of ‘firefighter role’. These types of boards “monitor and control the firm’s performance and align the CEO and shareholder interests behind corporate renewal” (quoting Walsh and Seward, 1990) (p. 429).

Boards have increasingly become more proactive and “increasingly engaged in helping top management reduce environmental uncertainty though boundary-spanning, to secure critical resources for a company” (p. 429). This type of involvement would enhance organizational learning by creating awareness of other system factors that affect said organization. Furthermore, the capacity to respond to changes in the market, society, regulation, and economic conditions all are affected by organizational learning.

Two primary concerns of these proactive boards, which are often more future oriented, are their service to the organization and strategic planning and decision-making. As boards involve themselves in strategic planning, “Empirical evidence suggests that boards that take more strategic decisions are not very deeply involved in organizational learning” (p. 433).

Labor unions as agents of organizational learning

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Globalization of national economies (Altvater and Mahnkopf 1997; Fricke 1997; Group of Lisbon 1995; Howells and Wood 1993; Kapstein 1996; Muldur and Petrella 1994) and advances in manufacturing technology are presenting new challenges for organized labor. Previously, organizations using mass production techniques required very little learning on the part of the union workers, as separation of duties and standard methods divided work into specific, repetitive tasks. Union workers often tended to view any new learning or training initiatives as suspicious or a scheme to replace them with more efficient, more reliable technology. The outsourcing of mass production operations to foreign countries and the closing of numerous manufacturing plants have forced unions to take on the role of learning agent in their organization in order to survive. Unions have had to learn in several different arenas in order to keep their organizations healthy. These include learning not only in technical skills and abilities or specific tasks, but also in other, more complex areas such as the impact of globalization; factors and features of the competitive market landscape; multi-disciplined and multi-functional approaches to task completion;, social processes such as team concepts, communications, conflict management, and negotiations; leadership philosophy; and many others.

Economics as an agent of organizational learning

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Akin to labor unions and their impact on organizational learning, economics also have a significant part to play in organizational learning. Boerner, Macher, and Teece (2003) contend, "The process of a market reaching its equilibrium is fundamentally a learning process" (p. 106). Changing circumstances and uncertainty of economic environment provides a continual atmosphere for organizational learning and adaptation. Goldsmith, Morgan, and Ogg (2004) support the increased concept of economics in organizational learning. They contend, "Today we see another shift...after a prosperous economic decade in the 1990s, the recession that followed forced shareholders to reevaluate what they expected from the executives...Executives have gone from being judged using a measure of five-to-ten year periods to having their achievements assessed in mere months" (p. 137). The bottom line for shareholders is economics and the success of an organization to thrive to its maximum potential on their behalf. Keeping abreast of changing economic times is essential to growing a successful organization. Boerner, et al. (2003) suggest, "Few, if any, modern economists would question the paramount importance of learning and learning processes to a firm's competitive performance" (p. 111).

Consultants as agents of organizational learning

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The greatest agent for organizational change is the socialization aspect of culture. If an organization takes on the identity of a growing, adapting, and learning organization, it becomes part of the fabric of how they operate. This is the greatest agent for a learning organization, authentic stimuli towards a common direction and common goals. It is an alignment issue for the individual and the organization. English and English (1958) stated that “the sign of learning is not a shift of response or performance as a consequence of change in stimulus-situation or in motivation, but rather a shift in performance when the stimulus-situation and the motivation are essentially the same” (p. 289).

However, in Rhodes' study it is contended that organizations are able to learn and this is demonstrated by the change in behavior of its members. These changes are noted collectively and are adaptations of their environment. Rhodes continues by noting that Argyris & Schon's research contends individuals act as "learning agents" by determining and fixing flaws in the organizations behavior and, in turn, change the culture.

Case studies & workplace examples

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HR manager

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Quite often organizational learning comes about from the direct input of individual agents of learning – those individuals who champion new learning or new ways of learning within the organization. One example of this is that of an HR Manager who sought a newer, better way to train and educate employees through the concept of a corporate university - despite the fact that having a university seemed a bit far fetched for the not-for-profit entity employing just seventy employees. Nonetheless, the manger completed research on the subject matter, ending the study with a written and oral proposal to the Management Team. The concept was unanimously accepted and forwarded to the Board of Trustees whose members also voted unanimously to accept the proposal. The university has since been funded by grant monies through the Friends of the Library group and is formally seated with a committee responsible for its establishment and ongoing success.

The Canton Corps

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The Canton Corps of The Salvation Army has moved through a process of organizational restructuring during the past two years. The process has been difficult for many employees who were satisfied with the status quo. The responsibility of educating the staff to the cultural change came from the Corps leaders. The process, while difficult, challenging, and at times nearly unachievable has resulted in a more efficient and cohesive staff, effective ministry, and an environment that is becoming a pleasant place to work. In this case, new learning was influenced by the leaders and they became the change agents.


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Local churches utilize a wide variety of forms of governance and have significantly varying roles when it comes to board involvement and how they interact with the local minister and congregation. In some cases, boards fulfill a strong leadership role in the congregation, while others fill more functional and administrative roles. Board members must be aware of their role and how they are to function and interact within those roles. Without that information and clarified purpose, board members can have high levels of confusion or frustration regarding their responsibilities. In this author’s local church, we have begun to review annually our church board’s defined roles and responsibilities. This has enhanced our awareness of our purpose and improved our sense of responsibility as a group. Specific details and outlines are incorporated into a leadership notebook containing this information and reports, recommendations, and other materials from each meeting. Board members find this type of information helpful and it answers many of their questions. As they learn and identify their role as a board, organizational learning is taking place and enhanced. This improves their performance and input.

An example of leaders as agents of learning can be found at GM, where we have adopted an approach of leaders as teachers. The positional leader in the organization is often required to teach in a cascading process throughout the organization. Our feedback from employees provides evidence that most employees appreciate learning that is endorsed, even taught, by their immediate supervisor or leader. As such, all new initiatives, change processes, or other processes are accompanied by training that is led and taught by the leader. This is especially true when it comes to cultural or leadership training, as compared to technical skill training. Cultural or leadership training is typically delivered beginning with the CEO, and cascaded throughout the company by level, in a process we call "Leaders Teach". Naturally, since this approach is taken from top to bottom in the company, it could also be called "Leaders Learn".

Organizational Learning: Influencing Factors · Organizational Learning: Processes

Organizational Learning: Influencing Factors · Learning Theories · Organizational Learning: Processes
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