Learning Theories/Organizational Learning: Triggers

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

In order for organizations to learn, people must learn. Individuals within an organization learn as they carry out what is expected of them, both written and unwritten expectations. Written expectations are often delivered through job descriptions, memos, e-mails, and official documents. What is less clear for individuals within an organizational structure are the unwritten expectations. According to Maira and Scott-Morgan (1997), there are three groupings within organizations that best support an understanding of unwritten expectations: (1)motivators, (2)enablers and (3)triggers, delineated below.

Triggers, or triggering events, can be defined as circumstances which act as catalysts to organizational learning. As with human beings, organizations do not learn proactively (Watkins and Marsick, 1993). Given the tremendous pressures to perform and produce results, organizations tend to over-invest in exploiting existing knowledge and under-invest in learning or developing new knowledge (Levinthal, 1991).

Motivators are items that are important to individuals within an organization. "Motivators correspond to what is actually important to people, what they value" (p. 78). Maira and Scott-Morgan (1997)state that Enablers are those who are important to individuals within an organization. This may or may not be in line with an organizational chart, but involves those who are the actual "power brokers" within a firm. "Triggers are how people get what is important to them: the conditions that lead an enabler to grant a reward or impose a penalty" (Maira & Scott-Morgan, 1997, p. 78).

As motivators are items that stimulate individuals to learn, triggers (as explained above)serve as a kind of motivator to stimulate organizations to learn. Motivator tends to elicit the learning desire from individuals; however, trigger tends to force organizations to respond the changes of the environment such as socioeconomic changes. The learning motion motivated by motivators is more voluntary; rather, the learning motions motivated by triggers is more involuntary.

Do organizations learn specifically through operational learning, or is conceptual learning another facet of learning potential? Are these different levels of learning? Lane (2001) speaks to this saying “another preoccupation of organizational learning theory is the elaboration of a distinction between different levels of learning: between operational and conceptual learning” (p. 702). These two levels are referring to routine and imitation that comes from learning versus conceptual thought which assumes people will question processes they are learning. These are different forms of triggers within individuals and groups as they learn. Understanding these and other triggers will help a person, group, or company evolve into learning organizations.

An article by the Center for Development of Teaching & Learning titled Assessing Quality of Teaching in Higher Education, noted the following means to trigger learning and include the quality of "a) formulation of objectives and syllabuses, b) construction of handouts/selections of readings, c) classroom activities, d) choice of modes of assessment, e) feedback to students, and design of exercises, f) design of assignments, projects, quizzes, and g) design of final examinations" (Mohanan, 2006, p.2).

According to Brookfield (1987, 1994), “triggers” are life events “that prompts a sense of inner discomfort and perplexity." A life event such as a birth of a new child, divorce or corporate downsizing can trigger the adult learner to critique their existing knowledge through reflection and determine what additional education is needed for improvement and job security. Knowing and understanding the triggers that motivate adult learners can aid educators in the development and design of learning modules, whether they be educators in the academic sense or leaders and educators within operating organizations.

According to Mohanan (2006), the characteristics of the teacher who is likely to trigger learning include: "a) has a deep knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, b) is committed to teaching and is hard working, c) continually seeks ways to improve, innovate, and be up to date, d) has a strong passion for subject, e) has a high enthusiasm for teaching, f) is an inspirational role model to students, g) has a high emotional intelligence to empathize with students, and h) is eminently approachable" (p.3). Again, this need not be in the academic arena alone. The organizational leader is in a sense the teacher and must demonstrate these same characteristics to trigger organizational learning.

Changes in socioeconomic values as triggers[edit | edit source]

Jurgen Kadtler discusses how ‘social movements’ and ‘interest groups’ act as Triggers for organizational learning. Some organizations are forced to adapt to surrounding social, environmental, or regulational factors (Dierkes, Antal, Child, & Nonaka, 2003). Often these factors are outside their control and they must react to them. “Whether the organization acquires the capacity to manage the crisis and deal with the concern of social movements or interest groups is determined by organizational learning. This refers to the tension between and analytical and a normative perspective on organizational learning” (p. 221).

One such trigger is the change of socioeconomic values of society as a whole and within an organization. Von Rosenstiel and Koch (2003) contend that for the past several decades there has been a shift in socioeconomic values that have played a role in how organizations learn and adapt within a greater societal context. In other words, as values change, so must the organization change to be able to effectively interface internally (within the organization) and externally (with stakeholders outside of the organization, such as customers, vendors, etc). The changes that an organization must go through to operate effectively are facilitated by necessary learning. Put bluntly, the organizational learning would not occur were it not for the values shift, which acts as a trigger in this instance.

Akin to the concepts presented by Von Rosenstiel and Koch (2003), Kädtler (2003) suggests that, "organizational learning that is triggered by social movements or interest groups is a form of involuntary learning" (p. 221). The broad spectrum of social movements and the clear identification of such is not easy to define. Kädtler (2003) contends that neither the academic community nor the general public can easily define a social movement. Perhaps Kädtler (2003)attempts to bring some clarity by suggesting, "Social movements are public activities...(who) strive to integrate their general aspirations into the system of values and norms that constitute legitimacy in a society" (p. 223). Essentially, as the social culture changes, predicated by social movements, the values of an organization may change to coincide with societal change.

Unlike the learning that trickles through an organization as necessitated by (usually slow) socioeconomic changes, transformation processes typically require rapid learning that is neither forgiving or without anxiety for those going through the process. Merkens, Geppert, and Antel (2003) delineate the types of triggers for organizational learning both in the context of ‘structuralist learning’ and ‘constructionist learning.’ Structuralist learning can be thought of as learning that is the result of one way communication and fixed content; whereas, constructionist learning is the result of interaction between the learner and the environment. Listed below are some examples of these two types of triggers.

Triggers of structuralist learning during organization transformational[edit | edit source]

(adapted from Merkens, Geppert, and Antel, 2003)

  • Privitization and opening of markets
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Implementation of new technologies
  • Influx of capital

Triggers of Constructionist Learning During Transformational[edit | edit source]

(adapted from Merkens, Geppert, and Antel, 2003)

  • Need for legitimacy
  • Culture Clash
  • Social embeddedness of values and ideals
  • Inquisitive and well-educated workforce
  • Implementation of new technologies

The above lists are not intended to be exhaustive. They are merely examples of triggers that can encountered during times of organizational transformation.

Technological Visions as Triggers[edit | edit source]

Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary (2001) defines vision as a “mental picture – an image or concept in the imagination [and as] far-sightedness – the ability to anticipate possible future events and developments” (p. 1606). Although visions have been heralded as an all important component of organizational leadership, there has been – up till now, little research conducted to better understand the concept of visions. New insight, however, confirms that visions facilitate vicarious learning and serve as “points of orientation…based on core values and shared perceptions….[and that they] do more than just appeal to the logical and rational mind; they touch upon the internalized norms, values, and preconceived notions underlying people’s perceptions, thinking, and decisions” (Dierkes, et al., 2004, pp. 284-285).

Metaphorically, overarching visions may be thought of as stars in the night’s sky used as points of orientation for navigating the organization. It is important to note, however, that visions – even overarching visions, are not necessarily fixated. This is especially true of technological visions because of the inherent unpredictable nature of technological advancements. It is within this context that Dierkes, et al., support Collins and Porras’ (1994) “argu[ment] that organizational visions must transcend existing products and practices or they can easily become obsolete” (pp. 294-295).

Cognitive and Experiential Triggers[edit | edit source]

Clark and Mirabile (2004) put forth the concept of “knowledge mapping”, a process of quickly and consistently organizing the mountain of information that faces an organization. After devising a framework of categories into which organizational information can be logically placed, a mapping strategy is essential to identify and classify the information. Clear and accurate mapping would require triggers – words, topical labels, or key indicators in order to differentiate the knowledge sharing into appropriate categories. Clark and Mirabile would suggest a listing of triggers that in turn would create a dictionary of categories.

Clark and Mirabile (2004) use the term triggers to emphasize the cognitive content of established knowledge as the basis for adding or “mapping” additional information to the current body of shared knowledge. This is in contrast to Brookfield who stresses the context of experience and the impact of certain events, often painful and negative, in the adult learning process (Merrian & Caffarella, 1999). These events serve as triggers that motivate adults toward change, evaluation, and renovation of the personal fabric of life. It is advisable that when any discussion or research done in reference to triggers, care should be taken to define the term in order for all to understand the context and framework of the concept.

Creativity as a Trigger[edit | edit source]

Cunha, Cunha and Kamoche (2002) suggest that an open minded and, indeed, creative approach to errors may serve as the trigger for organizational improvisation and learning. Rather than simply rewarding employees and managers for fixing problems, we should encourage their use as stimuli for further learning. Consider, they say, “an example from Nordstrom's department store where employees are encouraged to "respond to unreasonable customer requests." Stories circulate about an employee paying a customer's parking ticket when the store's gift wrapping took too long” (p. 148). This type of accommodation should be rewarded and viewed as a departure point for a learning journey aimed at discovering what caused the process to fail to produce the desired result.

Anxiety as a Trigger[edit | edit source]

Edgar Schein, as cited in Coutu, (2002), provides a useful and realistic view of the essential triggers of organizational learning. He maintains that anxiety is necessary as a trigger for learning. In this interview, he maintains that little is actually known about organizational learning and that true organizational learning is more than the sum of individual learning. Adopting a distinctly unpopular stance, Schein maintains that learning is coercive. He believes that anxiety, or more correctly, “learning anxiety” (p. 6) occurs when we are afraid of trying something new out of fear of failure, embarrassment, or the desire not to give up old paradigms. Conversely, “survival anxiety” (p. 6) is the realization that survival of the individual or the organization depends on change. Schein tells us that “the evidence is mounting that real change does not begin to occur until the organization experiences some real threat of pain that in some way dashes its expectations or hopes” (p. 6).

Summary[edit | edit source]

Stopford (2003) posits that "Organizational learning is a central component of the process of guided selectivity in response to market signals" (p. 264). He suggests that a learning trigger for most organizations is the market in which an organization functions. That includes technological advances, global environment, and competition. Stopford (2003) contends that organizations must follow any market changes that are relevant and change according to the results of market study. One area that tends to hold up the response to market changes is the administrative systems in organizations. The structural systems set up in may organizations serve to insulate the organizations "from changes in the market environment, or at least acts to delay responses" (Stopford, 2003, p. 271). He further suggests, "The primary role of the system is to ensure that the variety of signals received from the external environment and the processes of selection are continuously informed by the knowledge and perspectives of individuals and communities of practice within the firm" (p. 272).

Case studies & workplace examples[edit | edit source]

My “trigger event” occurred four years ago. My high school was accused of recruiting international students for our athletic program. The only truth in the allegations involved some inaccurate information shared on I-20 requests for the students to spend time at our school. There was also some misunderstanding concerning the guardianship requirements for international students staying with host families. Nonetheless, the accusations were picked up by the media and the state High School Athletic Association. We were placed on a 3-year probation and issued a substantial fine.

The “appraisal” stage for me involved a great deal of guilt. I was discouraged because I was not better aware of documents being signed and the overall process of enrolling international students (both responsibilities were given to other administrators). I was embarrassed for the school and my position.

The third stage “exploration” involved an internal investigation into the process, the recognition of our responsibilities, seeking the forgiveness of our student body and athletic teams, and the absorbing of the falsehood and untruth printed in the media. The school chose not to challenge the ruling of the state, but to submit to their decision.

The “developing of alternative perspectives” took some time as the consequences of the ruling produced many ripples into the integrity of the school. After some further personal investigation I began to regain my confidence in the school’s motive and purpose for enrolling international students. Our missionary outreach program and our desire to offer a Christian education to international students allowed me to recommit my confidence in the global interests of my school. The revamping and revisiting of various policies involving foreign exchange student has renewed a positive perspective in this part of our educational program.

The “integration” of these new ways of thinking into the fabric of my educational ministry took place with an increase of sensitivity to athletic eligibility issues and an awareness of the microscope under which Christian schools are viewed. I was amazed at the vindictive, aggressive, and destructive position that the media took on this issue. This experience brought into our thinking the need for extreme care in dealing with student enrollment and the acceptance of student athletes into the school system. We successfully completed the probationary period and have been reinstated with no restrictions.

Ford Motor Company[edit | edit source]

Two specific factors facing organizations today include social movements and special interest groups. For example, Ford Motor Company has been advertising in gay and lesbian magazines, recently. Some in the special interest evangelical movement has strongly objected to Ford’s advertising practices and see it as a promotion of a lifestyle to which they object. They have sought to use boycotts to convince Ford to change it advertising policies. How Ford responds can have negative financial implications on either side. However Ford reacts in the above situation will be a learning organization challenge. In whatever direction it goes, “new organizational competencies have to be acquired if critical issues are to be addressed successfully” (p. 221).

U.S. auto industry[edit | edit source]

Schein states that “survival anxiety” is the realization that survival of the individual or the organization depends on change (Coutu, 2002). This is demonstrated very clearly when one studies the U.S. auto industry and changes made for the sole purpose of "survival". All domestic competitors have undergone significant changes as a means of surviving the attack of foreign competition within our own market. U.S.-based manufacturers have had to work collaboratively with the unions that represent their workforces to make changes in wages, benefits, operating practices, and work rules. They have also had to make significant changes in product development, styling, value, and quality, in efforts to maintain a presence in the market. When there were only few competitors in the market, just 20 years ago, the "need" for change was not as great. Now, with well over 300 nameplates competing in the U.S. market, dramatic changes have had to been made just as the "price of admission" -- for example without excellence in product quality and safety, a manufacturer cannot even hope to get in the market. The threat to survival of individuals and organizations has become a reality, and has driven changes that are ultimately good for the customer. One wonders if, without this threat to survival, would the changes have occurred at all.

Organizational Learning: Contributions by Discipline · Organizational Learning: Influencing Factors

Organizational Learning: Contributions by Discipline · Learning Theories · Organizational Learning: Influencing Factors
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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