Change is often resisted at both the individual and organizational levels despite the potential for positive outcomes. The reasons for this are varied and the process of identifying them can be difficult. Robbins and Judge (2010) note that most organizations have developed practices and procedures over an extended period and being based on behaviors to which employees are strongly committed are by and large stable. In order for an organization to keep up in an ever evolving world it must learn and change accordingly. This paper examines the characteristics of a learning organization, barriers to change, and some of the elements that must be present in order to bring about organizational change.
Characteristics of a Learning Organization
A "big picture" organizational point-of-view, a supportive organizational culture and a common understanding and agreement of organizational goals are elements necessary for the creation and maintenance of a learning organization. Additionally, leadership must be decentralized in order to enhance the capacity of all people to work productively toward common goals.
Peter Senge asserts that members of the organization must have a "systems perspective" in order to understand the cause and effect ramifications of their decisions (Smith, 2001). Ron Brandt (1998) notes that learning organizations need members who can identify the organization's stages of development. Richard DuFour (2004) feels that for a learning organization to endure, its members must embrace the "big ideas" that represent core principles. These perspectives are necessary in order to cultivate mutual accountability for achieving organizational goals.
Senge, Brandt and DuFour identify a supportive organizational culture as essential to sustaining the tenets of a learning organization. Brandt (1998) says that the culture should be humane, psychologically comfortable, and professionally supportive. A place where people have the tools and the training they need, and where they have opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other. DuFour (2004) says that members of a learning organization recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose.
Learning organizations develop mutually agreed upon common goals in order to focus their problem solving energy. Brandt (1998) says that the organization must have challenging but achievable goals. Peter Senge (1990) frames this idea as building a shared vision. Such a vision has the capacity to be uplifting, encourage experimentation and innovation, and foster a sense of the future "we seek to create."
According to Stinson, Pearson, and Lucas (2006) a learning organization moves past simple employee training and into the realm of organizational problem-solving, innovation and learning. The creation of a learning organization necessitates shifting the organizations basic culture. Peter Senge (1990) describes a learning organization as place where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and extensive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together. An analogous concept to the learning organization is the professional learning community. Richard DuFour (2004) defines these as communities that focus on learning rather than teaching, work collaboratively, and hold themselves accountable for results.
Successful learning organizations have common characteristics. Foremost is the ability of the organization to change behaviors and mind-sets as a result of experience. Though this may seem obvious, many organizations refuse to recognize certain truths or facts and repeat dysfunctional behaviors over and again. Another attribute of such environments is that they tend to promote learning and leadership at all levels, establishing a culture of distributed leadership. Organizations that have adopted this approach find that individual responsibility increases significantly and accountability becomes clearer and stronger.
Furthermore learning organizations have a high tolerance for failure. It is essential that members of a learning organization have permission to fail from organizational leadership as well as their peers. If an organization's members are preoccupied with "playing it safe" opportunities for innovations and the development of new ideas will be lost. Organizational learning is more than individual learning and arises through the interaction of individuals in groups and teams of different sizes. The right environment is needed, one that allows time for reflection on past actions and outcomes and is prepared to accept some unpalatable truths. The culture needs to be focused on fixing problems, not fixing blame. Such an environment makes a distinction between mistakes that are the result of irresponsibility and lack of forethought and those that are genuine explorations of a new idea or a new way of working. Organizations that learn to embrace their failures profit from the knowledge gained. Learning organizations judge their effectiveness on results. The focus of goals shifts as the results are analyzed.
Barriers to Organizational Change
Senge identifies seven learning disabilities that affect organizations. They are 1) I am my position, 2) The enemy is out there, 3) The illusion of taking charge, 4) The fixation of events, 5) The parable of the boiling frog, 6) The delusion of learning from experience, and 7) The myth of the management team. Senge (1990, p. 18) asserts that the way organizations are designed and managed, the way people's job are defined, and the way people are taught to think and interact facilitates poor learning. What follows is a brief description and analysis of these disabilities.
I am my Position
This disability is the result of employees identifying more with the tasks they perform than with the purpose of their job. When employees are more concerned with their duties they have little concern for the responsibilities of the results produced when all positions interact. Furthermore, when the results are poor it becomes difficult to know why. The typical explanation is "someone screwed up" (Senge 1990, p. 18-19).
The Enemy is Out There
This disability has to do with people's inclination to fix blame instead of fixing problems. According to Senge there are some organizations that "…elevate this propensity to a commandment: Thou shall always find an external agent to blame" (Senge 1990, p. 19). This disability is a result of "I am my position" and the way it promotes looking at the world from a nonsystematic viewpoint. This perspective blinds one to seeing how their individual actions affect things outside of their position.
This syndrome is not limited to assigning blame within the organization. Typically organizations will find reasons to blame outside influences with their failure such as labor unions, cheap foreign wages, government regulations, or disloyal customers. This perspective makes it difficult for organizations to see the leverage they can employ on issues that overlap the boundary of in house and out there.
The Illusion of Taking Charge
This is a disability of misdirected proactive behavior. It occurs when organizations choose to attack difficult problems without fully understanding the systemic ramifications. Senge notes that being proactive is often seen as an "antidote for being reactive" (Senge 1990, p. 20). However, in many instances proactiveness is really reactiveness in disguise. If one simply becomes more aggressive fighting the "enemy out there" without situational understanding of the roots of the issue it is for all intents and purposes reacting. True proactive behavior comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems and is a product of thoughtful consideration, not emotion.
The Fixation of Events
According to Senge (1990, p. 21) conversations in organizations typically revolve around concerns generated by events such as last month's sales, personnel changes, product innovations, budgets issues and so forth. Focusing on events leads to "event" explanations. This perspective is part of our evolutionary background, necessitated to ensure survival. However, this view is not conducive to understanding slow gradual processes. Generative learning cannot be sustained in an organization if people's thinking is dominated by short-term events. Focusing on events leads to at best predicting the next event so you can prepare an appropriate response. This focus does not support creativity in dealing with issues on a big picture level.
The Parable of the Boiled Frog
The parable of the boiled frog recounts the circumstances created when a frog is placed into a pot of boiling water as opposed to when it is placed into a pot of room temperature water and the temperature of the water is gradually increased until the water boils. In the first instance the frog will immediately jump from the water. In the second instance the frog will remain in the water until it is boiled alive. Senge relates this to an organization's ability to recognize issues that threaten it. He says that learning to see slow gradual processes requires slowing down and analyzing the subtle as well as the dramatic. In other words, it is easy to notice dramatic shifts in the environment; however the subtle changes that are always gradually occurring in the environment are not so easily recognized. This is because people are geared to perceive immediate dangers. If an organization fails to slow down and see the gradual processes that often pose the greatest danger the organization is doomed to the fate of the frog (Senge 1990, p.22-23).