Analyze Concept Learning Organization, • The Organizational Conditions Suited A Managerial Intervention; • Its Implications Managing People; • Its Likelihood Success
Under what conditions is it likely to be successful?
The idea of a 'learning organization' has become one of the most popular concepts in managerial theory. It originated with the theorist Donald Schon, who stressed that given the mutability of the exterior environment, business organizations must likewise be responsive to changes and change with the times (Smith 2001) . Only by learning from the exterior environment can an organization be effective, and that means creating a workforce that is similarly responsive, teachable, and able to 'learn' in a dynamic fashion.
However, the extent to which such a concept can be realized and what constitutes a learning organization has been hotly debated. "While there has been a lot of talk about learning organizations it is very difficult to identify real-life examples. This might be because the vision is 'too ideal' or because it isn't relevant to the requirements and dynamics of organizations" (Smith 2001). The most commonly-cited examples of learning organizations include Apple and Google -- organizations which encourage employees to take risks and are highly supportive of workers for doing so. For example, Google famously allows its employees to spend up to 20% of their time on their own projects, which has generated new and exciting ideas for the company, as well as improved retention and made the organization a magnet for top talent (Gargulio 2002). With its positive employee engagement, Google states: "our voluntary turnover is 4% or less in an average industry of 22%, and we estimate it is saving the company hundreds of millions in company turnover" (Gargulio 2011). Talented workers are attracted to the organization's many perks, including the ability to learn and grow with Google.
A number of researchers have noticed a there is often confusion between studying organizational learning and what constitutes a learning organization: "The literature on organizational learning has concentrated on the detached collection and analysis of the processes involved in individual and collective learning inside organizations; whereas the learning organizations literature has an action orientation, and is geared toward using specific diagnostic and evaluative methodological tools which can help to identify, promote and evaluate the quality of learning processes inside organizations" (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 2; see also Tsang 1997" ( cited by Smith 2001). All organizational actors are engaged in some kind of learning, although sometimes the learning that takes place is not something that management desires. (Employees might 'learn' that their input is not valued, that no one cares if they do a lackluster job, for example). The positive values of the learning organization, in contrast, must be actively promoted and orchestrated.
One definition of a learning organization is that it is "made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. These people could help their firms cultivate tolerance, foster open discussion, and think holistically and systemically. Such learning organizations would be able to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than their competitors could" (Garvin, Edmonson & Gino 2008). Creating a learning organization is not something that can be achieved once and for all, like a productivity goal. The learning process must be continually invested in and supported. It is a "way of thinking about what an organization needs to be like in order to ensure its survival and success in the future" (Pearn 1994). Changes in technology, the geopolitical environment, and the skill sets of employees require organizations to constantly reassess their priorities. The organization must respond to change while still holding true to its core principles.
The organizational conditions it is best suited to as a managerial intervention
Although it might seem that 'learning' is not a controversial topic, there is some debate regarding the value of creating a learning organization and the question of what types of organizations can benefit from adopting the model. Critics state that all too often the foundation of the learning organization is orchestrated in a top-down fashion: "In a climate of 'continuous' innovation the individual theoretically can never be grounded in a sense of expertise or stability. Nor does the individual have control over pronouncing what counts as knowledge, including personally constructed knowledge," thus disempowering workers (Fenwick n.d.). Because the organization is constantly trying to instruct and reform employees, the real expertise of employees is not truly valued.
At the heart of this controversy is the extent to which a learning organization must be democratic. In his book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, management guru Peter Senge tended to present the changes orchestrated by the learning organization in a top-down fashion, while other enthusiasts stress that a participatory, democratic approach is required for the organization to function effectively (Smith 2001). Another definition of learning organizations is that they "are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles (Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118)" (cited by Smith 2001). In this conception, employees must not simply 'learn along' with the organization, but also act as teachers and shapers of the organization itself, and help define its common goals.
Ways to support this organizational learning include "coaching, on-demand training, and performance support tools" and providing the types of opportunities for independent learning that are essential for worker success (Bersin 2012). Workers are often educated by more experienced employees, but fundamentally there is a dialogue between staff members, not merely a monologue. Organizations which are dependent upon the talent of their employees for success must be willing to make a long-term investment in employee growth. For example, "the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland gives its bank examiners a 7-year apprenticeship program" (Bersin 2012). These employees are given empowering knowledge to improve their own skills, and the organization reaps the benefits. Organizations which foster such positive growth have been shown to have workforces characterized by "increased innovation and productivity, low turnover, low sickness rates, and high employee satisfaction" (Gargiulo 2011). A committed workforce is essential for a knowledge-based organization like Google or Apple to thrive.
Organizations which rely upon human capital (such as Google and other technological organizations or service-based organizations) can clearly benefit from the learning organizational model that stresses investing in human talent. The learning organization concept encourages workers to feel a sense of control over their own fate in the organization: it is not just a job, but a place they have built with their own ideas and input. "A learning organization places high value on individual and organizational learning as a prime asset. For an organization to regard something as a prime asset it must take stock, invest in and capitalize on it. Many organizations are accustomed to doing this with tangible assets such as buildings and land, and also for less tangible assets such as brands, patents, and even goodwill" (Pearn 1994).
However, a commitment to employees is clearly not enough. Some organizations, such as Kodak and IBM had very positive employee training and skill-building programs, but ultimately were not able to change with the times (the creation of digital photography and changes in the personal computer market cut into the profits of these once-stalwart companies) (Pearn 1994). A combination of employee commitment; clear goals and priorities; the ability to be flexible and other factors all contribute to the realization of the elusive concept of 'organizational learning.' The organization must itself have a clear mission to guide employees, but not be so autocratic that the desire for employee improvement stifles worker enthusiasm and creativity.
Yet even at its most liberal, a learning organization is not simply a free-for-all democracy. There must be some mechanisms to evaluate what works and what does not work for employees. For example, in the military, whenever there is an action, "there is always an 'after-action review.' This is a formal process which forces the team to socialize what worked, what didn't, and what processes will be changed to improve the outcome next time" (Bersin 2012). The military is a hierarchical, not a democratic organization, but it strives to mentor, train, and invest in its employees. It critically analyzes its successes and failures and thus even it exhibits elements of a 'learning organization' to some degree. Not all organizations deploy the components of the 'learning organization' to the same extent, depending upon their needs. However, most organizations that are able to survive in the dynamic global environment, where service, new ideas, and offering added value are all critical components of success, deploy at least some of the features of the learning organization.
When does a 'learning organizational' model not work? When the organization is entertaining options that might be perceived as antithetical to worker interests, such as downsizing or when it is required that "some members to give up a substantial part of their identity to become part of such a cohesive group, a group that tends to tolerate little diversity," the learning model may be perceived as having an exploitative or…