Learning Organization: A New Paradigm in Business Management
Any company that is going to make it... (in the 21st century) has got to find a way to engage the mind of every single employee. If you're not thinking all the time about making every person more valuable, you don't have a chance. What's the alternative? Wasted minds? Uninvolved people? A labor force that's angry or bored? That doesn't make sense!"
John Welch, Jr.
In every companies annual report there is always a statement about how important human capital is when determining the overall success of any business. These organizations assert that their employees are a highly valued part of their companies and that their efforts and resources are focused on both employee satisfaction and continuous employee development. In some situations, these statements are true. But in some companies, they are only words strung together in a way that impresses potential shareholders. When most organizations are studied, the reality of their commitment to employees and continuous learning is contrary to what is usually expressed in the annual report or in their mission and vision statements. In most cases, employees are treated as "disposable resources to be used and disposed of as the organization sees fit, like pawns in a great, competitive contest among the mighty lords of industry. Because of this approach, many of a firm's best employees leave, seeking opportunities for growth, development, and appreciation in other organizations." (Gilley et al., 2000) In most companies today, there is a divide between the perceived value of employees and their treatment within the organizations that they serve.
But, as radical changes in the way we work are beginning to revolutionize business and modern society, companies are being forced to re-think the value of their human capital. The days of paying lip service to the concept of the employee as king is over -- and investing in employees and their continuous learning in the 21st century is in. Most organizations, in order to survive, must now morph into what is commonly referred to as a "learning organization" and managers are being compelled to constantly retool themselves as well as their business teams in order to survive in the new workplace.
So what is a learning organization? "A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights." (Goh, 1998) For most companies, identifying what a learning organization should be and actually becoming one is tricky at best -- impossible at worst. One way that manager's and companies can promote the concept of being a learning organization is to assess whether the company is in need of a short-term fix or whether it is more focused on long-term results. "Organizational learning is a long-term activity that will build competitive advantage over time and requires sustained management attention, commitment, and effort. A list of companies frequently cited as learning organizations confirms this fact. These companies include Motorola, Wal-Mart, British Petroleum (BP), Xerox, Shell, Analog Devices, GE, 3M, Honda, Sony, Nortel, Harley-Davidson, Corning, Kodak, and Chaparral Steel." (Goh) Learning organizations maximize their competitive positions during strong economic times and they prudently train their employees and prepare for change even in turbulent times. As a result, learning organizations and learning managers are usually envied by their competitors who are still struggling to stay competitive, but are not willing to do what it takes to improve overall company and employee performance.
It is important to note that no matter how much money a company invests to position themselves as a learning organization, if they fail to properly train their managers the process has little chance for success. Managers are a company's "front line marketers" when it comes to rolling out new initiatives and training programs. If the manager of one department refuses to invest in all of his employees equally, the process will break down and the company will become stagnant. Becoming a learning organization therefore begins with management.
One of the first steps a learning manager needs to take in building a learning organization from within his/her department is to build trust between themselves and all of their employees. "An (learning manager) can build an effective relationship with employees only if certain conditions are met. We suggest that those conditions are expressed in the level of trust, commitment, organizational support, and the kinds of communication embedded in each and experienced in the employee's work life." (Barker et al., 1998)
Trust can be defined as a "generalized expectancy or belief held by an individual that another individuals' word - oral or written statement can be relied upon." (Barker et al.) Trust has a huge impact on employee influence, coordination and control. Additionally, trust impacts an employee's perceptions of quality of work life. "Trust encompasses not only a belief about the trustworthiness of a fellow worker but also the willingness to act on that belief, especially in situations of uncertainty. Trust then is based on the organization's statements about itself - perhaps in its mission statement - and the way managers and employees interact orally, non-verbally, and in writing." (Barker et al.)
So what can a learning manager do to enhance the development of trust and communication in a learning organization? Managers must be sure that inclusion and control among subordinates is promoted within their department. When learning managers communicate with employees the should: (a) understand and accept the role of the other person, (b) encourage supportive rather than defensive behaviors - reinforce strong internal - as opposed to merely external - motivation (d) provide descriptive feedback rather than judgmental evaluations, (e) align goals between and among members of the department, (f) manage the amount and flow of information in the department, (g) avoid stereotypes, and (h) provide a "mental state" of readiness as people prepare to interact with each other rather than a haphazard exchange. "The benefits of these kinds of effective interpersonal interactions oral, nonverbal, or written and experienced through business, managerial, corporate, or organizational communication - contribute to organizational learning." (Pinchot et al., 1993)
The second thing a learning manager needs to do is gain the commitment of their work team. Commitment is defined as a "sense of being bound emotionally or intellectually to some course of action" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1997). "Commitment is a relational continuity between individuals and parties, implies deferring gratification for long-term benefits, is displayed in the on-going actions of an organization to its members, is experienced in positive socialization activities, and enhances the affective attachment to an organization which produces extra effort." (Cutcher-Gershenfeld et al., 1998) In order for a manager to design a true atmosphere that promotes continuous learning opportunities, trust and commitment must thrive in an atmosphere that is perceived by all employees as supportive and employee-focused. How an employee perceives a company's treatment of them greatly influences their interpretation of the intentions and motives of the company. Management communication and behavior that is consistent, reliable, trustworthy, and predictable increases an employee's positive attachment to the business. For example, employees who perceive management support tend to reciprocate and extend their efforts to meet manager-specific and company-specific goals and objectives through higher performance and reduced absenteeism. (Rowden, 2001) Managers that embrace learning value the employee, employee empowerment, and create an atmosphere that promotes employee ownership and acceptance of responsibility. These indicators, which are created through manger commitment and communication, are vital if knowledge is to develop.
Learning managers also embrace the public praise of their subordinates, this send a powerful message of support to employees, who want and need to be recognized for their daily efforts. "This treatment influences an employee's perception of the motives underlying that treatment. This perception of fairness communicated by the (manager) influences the employee's understanding of how the organization values the employee. Perceived fairness has been found to positively influence volitional, extra-role behaviors of employees." (Barker et al.)
Learning managers must also freely empower their employees to develop a greater sense of self-esteem. "Empowered employees overcome internal perceptions of powerlessness and helplessness to take action in accomplishing organizational goals." (Barker et al.) But how is empowerment different from requiring more work from fewer people? "Empowerment allows employees to look at themselves as having meaningful impact in their work lives. It is communicated in learning organizations by allowing employees the freedom to act beyond their clearly defined area of responsibility, by being in the loop of information flow and decision making, by delegating an appropriate degree of control, and by ensuring resources are available to do the job." (Clardy, 2002)
Learning managers understand clearly that employees who are committed to them and to their company are more likely to remain loyal and committed to the future of the company. Overwhelmingly, employees who work under a learning manager almost always communicate a willingness to accept responsibility because they perceive management and organizational support. When employees receive a congruous message from both learning managers and their organizations that the manager (and/or company) values and cares…