Why a Learning Organization?


            To understand the desire to become a Learning Organization, you must understand a little about organizational change.  Too often change is seen by employees as disruptive and ill conceived.  And most efforts at planned change fail to meet their objectives.  At the same time, everyone will agree that change is inevitable.  The global business environment continues to place growing demands on organizations to be more efficient and competitive.  Information continues to grow exponentially, creating the double challenge of finding the critical piece of information in the swirling mess and also mining value from massive amounts of data.  Everybody enjoys some level of stability without the disruption of change being forced on them.  At the same time, some change is preferred to the boredom that comes from excessive routine.  The key factor here is personal control over the change process.  A second factor is the magnitude of the organizational change that is involved in most planned change projects.  Must organizational change be this way?  How can change be accomplished with less disruption and more personal control?  The answer can be found in the approach taken to change and the assumptions held about change itself.

            Our success depends on our ability to out maneuver competition, taking every advantage we can.  The difficulty lies in finding the points of competitive leverage.  Technical advances can be copied by competition.  Capital infrastructure can be purchased by competition.  Strategies can be copied by competition.  New product offerings can be duplicated by competition.  The only significant advantage in all areas is our ability to continue to innovate, staying one step ahead of others in being more efficient in what we do and in how we generate new ideas.  Even if we limit ourselves to the best practices of others, we will only be following their success.  We must generate our own best practices.  And this involves people.  People; you, me, all employees working together and with outside partners.  Our knowledge and drive to use our full capabilities to be the best cannot be duplicated elsewhere.  This is the only true competitive advantage.  To reach our potential, we must continue to move toward becoming the organization everyone else looks to as the standard of competitive excellence. 

            This brings us back to organizational change and the need to improve our capabilities for being quicker and better than others.  It also requires that we examine our assumptions about organizational change.  Must it be disruptive?  Must change be forced on us by others?  No, not if we continue to move toward becoming a Learning Organization.  In both cases, disruption and force are the result of the way we approach change.  Any large organization has a certain level of bureaucracy that is the legacy of past success.  The underlying assumption is that the basis for success must be institutionalized so that additional success can be captured.  The difficulty with this approach is that the business environment continues to evolve, totally outside our control.  What led to past success may not necessarily be what is required for future success.  Yet the bureaucracy, once in place, is difficult to change.  Look at some of the examples from the past.  The amount of time IBM continued to focus on mainframe computers while others were bringing out new PC technology.  The railroads continuing to focus on the railroad business and not seeing the role they played in the larger transportation infrastructure of this country.  Sony’s decision to focus their efforts on the success of the Betamax technology for the consumer market.  The real problem arises not from change, but from suppressing change from occurring.  Not changing does not eliminate the need to change; it only delays the change as pressure builds.  And when the inevitable change occurs, it is often very large and disruptive because there is a certain amount of catch-up involved in the change effort.  The alternative to a large, planned change effort is to see change as an emergent process.  In this manner, many incremental changes are encouraged creating an organization that has more flexibility and speed to meet competitive threats.  This requires an organization that understands the change process and actively works to build the competencies (individual and organizational) that are needed.

            Closely associated with the magnitude of the change process is the oversight process for guiding the change along its path.  Our basic assumption about organizational change is that it requires top management to take the necessary leadership role.  One reason is that large, transformational change touches so many parts of the organization that top management must be involved for the change process to be effective.  Of course, this assumption is based on the premise that the change process is indeed required to be large.  Another more basic assumption that is held by most people is the degree of control we hold individually over our personal ability to initiate change.  Again, if we limit our focus to the large, transformational changes it is true that we have very little control unless we occupy one of the top positions in the company.  Yet, why do we limit ourselves to “controlling” change?  Probably because that is the traditional way organizations have been run in the past, through command and control mechanisms.  Breaking with past practices and envisioning an empowering environment yields another approach to organizational change, influencing.  While you may not have control to mandate a change, everyone has enormous opportunity to influence change.  Besides, mandated change rarely has any sustaining value while small grassroots ideas can gain widespread acceptance.  This shift in attitude toward how change is initiated requires a little understanding of the process of empowerment, which can be viewed in two very different ways.  The more traditional way is to assume you are greatly limited in your actions until you are told otherwise.  The other is more enlightening in that you take the initiative to stretch yourself until the limits of your authority are encountered.  Too often, the outcome of one situation is assumed to apply in another situation without testing that assumption.  The danger lies in not knowing whether such an assumption is correct without some type of validation.  Otherwise, the greater limitation comes from personal perception and not actually imposed boundaries.

            So what is a Learning Organization?  Simply, it is an organization that tests its assumptions and continually strives for improvement.  Toward this objective, the field of organizational learning has grown slowly over the last decade with many of the learning techniques now moving from theory into practice.  Granted, it can be claimed that only individuals learn and we all know about the learning process from our childhood.  However, limiting learning to formal classroom situations overlooks the amount of learning that takes place through observing others around us and reflecting on the drivers for the actions we are seeing.  This is why failure to walk the talk so easily undermines mandated change even when proclaimed from the top of the organization and supplemented in formal training programs.  Learning as a group also gains organizational perspectives not seen when focusing only at the individual level.  In this case, it is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Collective learning and understanding bring greater value than what can be accomplished individually.  Organizational learning is also challenging many of the assumptions about organizational change that we sometimes hold without questioning.  How often do you have an idea for improvement, but fail to take any action because it is thought to be someone else’s job?  Is strategic alignment a singular focus on one way of doing things?  Or is it a search for many alternatives all aligned to a shared vision?  With diversity of ways of thinking comes an increased likelihood of eventually having the right approach as more information becomes available.  Why must organizational silos exist?  What contributes to their development and maintenance?  How do we balance knowledgeable risk taking with having too much information, but not enough of the right kind?  How can we attain personal excellence while considering the needs of others?  These are all questions we must ask ourselves if we are to fulfill our potential.  Organizational learning attempts to provide organizations with mechanisms to deal with these issues and the organizational assumptions we implicitly hold.

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Transformative Networking – connecting change leaders to enable self-organized grassroots change.

Next Steps – While still conceptual, transformative networking offers the possibility of leading change through the networking of those already interested or involved in similar initiatives, effectively tearing down existing silos of practice that exist across disciplines and fields of work.  The next step is to develop a proof of concept built on the theoretical underpinnings above, possibly using Google Wave as the collaboration platform.  Included will be identifying the minimal structure and governance required to enable self-organization within the network while not constraining what might emerge.  Join this initiative and help create the future of organizing - networking communities of interest.

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Last modified: July 19, 2009