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Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations: An Overview

© Copyright, 1996, Yogesh Malhotra, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved
E-Mail: malhotra@brint.com

Reference citation for this document is given below:
Malhotra, Yogesh. (1996). Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations: An Overview [WWW document]. URL http://www.brint.com/papers/orglrng.htm

This working paper may be printed as a paper copy for non-profit, non-commercial, academic or educational use provided no alterations are made and the copyright notice is maintained intact.
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[More on Organizational Learning | More on Knowledge Management]

What is Organizational Learning?

Argyris (1977) defines organizational learning as the process of "detection and correction of errors." In his view organizations learn through individuals acting as agents for them: "The individuals' learning activities, in turn, are facilitated or inhibited by an ecological system of factors that may be called an organizational learning system" (p. 117).

Huber (1991) considers four constructs as integrally linked to organizational learning: knowledge acquisition, information distribution, information interpretation, and organizational memory. He clarifies that learning need not be conscious or intentional. Further, learning does not always increase the learner's effectiveness, or even potential effectiveness. Moreover, learning need not result in observable changes in behavior. Taking a behavioral perspective, Huber (1991) notes: An entity learns if, through its processing of information, the range of its potential behaviors is changed.

Weick (1991) argues that the defining property of learning is the combination of same stimulus and different responses, however it is rare in organizations meaning either organizations don't learn or that organizations learn but in nontraditional ways. He further notes: "Perhaps organizations are not built to learn. Instead, they are patterns of means-ends relations deliberately designed to make the same routine response to different stimuli, a pattern which is antithetical to learning in the traditional sense" (p. 119). Or else, he argues, Organizational Learning perhaps involves a different kind of learning than has been described in the past: "the process within the organization by which knowledge about action-outcome relationships and the effect of the environment on these relationships is developed" (Duncan & Weiss 1979). In his view, "a more radical approach would take the position that individual learning occurs when people give a different response to the same stimulus, but Organizational Learning occurs when groups of people give the same response to different stimuli."

What is a Learning Organization?

Senge (1990) defines the Learning Organization as the organization "in which you cannot not learn because learning is so insinuated into the fabric of life." Also, he defines Learning Organization as "a group of people continually enhancing their capacity to create what they want to create." I would define Learning Organization as an "Organization with an ingrained philosophy for anticipating, reacting and responding to change, complexity and uncertainty." The concept of Learning Organization is increasingly relevant given the increasing complexity and uncertainty of the organizational environment. As Senge (1990) remarks: "The rate at which organizations learn may become the only sustainable source of competitive advantage."

McGill et al. (1992) define the Learning Organization as "a company that can respond to new information by altering the very "programming" by which information is processed and evaluated."

Organizational Learning vs. Learning Organization?

Ang & Joseph (1996) contrast Organizational Learning and Learning Organization in terms of process versus structure.

McGill et al. (1992) do not distinguish between Learning Organization and Organizational Learning. They define Organizational Learning as the ability of an organization to gain insight and understanding from experience through experimentation, observation, analysis, and a willingness to examine both successes and failures.

What is Adaptive Learning vs. Generative Learning?

The current view of organizations is based on adaptive learning, which is about coping. Senge (1990) notes that increasing adaptiveness is only the first stage; companies need to focus on Generative Learning or "double-loop learning" (Argyris 1977). Generative learning emphasizes continuous experimentation and feedback in an ongoing examination of the very way organizations go about defining and solving problems. In Senge's (1990) view, Generative Learning is about creating - it requires "systemic thinking," "shared vision," "personal mastery," "team learning," and "creative tension" [between the vision and the current reality]. [Do Japanese companies accomplish the same thing with "strategic" and "interpretive" equivocality"?] Generative learning, unlike adaptive learning, requires new ways of looking at the world.

In contrast, Adaptive Learning or single-loop learning focuses on solving problems in the present without examining the appropriateness of current learning behaviors. Adaptive organizations focus on incremental improvements, often based upon the past track record of success. Essentially, they don't question the fundamental assumptions underlying the existing ways of doing work. The essential difference is between being adaptive and having adaptability.

To maintain adaptability, organizations need to operate themselves as "experimenting" or "self-designing" organizations, i.e., should maintain themselves in a state of frequent, nearly-continuous change in structures, processes, domains, goals, etc., even in the face of apparently optimal adaption (Nystrom et al. 1976; Hedberg et al. 1976; Starbuck 1983). Hedberg et al. (1977) argue that operating in this mode is efficacious, perhaps even required, for survival in fast changing and unpredictable environments. They reason that probable and desirable consequences of an ongoing state of experimentation are that organizations learn about a variety of design features and remain flexible.

What's the Managers' Role in the Learning Organization?

Senge (1990) argues that the leader's role in the Learning Organization is that of a designer, teacher, and steward who can build shared vision and challenge prevailing mental models. He/she is responsible for building organizations where people are continually expanding their capabilities to shape their future -- that is, leaders are responsible for learning.

What's the Relationship between Strategy and Organizational Learning?

Or, as Mintzberg (1987) says: the key is not getting the right strategy but fostering strategic thinking. Or as Shell has leveraged the concept of Learning Organization in its credo "planning as learning" (de Geus 1988). Faced with dramatic changes and unpredictability in the world oil markets, Shell's planners realized a shift of their basic task: "We no longer saw our task as producing a documented view of the future business environment five or ten years ahead. Our real target was the microcosm (the 'mental model') of our decision makers." They reconceptualized their basic task as fostering learning rather than devising plans and engaged the managers in ferreting out the implications of possible scenarios. This conditioned the managers to be mentally prepared for the uncertainties in the task environment. Thus, they institutionalized the learning process at Shell.

The key ingredient of the Learning Organization is in how organizations process their managerial experiences. Learning Organizations/Managers learn from their experiences rather than being bound by their past experiences. In Generative Learning Organizations, the ability of an organization/manager is not measured by what it knows (that is the product of learning), bur rather by how it learns -- the process of learning. Management practices encourage, recognize, and reward: openness, systemic thinking, creativity, a sense of efficacy, and empathy.

What is the Role of Information Systems in the Learning Organization?

Although, Huber (1991) explicitly specifies the role of IS in the Learning Organization as primarily serving Organizational Memory, in my view, IS can serve the other three processes (Knowledge Acquisition, Information Distribution, and Information Interpretation) as well. One instance of use of IS in Knowledge Acquisition is that of Market Research and Competitive Intelligence Systems. At the level of planning, scenario planning tools can be used for generating the possible futures. Similarly, use of Groupware tools, Intranets, E-mail, and Bulletin Boards can facilitate the processes of Information Distribution and Information Interpretation. The archives of these communications can provide the elements of the Organizational Memory. Organizational Memory needs to be continuously updated and refreshed. The IT basis of OM suggested by Huber (1991) lies at the basis of organizational rigidity when it becomes "hi-tech hide bound" (Kakola 1995) and is unable to continuously adapt its "theory of the business" (Drucker).

Does IT Impose Any Constraints on Organizational Learning?

Huber (1991) notes that "it might be reasonable to conclude that more learning has occurred when more and more varied interpretations have been developed, because such development changes the range of the organization's potential behaviors..." (p. 102). However, most extant information systems focus on the convergence of interpretation and are not geared for multiple interpretations (Argyris 1977). Mason & Mitroff (1973), in their seminal article, had noted that the Lockean and Leibnitzian characteristic of the dominant MIS model as its limiting characteristics. These designs are based on the convergence of interpretations. In contrast, Kantian and Hegelian inquiry systems (Churchman 1971) are needed for facilitating multiple interpretations. These systems also underlie the notion of "unlearning" (Hedberg 1981) which implies discarding of "obsolete and misleading knowledge." While Kantian inquirer offers complementary interpretations, the Hegelian inquirer offers a "deadly enemy" contradictory interpretation. The dialectic of convergent and divergent inquiry facilitates the surfacing of hidden assumptions.

Argyris (1977) has argued that the "massive technology of MIS, quality control systems, and audits of quality control systems is designed for single loop learning." Essentially, he asserts that the problem of using IT is in its reinforcement of the prevailing [rigid] structures (cf: Orlikowski 1991). He attributes the overarching command-and-control structures for the "gaps of knowledge" that top managers design to manage effectively: "Another set of attitudes usually developed is that lower level managers and employees can be trusted only to the extent that they can be monitored" (p. 117). He argues that the problems related to MIS implementation are more related to organizational factors than to the underlying technology.

Argyris (1977) re-examines the debate around the implementation crisis of MIS in light of the theory of Organizational Learning (the detection and correction of error). His analysis suggests that many of the recommendations to overcome the difficulties may be inadequate and, in some cases, counterproductive.

Argyris (1977) suggests that there are "deeper" reasons behind the implementation gap of MIS, especially when the technology was used to deal with the more complex and ill-structured problems faced by the organization. He suggests that the MIS need to be viewed as a part of a more general problem of Organizational Learning. He avers that an organization may be said to learn to the extent that it identifies and corrects error. This requirement, in turn, implies that learning also requires the capacity to know when it is unable to identify and correct errors.

He argues that the overwhelming amount of learning done in an organization is single loop because the "underlying program is not questioned": it is designed to identify and correct errors so that the job gets done and the action remains within stated policy guidelines. "The massive technology of MIS, quality control systems, and audits of the quality control systems is designed for single loop learning" (p. 113). The trouble arises when the technology is not effective and when the underlying objectives and policies must be questioned. [Compare with IT reinforcing the existing controls (Orlikowski 1991); Also the discontinuous change may pose this need.]

He states: "Most organizations, often without realizing it, create systems of learning that suppress double loop inquiry and make it very difficult for even well designed information system to be effective" (p. 114).

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