Whither the learning organization?

Why aren’t we all working for a learning organisation? ask John Seddon and Brendan O’Donovan,  authors of this same-titled 2010 AMED Network paper ( PDF ). This article is well worth the read for anyone interested in learning organizations, an often-described but seldom-observed phenomenon in my experience. The Deming quotes show that this is not new conceptual territory:

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers – a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university.

On the job people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.” (Deming in Senge 2006)

Deming understood that systemic factors account for more organizational problems, and therefore more potential for change, than any individual’s performance. The role of managers should be to manage the system, not the individual functions. The authors target the real culprit: command & control management. This is why the learning organization has never taken hold in business.

For many years I have been fairly certain that the model we use for our structures is the problem, not the people doing the work.  This article, and the works it cites, help to confirm this.

I have only perused Deming slightly and I read Senge’s work 15 years ago, while completing my Master’s thesis. It’s time to revisit these important works, as also suggested to me by Bertrand Duperrin. I like that this article clearly articulates the work to be done in organizational design and new management theory, based on the research of Senge, Deming, Argyris and many others. It is an excellent synthesis of the work that has been done in the field as well as a call for the work to be done in our organizations.

The basic precepts of command and control have remained unquestioned whilst the underlying paradigm has outlived its usefulness. The problem is not a general problem of culture, but more specifically is one of management thinking. In order to change this mindset, managers must learn to study their organisation as a system, and to understand the true nature of the problems facing them.

4 Responses to “Whither the learning organization?”

  1. Daan Assen

    Very thought provoking! I love the publications on the Learning Organization. They are abstract and paint a picture of an organization that no one would resist. It’s implementation though is very hard, because it requires a deep change in most organizations on all organizational aspects (e.g. style, structure, systems, …).

    The research on learning organizations and organizational learning tends to focus on organizations that are far from these concepts (large corporations with scientific management roots). That is why I find it interesting to research organizations on the other end of the continuum: organizational learning in new ventures / start-ups.

    These new organizations have most of the admired characteristics of learning organizations, but still also have their limitations in learning. They often lack the command & control, structure and systems required to effectively capture their learning. The ‘too much’ that large organizations have of these factors can be ‘too less’ in new ventures.

    The inhibiting factors for learning therefore have two different faces.

  2. tom gram

    Hey Harold:
    Nice post. Deming and Senge were in sync on many things. Deming’s quality approach was built on a systems view of an organization, but his view was based more on continuous improvement of workflow, whereas Senge looked at deeper system dynamics at work and long term (delayed) impacts of current decisions (like Argyris). Learning through observation of the results of actions and reflection were at the core of both. You mentioned you hadn’t read much Deming (it’s pretty dry) but if you want a nice overview from a follower that articulated the approach nicely try Brian Joiners fourth generation management, which i mentioned in this post a while ago. http://bit.ly/aqfaYO

    Tom

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