The learning organization: an often-described, but seldom-observed phenomenon

What should a true learning organization look like?

W. Edwards 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 real barrier to systemic change, such as becoming a learning organization, is command & control management. This is why the third principle for net work, shared power, is a major stumbling block to becoming a learning organization. Narration of work and transparency are easy, compared to sharing power. But learning is what organizations need to do well in order to survive and thrive.

In 2009 I listened to Peter Senge’s keynote address at the CSTD national conference. Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline is the seminal text for learning organizations. His later research findings showed that a key factor in sustaining an enterprise is organizational learning. Knowledge, Senge said, is the capacity for effective action (know how) and it is the only aspect of knowledge that really matters in business and life. Value is created by teams, but mostly by networks of people. Even team-based knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks.

This year I have reviewed and synthesized several of my observations on learning in networked environments. Here is what I have found.

1) Learning is not something to get. Individuals need to take control of their learning in a world where they are simultaneously connected, mobile, and global; while conversely contractual, part-time, and local. Organizations must also move learning away from training and HR, as some external band-aid solution that gets called in from time to time. Learning must be an essential part of doing business in the network age. Learning has to be owned by the workers and learning support has to be a business function.

2) The only knowledge that can be managed is our own. In my opinion, knowledge management should be about supporting personal knowledge mastery in networks, with a distributed, not a centralized, approach. Net Work Literacy entails self-organized learning while cooperating in diverse networks. Each of us is responsible for our own learning but we are now obliged to share this learning. If nobody shared what they have learned, there would be no Wikipedia or other free learning resources on the web. The same pertains to sharing inside organizations.

3) Learning in the workplace is much more than formal training. There are many relatively simple and fairly inexpensive things that can be done to support workplace learning. These include creating real and virtual spaces to encourage conversation. In an open environment, learning will flourish, as it has on the Web.

4) When we remove artificial boundaries, we enable innovation.

“The central change with Enterprise 2.0 and ideas of managing knowledge [is] not managing knowledge anymore — get out of the way, let people do what they want to do, and harvest the stuff that emerges from it because good stuff will emerge. So, it’s been a fairly deep shift in thinking about how to capture and organize and manage knowledge in an organization.” —Andy McAfee

5) Learning is everywhere. Learning and working are interconnected in the network era. If learning support is not connected to work, it’s rather useless. Net workers need more than advice (training), they need ongoing, real-time, constantly-changing, collaborative, support. This is management’s primary responsibility in a learning organization.

In my experience, these three indicators would suggest a true learning organization:

the historian
Image: E. Irving Couse; The Historian

11 Responses to “The learning organization: an often-described, but seldom-observed phenomenon”

  1. Tom Spiglanin

    This is a fantastic summary of learning in networked environments.

    Where I struggle is in developing/stimulating/catalyzing self-directed learners (I’m not sure which verb is most appropriate, since I can’t make anyone want to learn). Somehow that passion needs to be ignited, it won’t “just happen” in the absence of barriers. The key may be in your three indicators – seniors leaders walking the talk, both valuing and demonstrating the value of what I call “on fire” learning, where we constantly look for the learning opportunity in every situation.

    • Harold Jarche

      I suggest starting with a core group who understand the specific context of how they can they can better share knowledge and collaborate in their unique organization. Over time they can model the behaviours for others in the organization. However, leadership needs to be engaged and supportive.

  2. Mitch

    I wonder if we are missing a piece of the puzzle. We focus on group behavior, networks, formalities and barriers, but I would suggest that even in situations where we create the enviroments for learning, the individual struggles. Systems of the past and today, literally develop a worker who is uninterested and lacks the curiosity of a Da Vinci or Galileo. I think we have to do more than shift the organizational culture. We have to enable learners to redevelop the curiosity they had as a child….

    • Harold Jarche

      I think we need to focus on group behaviour at the organizational level and allow individuals the space to develop their own learning. Industrial systems, and HR departments, have tried to micro-manage the individual and that is partly to blame for disengaged workers. As I wrote a few years back:

      Learning and becoming knowledge-able are now basic requirements for every worker. These are basic requirements for life, as much as food and water. We don’t manage what or how our employees eat and we don’t need to manage their knowledge or learning. We can make it easier for them to learn and share knowledge though, just like putting in a cafeteria or a water fountain. Workers need support and tools to develop these personal processes, but the organization should stay out of the business of knowledge and learning and instead focus on collaboration.

  3. Candice Kramer

    Agree wholeheartedly. Many times, and certainly in my organization, cultural imperatives play a very large part in the willingness/ability to take control of learning. The leadership not only has to ‘talk the talk’ but also ‘walk the walk’ and that can be frightening because there is an opportunity for failure. As learning professionals, we can help leadership be willing to fail by showing them the possible rewards of success, by showing–as you say, Harold–the steps. It doesn’t just happen by decree.

  4. CoCreatr

    Yes. As Deming says, remove numerical goals (for learning anyway). Drive out fear (and micromanagement).

    What is the first step of motivation? Imagine an answer of your own, then compare… My answer: removing the causes of demotivation. Enterprise portals and edited-only intranets among them.

    This 3 part presentation captures it well.

  5. William West

    Exceptional report. One of the cleanest summaries of the current state that I have seen. My view is that, the really hard part is, putting all of these axioms into practice in the context of an individuals daily work environment. My observation gained through my experience with Option Six, GP, Xerox, and now Quantum 7 is that the employees must be supported with the right tools that enable them to do their jobs (painlessly) and gain the space necessary to take advantage of these learning methods. As you quoted Deming, he also said, “You put good people in a bad process (or system) and the process (or system) will win every time.” While this is true in any professional role, I’ve found it even more so in the L&D space itself; for the people who are chartered to create effective learning solutions, either within an internal L&D organization or an outsourcing provider. The L&D industry is wanting for standards of practice, processes, and tools that can enable these professionals to focus on the job instead of the administrative hassles (and spreadsheets) required to make it through the day. You surround good L&D professionals with a good process and system, and they stand a fighting chance of achieving those ideals that you’ve outlined. Nicely done!

  6. Bob Marshall

    For all those wondering HOW to create the kind of workplace social environment where learning and the learning organisation can emerge, may I invite you to consider the #AntimatterPrinciple ?

    – Bob

  7. tyelmene

    The consensus seems to be that culture’s influence dictates that learning must be approached at an ‘organizational level,’ not at the level of individuals, yet success for organizationally scoped learning initiatives has been fleeting.
    Given my deep investigation of knowledge itself, I think the perception of knowledge as an ‘information resource’ -versus- as a ‘network of socially shared conceptual constructs,’ is at the problem’s root. Further, I think this lack of understanding is adversely ‘infecting the metaphor of adoption’ as opposed to ‘enabling a value’ of shared-learning which then can inform the organization’s mission which then rather naturally constitutes the organization’s resulting culture (culture is mostly influenced by actions, not sentiment).
    Though it my have presented problems in the past for many, in my experience, it’s much more effective to pursue individual self-directed learning (especially if some hot-shot knowledge workers make some early visible wins!). [of course you should note that my professional practice is developing knowledge work practices and processes for individuals, so I’m quite biased!!!]


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