Monday, 5 March 2012

Learning Organization: Features and Characteristics.

By Vera Ndrecaj BA (Hons). MBA. 
verandrecaj@yahoo.co.uk

1. Introduction 
The concept of ‘Learning Company’ begins with Argyris and Schon (1978), Peter & Waterman (1982).  “The excellent companies are learning organizations”(Waterman, 1982:110). Revans (1982) and Garratt (1987) have highlighted the role and impacts of managers and directors in this process.  The term of 'learning organization' is also used by Pedler et al (1987, 1991) which have identified eleven characteristics of learning organization.  Senge (1990) described it as an idea most likely to preoccupy managers in future.

The idea of learning organisation is based on models of organisational learning, this concept has become very attractive for many years.  Argyris and Schon (1978, 1996), Fiol and Lyes (1985), Hedberg (1981), March and Olsen (1976), Meyer (1982) suggested that all organisations learn, without learning organisations will not survive.  Holland (1986) the director of Manpower Service Commission as cited in Pedler (1997: xiii) announced publicly that “If we are to survive- individually or as a company, or as a country we must create a traditional of leaning. Every company must be a learning company”.

Argyris and Schon (1996), Easterby & Smith (1997) Tsang (1997) had distinguished learning organisations from organisational learning as shown in Table 1.

Organisation Learning
Learning organisation
Descriptive
The existing literature is concentrate in analyses of process involving individuals and collective learning inside the organisation.
Prescriptive
The literature of LO  has an action orientation and evaluating methodological tools that enable to identify and promote qualities of learning process.
 Ask a question; How does an organisation learn?
Ask a question; How should an organisation learn?
This term is sketch from psychology and OD, management science, sociology and organisation theory, production management and cultural anthropology
Originated mainly from management science and OD.
Senge (1990), Garvin (1993) and Nevis et al (1995) started from management science by adding insights by OD.
Dixon(1994), Hawkins( 1994), Nonaka (1994), Torbert (1994) and Swieringa & Wierdsman(1994) takes as a starting point of human development and emancipation and then distinguish between cyclical and evolutionary models of learning 
Authors focus on conceptualisation and answering the questions for instance What does OL mean? What kinds of OL are desirable?
Authors focus on continual improvement, competence, acquisition and experimentation (Garvin 1993, Ulrich 1993). The stress the role and commitment of managers to learn and incorporate learning into strategy, measuring it, and investing in it.

Table 1.  Differences between organization learning and learning organisation. Source adapted from Argyris & Schon (1996); Smith (1997); Tsang (1997)

Learning organisation definitions give a clear understanding of elements and steps organisation need to follow in order to become a learning organization. Acquiring knowledge (Garvin, 1993) and innovation (Lessem, 1990) in order to survive and succeed in rapidly changing environment (Argyris &Schon, 1978) (Dodgson, 1993). In addition, culture creation (Stahl et al (1992), sustain and give confidence to employee to learning continuously (Senge, 1990) critical thinking and risk taking with new idea (Pedler et al, 1991) allowed mistakes (Handy, 1992) value employee contributions learn from experience and experiment (Senge, (1990) disseminate the new knowledge throughout the organisation for incorporation into day- to- day activities (Ross, 1992). Peters & Waterman (1980: 110) said “excellent company is learning organisation”, and also highlighted that learning company make learning central process.

Stahl et al., (1992) explained the influence of learning organization in the process of strategy creation, structure and culture.  Argyris and Schon (1978) stressed quick responds to changes in the internal and external environments by detecting and correcting errors in organisational theory in use, and analyse the results of inquiry (double loop learning). According to  Field and Ford (1995), Pedler et al (1991), Redding and Catalanello (1994), Senge (1990) and Watkins and Marsick (1993) view the concept of a learning organisation has emerge in recent years to take account of many of these changes. But on the other hand, De Geus (1988) argue that, companies do not learn and adapt very quick.
Pearn et al (1995) stressed the continuously adaption to an increasingly unpredictable future. Revans (1982) argued that learning in an organisation must be equal or greater than the rate of changes of environment, L=C or L>C. In this contest and (Stata, 1989) emphasis the capacity of organisation to learn, learning organisation become the only sustainable source of competitive edge.

 Senge (1990) stress the importance of learning as a whole organisation, organisation learning is crucial to future success a survival, and also stressed that some organisation learn better than others. Senge (1990) and Karash (1995) stated a learning organisation as one which continually expanding its capacity to create its future. Whereas, Pedler et al.,(1991)  highlighted the importance of providing learning opportunities for all employees. Senge (1993) focus on expanding capacity whereas Pedler (1991) highlighted continual self-transformation. In addition, Pedler et al. (1992) stated learning organisation is a vision of what may be possible. It happens only as a result of learning at the whole organisation level. They defined learning  company as “... an organisation that facilitates the learning of all its members and consciously transforms itself and its context” (Pedler et al., 1992:3).

Similarly, Watkins and Marsick (1992) theory argued that learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles. Thurbin (1994) stressed into importance of learning of all its individual members. Argyris (1990) LO encourage double loop learning deep analyse process.  

Although the environment relationship theories have different views (Yeo, 2005; Daft and Weick, 1984; Hitt, 1996; Hedberg, 1981 as cited in Dixon, 1999) explain learning organisation as a centred process in continuous rapidly changing environment. However, Dixon (1994) theory brings out the intentional use of learning process at individuals, groups and whole system levels to transform organisation in order to satisfy its stakeholders. Peter & Waterman (1980) arguably, emphases up on customer to the exclusion of other stakeholders. 

Alternatively, Garvin (1993) has pointed some elements or characteristics of LO such as skilled creating, transferring knowledge and modifying behaviour and reflection. This definition is helpful because it provides some insights into what a LO looks like but does not address why LO is important and in which levels will be involved in learning. Garvin’s (1993) work is essentially prescriptive but has been criticized by Pearn et al. (1995) and Pedler et al. (1991) as practitioners. However, Garcarz (2003) has pointed this  learning organisation is commonly found in fast moving and sometime living into turbulent and fast changing environment (De Gues, 1998) clarify that all these changes are accelerating competitive threats as a result of globalisation. Leonard and Barton (1992) stressed knowledge creation, collection and control. But (Dodgson, 1993) argue this developing strategy and structure to facilitate and coordinate learning in rapidly changing and conflictual circumstances. However, Denim (1986) as a radical of the Total Quality of Management (TQM) emphasizes the role of managers in managing and organizing and he comes up with 14 point which fit perfectly with the learning company. 

Mintzberg et al (1998:228) argue this the LO exist mostly for good reasons, but it is no universal for anything. This is criticised by Pedler and Aspinwall (1998) by stressing the pressure to learn and respond to change is grater in public sectors as a consequence all companies should be a learning company.  Garcarz (2003) states this learning organisation is one that recognises the whole workforce needs opportunities to lean. But, Garratt (1990) highlight willingness to accept that learning occurs continuously at all levels of organisations and need to flow freely to where it is needed.   

Moreover, Garcarz (2003) and Pedler et al (1998) argued that learning organisation is one that particularly displays its support and commitment for lifelong learning by ensuring that education, training and development are central policy of corporate strategy.  Johnson et al (2008:421) have stated LO is capable of continual regeneration from the variety of knowledge experience and skills of individuals within the culture which encourages mutual questioning and challenge around a shared purpose or vision.

 Alternatively, Morgan (2006) states this learning organisation cannot be created, but can enhance people’s capacity to learn and align their activities in creative way (Gaines, 1990) a lot of people learn.  Morgan said the grand of the learning company is a network of like minded people who enjoy challenging of working in an action learning way. The power of network is sharing and exchanging information and insights help and support each other also experiments, asking question and giving feedback are characteristics of power of network. Jones (1992) states this learning organisation is part of new ideas which help to organisations to cope with turbulence. and answer the questions what is LO?
In addition authors have different view about learning organisation but will be important to highlight the fact that learning organisation is an idea of Total  Qualities Managers(Deming, 1988), Organisation Transforming(Owen, 1987), Whole system Thinking (Senge, 1990), and Future Searching (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995).

Santosus (1996) stressed in difficulties of creating learning organisation, organisations have to change everything to change their behaviour and way of thinking. Is hard work for managers to change whole culture of organisation and to create a new clime where risk taking is allowed and evaluate errors. Furthermore, Smith (2001) argued that is impossible to transform bureaucratic organisation only by learning programmes.      

Arguably, Kofman and Senge (1993:16) said that LO is a thing we create in language. Like every linguistic creation, this category is double-edged sword that can be empowering or tranquilizing. Senge (1993) said learning organisation is unrealistic is very difficult to reach is too ‘ideal’. However,  there are some authors hesitating to define learning organisation, Pearn et al (1995:17) states that the best conceptualization of what it means to be a learning organisation will be the one that organisation arrives it itself.  Argyris and Schon (1978) did not attempt to define a learning organisation but they raised the question shows in figure 1. Arguably, Kerka (1995) said there is no consensus on the definition of a learning organisation, Garvin (2000:9) stats that a clear definition of the learning organisation has provided to be elusive. Pedler et al. (1989) and Pearn et al. (1995) suggest that the definite of learning organisation does not exist.

According to Pearn et al (1995) key features of learning organisation are its vision of how it going to be and clear understanding of the mission and the way in which these would be converted in value and manifest in behaviour. Therefore mission, vision, and value should be the source of the objectives and strategy created by the organisation.
In addition, Pearn et al (1997) in order to prevent failures managers need to undertake exercises to gain a share understanding of significant learning and establish learning agenda and also managers play a crucial role in making learning a key driver for the organisation as a strategic objective.

Garratt (1990) has recognized three characteristics of learning organisation. He stress the role of managers in encourages people from all levels to learn regularly.  Systems for capturing the learning and moving it where it is needed.  Value learning and continually transform their self.     

 Pearn et al (1995) have identified four kind of organisation which operating in addition to the learning company, type of organisations are stagnated organisation, frustrated organisations, and frustrating organisation and LO. Pearn et at (1995) states this LO has a strong vision of the future but he ask does it exist? Pearn et al (1994)  are concern about managerial willing for change  they thinking is done enough and many organisation are stuck in frustrated organisation, but (Argyris,1991) states that managers are often not well equipped to learn.

However, this framework give clear picture how organisations operate in today’s rapidly changing environment. I addition Pearn et al(1995) have identify six factors of INVEST module Inspired learners, nurturing culture, vision for future learning, enhanced learning, supportive management, and transforming structure. Also Pearn et al (1995) have identified four ways of thinking about learning organisation which are a critical mass of learner, a specially created environment which fosters learning, micro-learning organisation, macro-learning organisation. However, there are many different approaches to describe the characteristics of a learning organisation. Organisations must unitise Pedler et al (1991) 11 characteristics in order to diagnose techniques and instruments of processes of managing, directing, learning and participating. These characteristics are:

1)  A learning approach to strategy 
2) Participative policy making 
3) Information 
4) Formative accounting and control 
5) Internal exchange 
6) Reward flexibility
7) Enabling structure 
8) Boundary workers as an environmental scanner 
9) Inter- company learning
10) Learning  
11) Self-development opportunities for all. 
      
Strategy: Two out of 11 characteristics could fit on strategic group, but first learning approach to the strategy should be taken. Moreover it happens where policy and strategy are consciously structured by small scale experiments and use findings as a feedback. Strategy formation, implementation, evaluation and improvement are deliberately structured as learning experience by using feedback loops. Therefore, participative policy- making approach in necessary to allow all members of the organization to participate in this process.  Furthermore, the approach intends to involve all groups of stakeholder such supplier, customers, the community and so on.

Looking in; is one of four characteristics suggested by Pedler et al (1991).  Informing employees what going on in the organisation by using technology, and to ensure information is made widely available. Also formative accounting and the control, involves designing accounting, budgeting and reporting system to assess learning. Furthermore, internal exchange is another characteristic which involves all internal unites seeing themselves as customer and suppliers of each other. Pedler et al (1991) recognised this reward flexibility is one of most difficult of eleven characteristics to put into practise. Reward flexibility implies that the question of why some receive more money than others.

Structure; the characteristic suggests that roles are loosely structured in line with the needs of internal customer and suppliers, personal growth and experience should be allowed. For instance, project groups and trainers structures help to break down barriers between unites, provide mechanism for spreading new ideas and encourage the idea of change.

Looking out; Pedler et al(1991), states boundary workers as environment scanners implies that part of the role of all workers in contact with supplier, customers or community should participate in data collection. A second feature in this theme is intercompany learning. They suggested that benchmarking could be used to learn from other companies. Therefore, joining with customers, suppliers and possibly competitors in training experiences, research, and development as well as job exchanges could take place.

Learning opportunities; learning environment is important, this is, one that encourage experimentation and learning from experience, question current idea, attitudes and action ad trying out new idea. There is a focus in improvement and involvement of customers, suppliers and neighbours experimentation is suggested by Pedler et al (1991). Therefore feedbacks are continually requested. The last feature is self - development opportunities for all, required recourse and facilities for self-development for all levels in the organisation. Furthermore, coaching, mentoring, peer supporting counselling and feedbacks most are available to support individuals in their learning.

Senge (1994) the fifth disciplines are based upon Agyris & Schon theory single and double loop single loop is focus simply in errors deduction and correction. Double loop inquiry, ask question and deep analyse of the changes, conflicts or errors, furthermore this theory encourage reflective thinking in all members. The fifth disciplines of Senge (1994) are as a following:
Personal mastery; is one of most important discipline, which is focused in individuals self-development, clarifying personal vision and developing objectivity and patience.
Sharing Mental model; Everyone is different they have different views and, their own assumption. Thinking as a collective by sharing knowledge, experience opinions, views and their assumption will turned the organisation in human living body (organism). Share map of organization (Agyris & Schon, 1978).
Share vision; builds the sense of communication in a group by developing shared images of the future they desire. People are committed to excel and change their future, they are willing to learning voluntary and not because they might have to.
Team learning; starts with dialog, transforming conversational and change collective thinking skills. It is fundamental learning unit in modern organisation. 
Systems thinking; look at whole pictures of organisation rather than parts. This discipline helps to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune within large processes of the natural and economic world. This discipline integrate whole members of organization   

2. Conclusion:
The origins of learning organisation concept come from management science and OD, they have been studied for about 30 years but confusion and scepticism about this term still exists. However, Senge (1994) provided one of the best frame work as a tool for managers, to help them create the organisation which is sustainable, flexible and able to survive in rapidly changing environment. Even though in theory this frame work will work, but Senge states that these learning organisations exist as a vision in our collective imagination. The goal of learning organisation is to generate continues change and self-transformation. Academics and researchers have different views and come up with different definitions and different frame works but two of them are more useful Pedler et al (1991) 11 characteristics and Senge (1990) fifth disciplines , some of authors hesitate to define learning organisation because they do not believe it exists.  Learning organisation authors are focus on continual improvement, competence, acquisition and experimentation (Garvin 1993, Ulrich 1993). The stress into manager’s role and commitment to learn and incorporate learning into strategy, to encourage creativity and innovation, to build accurate benchmarks is considered as a future challenge since the financial bill is high. 


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