Managing learning

Managers have to plan a change in an organization to make it into a continual learner. To make firms learning organizations they must adopt a strategy depending upon the human resources working in the organization.

Establish a strategy:

Management needs to make explicit its commitment to change, innovate and continuous improvement.

Reshape the organization’s culture:

Learning organizations are characterized by risk taking, openness and growth. Management sets the tone for the organization’s culture both by what it says (strategy) and what it does (behavior). Managers need to demonstrate by their actions that taking risks and admitting failures are desirable’s traits. That means rewarding who take chances and make mistakes. And management needs to encourage functional conflict. The key to unlocking real openness at work, says one expert on learning organizations, is to teach people to give up having to be in agreement. We think agreement is so important. You have to bring paradoxes, conflicts, and dilemmas out in the open, so collectively so that as a team they can be more intelligent than as an individual.

It may help to better understand what a learning organization is if you think of it as an ideal model that builds on a number of previous OB concepts. No company has successfully achieved all the characteristics. Note too, how learning organizations draw on previous OB concepts such as quality management, organizational culture, the boundary-less organization, functional conflict, and transformational leadership. For instance, the learning organization adopts quality management’s commitment to continuous improvement. Learning organizations are also characterized by a specific culture that values risk taking openness, and growth. It seeks to eliminate boundaries through breaking down barriers created by hierarchical levels and fragmented departments. A learning organization supports the importance of disagreement, constructive criticism and other forms of functional conflict. And transformational leadership is needed in a learning organization to implement the shared vision.

An excellent illustration of a learning organization is the US Army. This organization’s environment has changed dramatically in the past several decades. Most significantly, the Soviet threat which was a major justification for the army’s military buildup following World War II is largely gone. Now army soldiers are more likely to be peacekeeping in Iraq or helping to fight fires in the Pacific Northwest. In response, to this mission, the army’s high command has redesigned its structure. Its formerly rigid, hierarchical, war-based command-and-control structure has been replaced with an adaptive and flexible structure to match its more varied objectives. In addition, everyone from PFCs to brigadier generals has gone through team training to make the army’s culture more egalitarian. For instance, soldiers are now encouraged to question authority and have been given new skills that allow them decisions in the field. The “new army” is developing soldiers and officers who can adapt rapidly to different tasks and missions fighting, peace keeping, humanitarian rescue and who can quickly improvise in complex and ambiguous situations.