The learning organization has recently developed a groundswell of interest from managers and organization theorists looking for new ways to successfully respond to a world of interdependence and change. In this article we are trying to explain what a learning organization looks like and methods for management learning.
A learning organization is an organization that has developed the continuous capacity to adapt and change. Just as individuals learn, so do organizations. All organizations learn, whether they consciously choose to or not – it is a fundamental requirement for their sustained existence. However some organizations, such as Corning, FedEx, Electronic Arts, GE, and Phillips India, just do it better than others.
Most organizations engage in what has been single loop learning. When errors are detected, the correction process relies on past routines and present policies. In contrast, learning organizations use double-loop learning. When an error is detected, it’s corrected in ways that involve the modification of the organization’s objectives, policies and standard routines. Double loop learning challenges deeply rooted assumptions and norms within an organization. In this way, it provides opportunities for radically different solutions to problems and dramatic jumps in improvement.
It’s an organization in which people put aside their old ways of thinking, learn to be open with each other, understand how their organization really works, form a plan or vision on which everyone can agree, and then work together to achieve that vision.
Proponents of the learning organization envision it as a remedy for three fundamental problems inherent in traditional organizations: fragmentation, competition, and reaction. First, fragmentation based on specialization creates “walls” and “chimneys” that separate different functions into independent and often warring fiefdoms. Second, an overemphasis on competition often undermines coloration. Members of the management team compete with one another to show who is right, who knows more, or who is more persuasive. Divisions compete with one another when they ought to cooperate and share knowledge. Team project leaders compete to show, who is the best manager. And third, reaction misdirects management’s attention to problem solving rather than creation. The problem solver tries to make something go away, while a creator tries to bring something new into being. An emphasis on reaction pushes out innovation and continuous improvement and in its place encourages people to run around “putting out fires.”