Idea 29 - The learning organization (50 Management ideas you really need to know)

Idea 29 -  The learning organization

The world is speeding up, as it gets more wired and as people get more demanding - I want exactly what I want, and I want it now. But I might want something different tomorrow. As markets fragment and change accelerates, business has to keep up or die. That's why the continuous improvement that started on the factory floor is now reflected in the notion of continuous change, company wide. The ability to rethink, continually, your purpose and methods is the most important single source of competitive advantage, says Dutch writer and ex-corporate planner Arie de Geus. But individuals can only change through learning, which makes learning the capital of the future.

Hence the evolution of the 'learning organization', which is not entirely the same as one that trains its people well - though it does that too. The organization itself learns and keeps learning, over and above its individuals. MIT lecturer Peter Senge has made much of the running in this sphere. His 1990 work, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, describes these as 'organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together'. Sounds good. How do you do it? With difficulty. Senge itemizes the barriers to creating a learning organization. One is the '1 am my position' syndrome that leads to little sense of responsibility for what happens elsewhere in the firm. 'The enemy is out there' is another - 'out there' and 'in here' are usually part of a single system, Senge observes. A fixation on events, like quarterly earnings or a competitor's new product, can blind us to real threats such as a relative decline in design quality. And while we learn from experience, we may not directly experience the effect our decisions have on other parts of the business. Finally there is the way in which people, particularly managers, communicate with each other, which is usually defensive and reactive, though often in the guise of being proactive. Harvard's Chris Argyris, who coined the term 'organizational learning', has done much work on the way 'invalid' knowledge is passed around as a result.
The five disciplines Everyone can learn, but environments and structures like these don't encourage reflection and engagement. Yet if you ask people what it's like to be part of a great team, Senge says, what strikes you is the meaningfulness of the experience. 'Real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human.' He points to mastery of the five converging 'disciplines' that mark out learning organizations:
Ø  Systems thinking - a way of seeing the whole, the interrelatedness of things. This means knowing that something you do today, here, can have effects (and maybe bad ones) somewhere else and sometime later, and understanding and using the structure.
Ø  Personal mastery - Senge's phrase for the discipline of personal growth and learning. Grounded in competence and skills, it means living life from a creative, not a reactive, viewpoint. People with personal mastery feel they have never learnt enough, and it's from their quest that the spirit of the learning organization comes.

Ø  Mental models - deeply held internal images of how the world works or how someone really is. They affect what we do because they affect what we see. If you believe Joe is not up to the job, you treat him accordingly. He makes his first mistake and you say: 'See, he's not up to it.' Eventually Joe stops trying, but he's not incompetent, just nervous. For years, a basic assumption (mental model) at General Motors was that cars were status symbols, so style was more important than quality. Mental models are not bad per se but they must be acknowledged and examined.
Ø  Building shared vision - a powerful force rather than an idea, an answer to the question 'what do we want to create?   When people truly share a vision, they become connected, and work becomes part of pursuing a larger purpose. Shared vision is vital because it provides the focus and energy for learning.
Ø  Team learning - aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the result its members truly desire. Many minds are more intelligent than  one mind and teams learn to think 'insightfully' about complex issues. They develop a mutual 'operational trust' and, if they are senior teams, pass on their practices to foster other learning teams. Open dialogue and discussion plays an important part in team learning.
Leader needed Senge's 'fifth' discipline, incidentally, is actually systems thinking. He says this is the foundation for all the others and the leader is crucially important in all of this. In fact, Senge says that learning organizations demand a new view of leadership. Traditional leadership assumes that people are powerless, lack personal vision and are unable to master the forces of change. Only leaders can do that - and even then only the great ones. But leaders of learning organizations must design the overarching purpose, vision and core values, design the necessary policies, strategies and systems, and integrate the five disciplines. They must be the stewards - not the owners - of the vision. And they must be teachers, by example, fostering the vision for everyone.

It all adds up to a compelling vision, and 'learning organization' is cropping up on many more mission statements. Do the companies concerned really conform to Senge's prescription? Not many of them. Certainly, team building is widespread and learning organization courses are being run. But to adopt these ideas wholesale is, for most, too giant a leap. Senge may be slightly ahead of his time.

Reference: 50 Management Ideas You Really Need to Know

Book by Edward Russell-Walling

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