Organizational Learning

Organizational learning is the ‘activity and the process by which organizations eventually reach the ideal of a learning organization’ (Senge, 1990). Organizational learning is just a means in order to achieve strategic objectives. But creating a learning organization is also a goal, since the ability permanently and collectively to learn is a necessary precondition for thriving in the new context. Therefore, the capacity of an organization to learn, that is, to function like a learning organization, needs to be made more concrete and institutionalized, so that the management of such learning can be made more effective (Dunphy, 1998).

Learning organizations are 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. (Senge 1990: 3)

The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level. Learning Company is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. (De Geus, 1996)

An important objective of the organizational learning process is to promote trust, dialogue and networking among staff that can foster the formation of social capital and thereby contribute to more dynamic communications, knowledge-sharing and management in the public service. Such communication processes can either be facilitated or hindered by the existing institutional structures in the public sector. In traditional bureaucracies, for example, institutional structures and cultural characteristics are often not conducive to effective communications and knowledge-sharing among staff, as mentioned earlier. Progressive and reform-minded organizations, on the other hand, use technology and incentives in addition to normal person-to-person exchange to encourage staff to share knowledge and to collaborate (Argyris, 1996).

Effective networking and teamwork may not only facilitate the timely completion of tasks but also improve the quality of work. For instance, in cases when a long time may be spent in trying to solve a particular problem, effective networking, collaboration and knowledge-sharing with peers may reduce this time considerably and thereby contribute to organizational learning. The most productive staff members in any organization are generally those with a very strong ability to network and collaborate with both internal colleagues and external partners. The promotion of a culture of networking, knowledge-sharing and collaboration is therefore an essential part of the organizational learning process in the private as well as in public sectors.

There are significant hurdles to jump over in for public organizations attempting, particularly in developing countries, to create an effective knowledge management system. First, staff often have little incentive—financial or otherwise—to share knowledge with other colleagues. One way to address this is to try to make knowledge-sharing an integral part of performance assessment of staff. Another option is to recognize publicly the staff most active in knowledge-sharing in the organization (Aguilar, 1967). Second, it is very difficult to capture the tacit knowledge of staff. Doing so will require organizations to either encourage the more experienced staff to mentor and coach the younger professionals or provide adequate opportunities for senior public servants to document and codify their tacit knowledge. Third, resistance to change should not be underestimated in any organization attempting to introduce knowledge management practices. Many staff may be uncomfortable with sharing their knowledge with other colleagues. Overcoming such resistance will require education and coaching of the staff concerned. Fourth, more openness and knowledge-sharing raise the question of how to create appropriate protocols to handle sensitive and confidential information. All these issues need to be addressed in the development of a knowledge management strategy in any organization.

Various means of achieving organizational learning are:

Coaching

Coaching is a powerful teaching and learning process that can enhance learning and effectiveness and help to achieve personal and organizational change. Coaching frequently is an integral part of the process of planning and implementing other interventions, such as team development, survey feedback, organization and process redesign, strategic leadership, and large-group development activities. Coaching is defined as helping someone else expand and apply his or her skills, knowledge, and attitudes. It generally takes place within a defined context, such as a specific task, skill, or responsibility. Coaching might also be developing and maintaining an ongoing developmental relationship with one or more of the organization’s rising stars. In general, a successful coach helps others succeed through guiding, teaching, motivating, and mentoring (Aldrich, 1999).

Promote Mentoring Programmes for Staff

Organizational learning can be further facilitated in certain environments by fostering a culture of mentoring among staff. Mentoring usually involves offering guidance and advice, particularly when an experienced person imparts knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to a more junior colleague in order to facilitate professional and career development. Mentoring relationships are undoubtedly an untapped resource in the public service in many countries and the development of such relationships needs to be facilitated (Argyris, 1978).

The use of mentoring as an instrument for organizational learning is by no means a new concept, however. In some societies, the idea of mentoring is an integral part of the national culture. In Japan, for instance, it is common practice, where the senior- junior relationship is an institution in itself not only in the public service but throughout society. In other countries, the notion of a mentoring relationship between a senior and junior person is not so widespread in society in general, yet it is still well established in both the private and public sectors. It is also very common in universities, where professors become mentors to their students. Providing career development through mentoring has also proven effective over time. Several countries (e.g., Singapore and the United Kingdom) have opted for fast-track programmes where high-flying candidates are put on a path to senior management under the guidance and advice of mentors. Sometimes mentoring by targeting the career development of a particular group within the public service is able to serve several purposes.

Strategies for Improving Organizational Learning Capability

When starting to improve its learning capabilities, an organization may decide to focus on any stage of the learning cycle — knowledge acquisition, dissemination, or utilization. While it may be possible or necessary to look at all three phases simultaneously, focusing on a single area is more manageable (Argyris, 1999). The next task is to select an option for focus:

Improve on learning orientations. There are two reasons for selecting this option. First, the organization may decide to shift its position on one or more learning orientations. Second, the current pattern of learning orientations has resulted in identifiable strong competencies, so improving or expanding them may be the best way to enhance the unit’s learning capabilities. This focus assumes that facilitating factors meet an acceptable standard and that more can be accomplished by adding to the strong base established by the learning orientations.

Change both learning orientations and facilitating factors. An organization should select this option when it sees the other variables as inadequate. This option assumes that large-scale change is necessary and that changing one group of variables without changing the other will be only partially successful (Hunter, 1996).

References

  • Aguilar, Francis J. 1967, Scanning the business environment, Macmillan Co, NY.
  • Aldrich, Howard E. 1999, Organizations evolving. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, CA
  • Argyris, C. 1999, On Organizational Learning, Blackwell Business, Oxford.
  • Argyris, C. & Sch­n., D. 1996, Organizational Learning II, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
  • De Geus, A. 1996, ‘Planning as learning’, in How Organizations Learn, ed. K. Starkey, International Thomson Business Press, London.
  • Dunphy, D. & Griffiths, A. 1998, The Sustainable Corporation, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
  • Hunter, D., Bailey, A. & Taylor, B. 1996, The Zen of Groups, Tandem Press, New Zealand.
  • Senge, P. 1990, The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Random House, Sydney.

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