Most all organizations learn at some level, as people gain experience in doing what it is they do. This however does not make all organizations learning organizations. More often than not the way the enterprise is organized and managed becomes the greatest impediment to it unfolding the potential that lies within—to it continually learning, to it being a learning organization. So the question is, how should those in authority of the enterprise organize so that it can be a learning organization, so it can evolve?
Structure Supports Strategy
As mentioned previously, we organize to create order in service to a purpose. So a structure for one purpose will very likely not serve another purpose. For example a learning organization cannot emerge from a structure intended to support a sense of control. Organizational learning will only come from one supporting energy flow—a free flow of helpful energy throughout the system—not the control of it.
It follows if those in authority of the enterprise wish that their organization become a learning organization, then the order/structure in support of learning will be different than the order that currently exists. In short, a fundamental change in the organizing structures—both formal and informal—are required.
A learning organization is not merely an organization that has a training department nor is it one that has created a corporate university as an appendage. No doubt people learn from the activities of these, but adding such appendages to an organization’s structure does not make the organization a learning organization, no more than having a quality department makes the organization a quality organization. Such structural appendages as the primary initiative more often than not just make it more costly.
A Learning Organization
An organization is a human system, and unless the system itself has inherent characteristics representative of nonlinear feedback processes, designed in to the very work of the organization, then the system is not a learning system—no matter the size of the investment in learning through appendages. In learning organizations learning is an integral part of the work and not another activity one has to do—it is seamless to the work itself. Unless the plan-do-study-act cycle informs the very structure of work throughout the organization—forming an interdependent network of feedback processes among all levels—organizational learning will unlikely be realized.
Only in learning organizations are people encouraged to challenge the way things are, along with the corresponding beliefs and assumptions. Only in learning organizations do people freely and willingly challenge what they hold in their mind—both individual and collective minds—in performing their work through the process of learning toward improvement.
Different Energies Make a Difference
The energy currents that flow through the system (i.e. the organization) influence people; and the nature of that energy is the difference that makes a difference. If the energy is negative (e.g. fear), then people will limit, if not avoid, their exposure to risk. They will not freely share thoughts and ideas; they will not be open to new ideas; they will not embrace novelty. They will not challenge the way things are done. Instead, they will cling to the devil they know, neither learning anew or thinking creatively.
It is only when people work in a trusting space—where the energy is both vivifying and inspiriting—that they will take the risk to learn anew and be creative. Further, feeling safe and secure they will be more likely to exercise their capability of reflexive thinking—reflecting upon, challenging long held ideas and appropriately altering beliefs and behavior—in support of the improvement of their work and that of the organization as a whole.
Consequently learning that leads to progress emerges when the organizational culture—the organization’s informal structure—enables employees to be treated as the subjects that they are. As a result there is ‘a vibrancy’ to the organization and its members find the psychological space of work to be inspiriting.
Just like its correlate quality, learning requires the healthy free flow of the human spirit; and the organizing structure and management practice must enable it. Thus when people are enabled to learn as an integral part of their work their job becomes a joy—learning arises naturally. The following excerpt from It’s the EconoME, Stupid amplifies this point:
S: Are you saying through the process of learning we cease acting out of our animal nature?
Q: Yes, we cease being directed by circumstance and the habits of the past.
S: Can’t animals learn?
Q: Animals can be trained. I can train my dog to respond in a particular way to a specific command or stimulus; but this is more about conditioning—behavior modification—than it is learning in the sense we have been discussing. Recognizing that animals react in response to the prospect of immediate pain or pleasure in the moment, we can teach animals to behave in a particular way using a stimulus–response process. In this sense we can say the dog has learned to follow commands.
S: So the notion that people living life by seeking pleasure or avoiding pain in the moment is descriptive of human beings acting out of their animal or lower nature?
Q: Yes; and where’s the joy in that! Creating situations that would restrict or encourage people to do just this—to order their lives according to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain—would limit human potential. It inhibits people from living according to their higher nature, from realizing their uniquely human potential. Learning in the sense that we are speaking about requires the ability to think about and beyond our thoughts; it requires a conscious awareness of our thinking process and the ability to go beyond a thought once held.
As Erich Fromm stated more than 60 years ago, “…true freedom is not the absence of structure – letting the employees go off and do whatever they want – but rather a clear structure that enables people to work within established boundaries in an autonomous and creative way.” Just imagine the progress that could be realized if this was a common way of organizing and managing!