Organizing for Learning

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!

Of Fades and Failures

Why is it that many great ideas for improving how we manage our organizations become fades and ultimately fade away?

Fades and failures were frequently seen during the 1980’s and early 1990’s when many top-level executives sought to colonize—but not adapt to—the principles of quality management. They wanted the benefits of quality but not its antecedents. Those in authority expected results, without first making the appropriate transformation in their assumptions, beliefs and values.  In effect, thinking and doing were contradictory and predictably, the result was failure.  For the organization’s employees quality became another (management) flavor of the month.  Why is this so common a phenomenon? Continue reading

Potential Actualized

What potential does any one organization have?  The answer lies in understanding the organization as a system, which is code for understanding the organization as a purposeful web of (interdependent) relationships. Continue reading

People’s Ideas Mean Business

A business enterprise begins with someone’s idea to provide a product or service.  As demand for its products and/or services increases, the business grows.  With growth in demand often comes an increase in the number of people performing the work of the business and with this there is the added responsibility of managing the people doing the work.  Consequently, as business activity intensifies and the number of people employed increases, managing the business becomes increasingly more complex. Continue reading

Innovation Requires Being Creative

A 2008 New York Times article told of how G.M. sacrificed innovation for profits.  The article stated “G.M.’s biggest failing, reflected in a clear pattern over recent decades, has been its inability to strike a balance between those inside the company who pushed for innovation ahead of the curve, and the finance executives who worried more about returns on investment.”   Realizing that continued failure to innovate is the path to extinction, how has G.M. responded? Continue reading

When Order Means Control

Since we organize to serve a purpose, our sense of order is context dependent, not an absolute. In other words, while everything could be in order, the order in which each is in is not the same—all order is not the same order.  For example, the order of my desk suits my purposes and the order you create on your desk supports yours’.  To the degree that our purposes are different, correspondingly it is likely our desks will be ordered and managed differently. Continue reading

Is it a joy or a job?

What is joy? It is not just an emotion as are pleasure, jealousy, and envy; nor is it a judgment against expectation as is satisfaction.  Joy, like peace, is a state of being.

Joy in work emerges when the activity resonates within our very being; it emerges when the individual and the activity become one—when being and doing become one. This oneness is felt when the egoic-self is negated, when a sense of self as an object fades from the activity.

Getting lost in the activity is like what a child often experiences in play, or like when we become so engaged in a conversation that we lose the sense of time.  I recall having an engaging dialogue with the person in the seat next to me while on a long flight that seemed to last but a few moments though it was hours.  I remember thinking it seems as though we had just begun and now the plane is landing, where did the time go?  Likely you have had similar experiences as well. Continue reading

Superficiality Won’t Suffice

How leaders—management in authority—respond to the question, what is the business of business, will likely pre-figure how they design and manage their organization.

If those in authority believe the business of business is profit then they will very likely organize and manage as if the world is their oyster. According to this system of thought, reality is a collection of objects (i.e. resources) and business is a tool—an instrument, a machine—for the purpose of exacting material gain from the assets or resources at hand. Resources include the people employed by the enterprise—objectified as labor.   I am sure you have heard or perhaps even spoken these words: our employees are our greatest assets!  Stop and think about this: Who really wants to be the useful tool of another? Continue reading

Connect The Dots

The Christmas Day terrorist attempt on a flight to Detroit highlighted an all too common problem in organizations.  Information may exist but knowledge is not always developed. Business organizations are not immune to the design and management problems we often see in government.  You’ve probably heard, if not your self said, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing! Information is here and there throughout the various functional areas of an organization, but it is not always translated into knowledge—no one connects the dots. Why does an inability to connect the dots exist in organizations? Continue reading

The Spirit of Quality

There has always been the allure of quality; it has always been important to people. Why is quality desired in life?

Recognizing the expectation of it and the demand for it, organizations seek to provide it. Nokia offers a glimpse of why they pursue quality: The fundamental reason for focusing on quality issues is the potential for an increased profitability of the project. Although there may be more philosophical answers to why quality is important, the bottom line is that consumers recognize quality, and are willing to pay for it. Yet, most organizations find it difficult to consistently deliver it. Continue reading