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TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION IS LIKE TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF AN ELEPHANT--WHILE BLINDFOLDED. YOUR PERCEPTION OF THE WHOLE IS DETERMINED BY THE PART THAT IS CLOSEST TO YOU. WHEN PRACTITIONERS GATHERED TO DISCUSS LEARNING ORGANIZATIONS, THEIR CONVERSATIONS SHOWED HOW FAR WE HAVE COME AND HOW FAR WE HAVE TO GO IN TRANSLATING THE THEORY OF LEARNING ORGANIZATIONS INTO PRACTICE.
Right now--explain what a "learning organization" is and does. Can you answer completely? Perhaps you'd prefer to turn the tables--if you could grill other practitioners about learning organizations, what would you ask them?
In a recent series of focus groups, HRD professionals and frontline managers had the chance to take turns as explainers and interrogators, sharing what they already know about learning organizations and telling what they would like to know.
Nearly 50 practitioners representing most regions of the United States participated in the focus groups. Participants included senior trainers, HRD managers, line managers, and internal and external OD consultants. They represented private industry, universities, and government agencies, including Apple Computers, Amdahl, ASTD, Cable & Wireless Communications, General Electric, George Washington University, Hewlett-Packard, Levi-Strauss, Martin Marietta, Marriott Corporation, Pacific Gas & Electric, U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and Westinghouse.
We designed the five sessions to elicit different ideas and perspectives about learning organizations. Using David Bohm's concept of "dialogue," we asked the dozen or so participants at each one-day session to view each other as inquiring colleagues, suspend their assumptions, and explore possibilities, rather than advocate their points of view. We asked them to explore freely their beliefs, expectations, and questions about learning organizations.
We restricted our roles to clarifying their discussion agendas, keeping the conversation on track, managing time, relating topics and themes when needed, and handling other basic facilitation tasks.
Among other things, participants addressed such questions as these:
* What definitions of a learning organization make sense?
* What distinguishes organizational learning from individual learning?
* What does a learning organization look like and how can it be measured? …