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Here's how to give life to the concept of the learning organization - plus a look inside some actual learning organizations to see how they thrive.
Since the publication of Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline and The Learning Company by Mike Pedler, Tom Burgoyne, and Tom Boydell in the early 1990s, there has been a proliferation of advice on the learning organization.
Almost every day, new approaches and tools appear, promising to help companies become learning organizations. The present level of interest in learning organizations in the United States and worldwide is unparalleled.
For instance, in the 1995 National HRD Executive Survey, conducted by the American Society for Training and Development, 94 percent of respondents said that it is important to build a learning organization. A 1996 survey of almost 200 German companies, conducted by DEKRA Akademie with the Maisberger and Partner consulting firm, found that 90 percent consider themselves to be a learning organization, or in the process of becoming one.
Last year, ASTD began reviewing the state of knowledge and practice regarding learning organizations. To assess and compare current approaches to becoming a learning organization, ASTD's research department developed an assessment tool, The Learning Organization Assessment Framework. (See The Learning Organization Assessment Framework on page 41.)
The framework identifies three levels or orientations of learning: individual, team or group, and organizational. It also identifies organizational systems that facilitate learning. The framework was used to collect data from international experts on the characteristics and behaviors that might be found in a learning organization, for each level of learning and organizational system.
Not all aspects of learning organizations are new; some are things that companies have been doing for years. This article relies particularly on examples from The Global Learning Organization by Michael Marquardt and Angus Reynolds (Irwin, 1994); Sculpting the Learning Organization by Karen E. Watkins and Victoria J. Marsick (Jossey-Bass, 1993); and In Action: Creating the Learning Organization, edited by Watkins and Marsick (ASTD, 1996).
All organizations learn, but not always for the better. A learning organization is an organization that has an enhanced capacity to learn, adapt, and change. It's an organization in which learning processes are analyzed, monitored, developed, managed, and aligned with improvement and innovation goals. Its vision, strategy, leaders, values, structures, systems, processes, and practices all work to foster people's learning and development and to accelerate systems-level learning. (See the box, The Essence of a Learning Organization.)
Systems-level learning. In any organization, learning occurs at multiple levels: individual, group, and organizational. Although individuals and teams or groups are the agents through which organizational learning occurs, learning organizations focus primarily on systems-level organizational learning.
Systems-level learning is more than the sum of employees' intellectual capital and learning. It occurs when organizations synthesize and then institutionalize people's intellectual capital and learning that are housed in their memories - their cultures, knowledge systems, and routines - and in their core competencies.
Employees may come and go, and leadership may change. But an organization's memories preserve behaviors, norms, values, and "mental maps" over time. As an organization addresses and solves problems of survival, it builds a culture that becomes the repository for lessons learned. And it creates core competencies that represent the collective learning of its employees, past and present. As members of the organization leave and new ones join and are socialized, knowledge and competence are transferred across generations of learning.
Organizations exhibit diverse styles and ways of systems-level learning. In other words, they learn differently depending on their business context: the time demands, resources, and competitive constraints that employees face. The contextual factors influencing learning styles include competitive strategies, organizational culture, industry- and product-life cycles, and technology. The sources and focus of learning can also vary with cycles related to the industry, technology, and product life.
Researchers Paul Woolner and Alex Lowy of Woolner, Lowy, and Associates and John Redding of the Institute for Strategic Learning say that learning styles reflect a particular stage of an organization's development. As an organization passes through each stage, learning moves from being unintentional, individualistic, and unintegrated to being formalized, expanded, and connected - until it is a collective, strongly integrated, and daily part of the whole organization.
Research conducted at Electricite de France, Fiat Auto Company, Mutual Investment Corporation, and Motorola - by Anthony DiBella, Ed Nevis, and Janet Gould at the Organizational Learning Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - found that organizational learning styles also depend on whether
* the primary source of an organization's knowledge is internal or external
* knowledge investments are made in particular products and services or in the processes through which products and services are developed, made, and delivered
* personal or public modes are used to document learning
* formal or informal mechanisms are used to disseminate learning and knowledge
* an organization's learning occurs in increments or as a transformation
* an organization's values focus on the design or the delivery of products and services
* skill development focuses on individuals or groups.
An increasingly popular way to view a learning organization is as a set of interrelated systems. Studies show that to understand systems-level learning, it's essential to focus on the organizational structures, processes, and systems that facilitate learning. Interactions among those elements shape the nature and extent of productive organizational learning. Learning organizations ensure that individual and team learning contribute to systems-level organizational learning and that organizational learning leads to productive action.
Research using ASTD's Learning Organization Assessment Framework indicates that most models of a learning organization emphasize these elements: leadership and management; culture; and systems for communication, information, and knowledge. Less emphasis is placed on organizational structure and the systems for facilitating and implementing change, including technology, and support systems for performance and performance management.
Leadership and management. In learning organizations, leaders and managers at all levels provide critical support to the learning and development of individuals and teams by
* modeling learning behavior
* providing systems that facilitate learning
* encouraging people to contribute new ideas
* ensuring the dissemination of knowledge and learning
* freeing resources in order to signal the organization's commitment to learning
* sharing leadership.
At Harley Davidson, for example, almost every employee knows that CEO Rich Teerlink is committed to learning. Not only has he invested in Harley University, Harley Davidson's training arm, but he also talks about learning in almost every presentation.
In another example, former Motorola CEO Bob Galvin showed his commitment to learning by mandating a decision to use a training and development solution to stop falling profits, which led to the establishment of the $11 million Motorola Training and Education Center in 1980, and to Motorola's steadfast commitment to the learning and development of its employees.
At Intermedics Orthopedics Inc., a small medical-device manufacturing firm, half of the executive team departed to create a start-up company after profit goals were attained and IOI was adrift. CEO Jerry Marlar initiated a renewal effort that focused on organizational learning. …