Explain and evaluate the learning organisation model

Explain and evaluate the learning organisation model

To understand learning organisation and to be able to define it is by any measure, a challenging pursuit. First, there are no agreed upon definition of this concept, the term is mostly contested at different levels of an organisation. The publication of Peter Senge’s book ‘The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation (Senge 1990)’ created a burgeoning display of analysis and interpretation of the concept of learning organisation. However, there was no particular attempt made to attest the theories or test it empirically.

Second, getting the evidence of casualty in organisational performance is an extremely difficult task. The range of intervening variables makes it impossible to calculate even with the help of the most sophisticated and multivariate study tool.

The learning organisation as concept has now been analysed and used for more than two decades. Although it has been there for so long, the efficiency of this concept and the impact of the same on its practitioners have not been evaluated. The concept was popularised by Senge’s publication although it existed way before this publication was released in 1990.

The learning organisation is not a mere fashion trend of organisational management. It is not a fad. It is a concept that builds a work environment that is more open to creativity and originality. It embraces the idea that any organisational problem has a solution available with each employee of the organisation. All that an organisation needs to do is tap the knowledge base. This knowledge base enables one to think critically and ingeniously. This leads to cooperation among every employee leading to more openness and as a consequence, sharing of fresh ideas and concepts.

A learning organisation is capable of creating its own future. It assumes learning as an ongoing and inventive process. It is a concept applicable to all members of an organisation or those related to it. It develops, acclimatises and transforms itself based on the requirements and aspirations of people who may or may not be a part of it.

This model enables an organisation to create a work environment exuding freedom. Employees are not treated as passive players. They are offered the freedom to learn, express themselves, put forth their ideas and concepts, and also challenge their intellect to their own betterment. This not only improves a work environment as a whole, but also breaks down managerial hierarchy and builds human potential. This is a goal that every organisation must harbour but a better future, to become a complete earning organisation. Such an environment enable all its members to create results that they desire. They are able to learn together and grow together. Growth among each employee leads to the betterment and organisational growth as a whole.

Characteristics of a learning organisation

There are various definitions of this concept along with multiple typologies. Senge explains that a learning organisation consists of a group of people who work together to enhance their skills to achieve common goals that they really desire. The philosophy that this model exudes is that of anticipation, reaction, and response to uncertainty, change, and complexity. The model is completely relevant in the times of a highly complex organisational environment. Other lines of thoughts suggest that Learning Organisation is: “a company that can respond to new information by altering the very “programming” by which information is processed and evaluated.”

It is only natural that an organisation that intends to implement this model and its philosophy must have a clear strategy and distinct goals. Once these two elements are established, the organisation needs to identify the right tool to expedite this strategy.

A learning organisation can be built gradually. Starting with individuals and graduating to teams that share, create and act on collective learning. These organisations operate based on an organisational learning cycle wherein fresh knowledge is generated, apprehended, shared and applied.

Senge also critically remarks: “The rate at which organisations learn may become the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

In order to gain this competitive advantage, an organisation must focus on developing the characteristics of the learning organisational model. Here are some of the cultural alterations required to develop a learning organisation:

A self-managed culture of learning:

Self-managed learners interact more with colleagues and prefer teamwork to isolation. This culture can be promoted in an organisation by way of fostering a shared vision, encouraging interaction, collaboration and teamwork, empowering employees through participation, offering prospects for continuous learning, and by proving relevant technologies.

A shared/collective vision is a focal point of a learning organisation. It enables all members to remain focused and committed to an organisation and its goals. Collective vision enables all members to align organisational goals with their own and pursue greater goals. That changes people behaviour and improves relationships with the organisation.

Self-managed learning culture is a product of collaboration, cooperation and support. Such ideal scenario can be reached with the help of group projects, committees and discussion. A team learning culture is a fundamental unit in present-day organisations. As Senge contends: “unless teams can learn, the organisation cannot learn.”

Self-managed learners, supervisors, instructors or trainers must design tasks in ways that require teamwork, collaboration and shared responsibilities. This enables each member of the team to be a self-paced learner while adding effectively towards a learning organisation.

Employee empowerment is a key to a successful learning organisation. Human resource must work harder on employee participation involving planning, development and personal learning evaluation. Employees are expected to take the responsibility of their learning, goals, exploring resources, evaluating their process of learning and its outcomes. It is the human resource department’s responsibility to communicate the organisation’s comprehensive strategies and initiatives to such individuals in order to align their activities to the organisational goals.

A learning organisation needs technological and technical support to maintain open communication. An organisation must offer opportunities for collaboration, teamwork and learning. A learning organisation offers its employees such opportunities by way of improved technological support such as laptops, internet, and various digital tools. These support employee activities and enhances teamwork and self-managed learning.

Organisational knowledge management:

Creating new knowledge and applying the same is essential for all organisations. There are various reasons why:

  • Ideas, information and processes, which are intangible products, occupy an increasing share of international business in terms of tangible, traditional product manufacturing.
  • With time, continuous innovation and application of fresh knowledge supports sustainable competitive advantage.
  • People do not stay in an organisation from a lifetime. Their knowledge leaves the organisation with their exit.
  • A major problem in any organisation is that knowledge is not shared, and hence, ideas and learnings do not spread across the organisation.
  • With changing times, knowledge relevant even 5 years ago become obsolete in the present context. Be it technology-, social- or business-related changes, they keep evolving with time.

In order to survive in such a complex environment, it is essential for an organisation to develop a knowledge-sharing culture. An organisation can make its knowledge more productive by:

  • Sharing both information and knowledge, not information only.
  • Sharing knowledge to help the whole organisation meet its objectives and not just a singular team of business unit.
  • Sharing knowledge to apply the same in real life circumstances. Sharing knowledge is as important as making this knowledge productive. If one cannot act on the knowledge that they possess, the whole purpose of accumulating and sharing such knowledge is spoiled.
  • Changing the organisational culture. Changing an organisation culturally is a tough nut to crack. Change indicates developing a different outlook altogether.

Knowledge management gurus suggest that an organisation must encourage knowledge sharing by rewarding individual-, group-, or organisational-initiatives towards the same. They suggest creating databases for knowledge and pay contributors for their inputs. However, this is perhaps not a great way to develop a knowledge-sharing culture within an organisation. Of course, apt rewards must be given, if that really offers any motivation, it is also imperative to remove hindrances towards knowledge sharing. The best way to motivate employees into knowledge sharing is to make it evident that such an initiative is in their personal interest. An employee will willingly share exclusive knowledge if he realises that his initiative will:

  • help him work more effectively
  • help him retain his job
  • promote professional and personal development
  • earn appreciation, recognition, and rewards

These messages can promote knowledge sharing within an organisation.

  • Knowledge is perishable and it is transitory. Without use it steadily loses its value.
  • It is true that two people can think alike. So if you are not making your knowledge functional, someone else will.
  • Sharing is synergetic. You get more than you give. If you share an idea or process, by putting it into words, it improves your own knowledge along with others. A dialogue with another knowledge sharer can only enhance your own knowledge and offer fresh insights.
  • Working in a team has its own benefits. You share and receive support and knowledge at the same time.

Overcoming doubts

People who object to knowledge sharing often do that because they feel that their ideas and knowledge will be embezzled. This may only happen if you share knowledge blindly and without a filter. Exercising judgement is the key. Your idea is not to be shared with your competitors. However, in order to develop it, you will need collaboration, for which you must find out ways.

Knowledge sharing also does not consist of just sharing great ideas. Learning about simple steps to improve a process, or a better way to do things can be useful for many. If you think your knowledge is growing redundant, it is time you share it with those that can put such knowledge to use. In return, that can share significant knowledge with you.

Knowledge sharing begins at an individual level. No matter in what capacity you are working, it is your responsibility to set goals in your sphere of influence. Share your ideas and knowledge within your sphere that could be a team, a business unit, or the whole organisation.

An organisation can curate the shared knowledge through a knowledge management programme. Although knowledge sharing is more about human connection, there are global organisations that cannot conduct knowledge sharing at such a grand scale without the help of technology. With implementation of technology comes training. The training of its users to use it for the right purpose and not just passing time. Groupware technologies enables work in collaboration across the world. Some examples would be:

  • Knowledge management software
  • Workflow system
  • Time management software
  • Online spreadsheet
  • Extranet

If such technologies can be implemented, and employees are trained to use the same, users can easily access information quickly and effectively.

Such initiatives helps the entire organisation to be interconnected and behave like a community with a feeling of commitment towards their goals.

Example 1

Xerox is a learning organisation that implements systematic thing and self-paced learning organisation-wide. In the year 1983, the senior manager of the organisation launched an initiative “Leadership through quality”. This initiative resulted in employees being trained in problem-solving techniques and small group activities. At present, the organisation uses a six-step process for problem solving. The employees get tools in four areas:

  • Breeding ideas and accumulating information (surveying, brainstorming, interviewing)
  • Reaching to a consensus (rating forms, list reduction, weighted voting)
  • Analysing and demonstrating data (force-field analysis, cause-effect diagrams)
  • Planning actions (Gantt charts, flowcharts)

The employees are trained to use these tools in family groups (same-department/business unit) and are expected to apply the same while solving real problems. This ensures a common vocabulary and a common and consistent approach towards problem solving. Once a high-level group was formed in order to review the organisational structure of Xerox. This group had to suggest alternatives to the existing structure. These tools were employed by the group to find suitable alternatives to Xerox’ existing organisational structure.

Example 2

Every organisation must review their failures as well as successes. They must assess the highs and lows systematically and also record the outcome and the lessons learnt. Such data must also be accessible to the entire organisation for reference and later use. Boeing employed this knowledge management technique after it faced issues with the Boeing 747 and 737 aircraft programs. These two models were launched pompously but with grave problems too. The senior managers appointed a high-level team named “Project Homework” to compare the process of development of the 747 and 737 with 707 and the 727 (the two prime bread earners of the organisation). This team was asked to create a manual on lessons learnt that could be used as reference later. The team worked incessantly for three years and generated hundreds of recommendations along with an inch-thick booklet. A number of members of this team were then transferred to the start-ups of 757 and 767. Their experience ensured the most successful and error-free launch in the history of Boeing.

Knowledge management – a feature of a learning organisation

“A firm’s competitive advantage depends more than anything on its knowledge: on what it knows- how it uses what it knows – and how fast it can know something new.” – HR Magazine 2009, p.1.

Organisational structures are mainly of two kinds – the formal and the informal. These are co-dependent in nature wherein the formal structures highly influence informal ones, sometimes positively and sometime adversely. Formal structure is the one that is displayed on a chart and consists of the organisational hierarchy. Here is where knowledge management (KM) comes to play.

A knowledge manager must recognise how an informal and a formal structure can coexist by understanding the knowledge dynamics of the organisation. The formal structure cannot be rigid, stifling the communities of practice, where the creativity and knowledge sharing takes place. In larger organisations, knowledge flow is impacted due to division of departments. The structure cannot be defined as it depends upon the size and type of business. However, studies show that more decentralised structures may work more effectively on knowledge management.

The informal organisational structures represent how employees interact and knowledge managers must support these networks. These structures are closely related to knowledge management as knowledge flow and repositories are completely dependent on them. Knowledge management must play a pivotal role by identifying the structures, classifying the knowledge, implementing change, bridging the gaps between two communities, etc.

At present, knowledge management looks contradictory. In 2016, Alphabet, Tesla Motors, Apple, Microsoft, ConocoPhillips, IBM, MITRE, and other giants were tagged:

“leaders in creating organisational intellectual capital and value through the transformation of individual/enterprise knowledge”

However, a recent survey published by KMWorld “The State of Knowledge Management 2016-17” revealed that fully functional knowledge management systems are progressing only at a moderate pace.

  • 38% organisations do not have a knowledge management solution in place
  • 47% professionals say that there is little or no understanding of knowledge management’s strategic value
  • 92% are still trying to give knowledge management a positive turn leaving only 8% satisfied with their knowledge management system

Here are some challenges that organisational knowledge management face:

  • Placing only explicit knowledge at the helm is a grave mistake. Managing case studies, documented stories, best practices, etc., leads to mere document management, which is only one part of knowledge management. Again, prioritising tacit knowledge can create an imbalance as such knowledge takes leave as soon as the owner quits the organisation. By implementing a singular knowledge management system, such as a SharePoint, can help an organisation accumulate both explicit and tacit knowledge within one framework.
  • In the absence of a knowledge management system, knowledge drowns in the immense volume generated each day. Either employees struggle to pick what is relevant to their need or the knowledge simply sits idle and loses its value over time. A functional knowledge management system offers tuned search based on keywords and makes knowledge searchable by date, year, owner, process, verticals, country, branch, etc.
  • Typically, an organisation tends to focus on a single model of knowledge distribution. Therefore, the organisation may only look at the pull model consisting of ‘search’ or the push model consisting of trainings, news, practice communities, etc. Although, a fine search system can help employees pull up required knowledge, but it does not excite them to sift through additional knowledge. Again, in passive organisations, knowledge comes to stagnation, where training has to be forced upon for knowledge improvement, or it results in fermentation, wherein knowledge gets limited to a single practice community inaccessible to the rest of the organisation. A balanced knowledge management system can maintain the balance between different knowledge distribution models, and decide which model can produce versatile knowledge.
  • Organisations neglect knowledge mapping because it is definitely not an easy job. It is difficult to determine knowledge domains and then identify the relevant knowledge items accordingly. Failing to perform this task fails knowledge management as a whole, creating a huge knowledge gap. Mapping knowledge sustains a knowledge management cycle. An organisation can assess knowledge, its strengths and gaps if it can be mapped systematically. Mapping also enables organisations to fill knowledge gaps, create fresh branches and map knowledge objects with precision.
  • If knowledge goes unmaintained, it loses its relevance can triggers mistakes that lead to business failures. Knowledge management can be successful if knowledge is available freely and can survive the knowledge management cycle starting from identification, to mapping, to upgrade, use and removal. Using a knowledge management system that offers automatic notification for review, upgrade, or removal, can help an organisation maintain its knowledge base.
  • When the corporate culture does not support or adapt to knowledge management, one cannot nurture a learning environment. This is the one of the most pertinent issues that organisations face while implementing a learning organisation model. It requires interacting with employees, educating them and helping them instil knowledge management in their regular activities.

While working on knowledge management projects, an organisation may lose patience due to the challenges such as employee reluctance, growing expenses, etc. A knowledge management framework that supports knowledge management activities starting from shaping scattered ideas to making knowledge accessible, can be useful for an organisation to implement a full knowledge management cycle and overcome all challenges. Such implementation can help develop into a learning organisation with organised knowledge flow.

This article covers one of the learning outcomes in the Leadership, Change and People Management unit on the LRN postgraduate Level 7 Diploma in Business Management.