Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Learning organisation, or organisation of learners?

Domino's Learners
This thought was sparked by a blog post from Roxanna Samii about learning organisations, where she quotes a definition as follows

The literature says that a learning organization is one that “facilitates learning of its members to continuously transform themselves and enables them to remain competitive”.
Now that, to me, sounds like an organization of learners, rather than learning organisation.  The learning organisation, surely, should be more than the sum of its members?  It should be the organisation that learns, over and above the individual members within it, or at least that was my first reaction.

Perhaps we ought to ask, can an organisation really learn?  Is learning something that organisations can do?  Wikipedia tells us that learning is “one of the most important mental functions of humans, animals and artificial cognitive systems”, but organizations aren’t humans, they aren’t animals, and they aren’t artificial cognitive systems.  Unlike animals, organizations have no brains, so do they actually have anything to learn with?  Does an organisation have a memory, or mental models that they can update based on stimuli and responses?
In my experience, its pretty obvious that organizations can learn above and beyond the sum of individual “learning people”. Teams can learn, communities can learn, functions and projects can learn, just as an individual can learn. They can learn from experience, whether this is their own experience, or experience from other teams, other communities, other functions. It is this vision of “learning from experience” that has led so many companies to set up a lessons learned process within their Knowledge Management approach, so that if something does not go according to plan, they hope the company as a whole can reflect on what has happened, draw lessons from the past, and ensure not to repeat them in future.

However lesson-learning in organisations as far more complex than it is in a human. An organisation is not a single connected brain. There are no sensory neurons carrying messages of stimulus and response to the memory centres. An organisation does not contain connected learning pathways as a human brain does, unless we deliberately introduce them (which is what a lessons learned system is, in reality). An organisation doesn't have a Memory in the same way that a person does, although it has its own memory in the form of embedded structures, processes, procedures, and the stories and oral history of the organisation.

So can organisations learn, over and above the learning of their individual members? I would say there is ample evidence they do.They learn the same way that individuals do; by becoming conscious (as an organisation) of the need to learn, by acquiring that learning (as an organisation) through organisational reflection, conceptualisation and activity, and by finally becoming unconscious of the learning as it becomes embedded in organisational processes and procedures.

If the learning is addressed strategically, in the light of company competence requirements, and if organisational and individual learning are aligned structurally as part of a blended learning portfolio, then what Peter Senge said about individuals, can become true of organisations (my brackets added)

“Through learning (the organisation) re-creates (itself). Through learning (the organisation) becomes able to do something it never was able to do. Through learning (the organisation) perceives the world and its relationship to it. Through learning (the organisation)extends its capacity to create".
He concludes this quote  by saying, of individuals, that "There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning”.

I am yet to be convinced, however, that there is the same deep hunger in organisations. And that's where organisational learning differs from individual learning.  Individual learning is a natural act, that we all seek to do.  Organisational learning is an unnatural act that few organizations seek to do, even though the organisation that does not learn will not survive in the long term.

1 comment:

Md Santo said...

Learning Organization (LO) associated with process. Organization of learners associated with structure. Organizational Learning (OL) associated with function. Lesson learned linking up LO and OL. Bloom's Taxonomy (Learning Domains) related with Human System Biology-based Knowledge Management (HSBKM) model framework used to describe Individual learning with OL as a continuum - http://bit.ly/aUQNcn

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