Last Updated 12 May 2020

The notion of the learning organisation

Category Learning, Metaphysics
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In this part of discussion, I expound on the notion of the learning organisation. I look at the meaning of leaning and meaning of organisation and then interrelate the two terminologies to establish as to whether there is such a thing as the leaning organisation. This is followed by the discussion of the origin and development of the concept. I shall then offer a thoughtful analysis and critique of the concept. Learning "Leaning is the process of acquiring new knowledge, understanding and insight. " (ULMC Module Pg 2. 1). This process generates change in the way we do and look at things.

Learning inevitably creates change. We have always learnt that change is a factor of life and that everything is in a continuous state of motion. In fact Heraclitus one of the early Greek philosophers noted "you can never step in the river twice" (ibid 2. 1). What this implies is that we don't necessarily have to initiate change. It happens anyway. However, learning is a factor that facilitates this change. Again in some situations we have little control on learning because things simply happen to us and they force us to learn.

We are all the time confronted by situations, circumstances that force us to see, understand what we normally ordinarily would not have intended to happen. Actually the bible reflects this in the book of Ecclesiastes that for everything under the sun there is a time.... This is an emphasis that we have very little control if any on most of the inevitable things that happen in day today realities. The principle of change was also echoed by one of the medieval philosophers Soren Kikkerggared with his theory of predetermination later with Charles Dawin and the evolution theory.

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Soren argues that "in time and space, everything is predetermined" Ed Kierkegaard, 1954, 152). With such expose and understanding then our concern as mangers is the relevance and connectedness of leaning and change to organisations. In the words of John Walter, president of AT ; T the world famous telecommunication company, stated, "when the pace of change outside the organisation becomes greater then the pace of change inside the organisation, the end is near". His remarks summarise and emphasises the need for learning and change in organisation.

Learning Organisational What is an organisation? Mike Wills defines it as "a group of people who work together" (Will. Mike, Management, 2001, 25). Kao defines it as "a company, corporation, firm, enterprise or institution, or part or combination thereof, whether incorporated or not, public or private, that has its own functions and administration. For organizations with more than one operating unit, a single operating unit may be defined as an organization. " Kao, J. J 1989, 35). What is a learning organisation?

There are many definitions of the learning organization but the one I like based on Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell is: 'A learning organization is an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself to achieve superior competitive performance. ' (Pedler, M Boydel, T and Burgoyne, J 1988, 18) Origin of the concept There is nothing new about the learning organisation. Indeed the whole concept is an absurdity. The idea can be traced as back as 1930's when people started writing aggressively about management.

Management consultants especially driven by the zeal to always find something novel to say about management came up with all vocabularies that never existed before to describe the systems s and processes which existed with in organisations. In Schumpeter's terms we call this innovation. This thinking can be traced in the following developments. The learning curve effects- discovered in the 1930's & 1940's by Kondratieff and Schumpeter. Ideas about emergent strategy in a trial and error business where you learn from mistakes.

Ideas about kaizen (continuous improvements) and empowerment- derived from the studies of the Japanese manufacturing firms e. g. quality circles Neo human relations writers like Chris Argyris and his notion of "double loop learning- learning how to learn. 1970's Reaction to studies of cooperate excellence in the American firms by peters and waterman- chump-to-chump cycles and the icarus paradox. Note that all these ideas about the learning organisation leaves one question unsatisfactorily answered. Can organisations really learn? Organisations by their nature imply stability, predictability, and control.

On the other hand leaning implies change, questioning, and conflict as stipulated in Wick and Westerly - organisational learning 1996. The term organisational learning was popularized by Peter Senge" leaning organisation the fifth discipline 1990 and David Gavin - building a leaning organisation 1993 among others.

Senge explained a leaning organisation as a place where "... people continuously expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expensive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspirations are set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together" (ULMC Module Pg 2.2) while Senge's definition is centred on the people within an organisation to be the learning agents, Gavin's emphasis was centred on the organisation as an entity capable of learning. He defines a learning organization as "... an organisation skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge and at modifying it behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insight. (Ibid 2. 3). As we shall latter see in the analysis this paradox leaves a gap in understanding the concept of learning organisations.

Is it the organisation that learns or it is the individuals within the organisation who are rational beings that can make choices as to their fate within the organisation? According to Senge organisations that are capable of learning from their experiences do better than those organisations that simply adopt to their environments. They take advantage of rapidly changing conditions. Their strategies are sufficiently open ended to allow for the unexpected. So that their capabilities of organisational learning can deal with external rapidly changing situations.

A leaning organisation is an organisation of change as put by Lampel that "a learning organisation undertakes periodic examination of systems, routines, and procedures to examine whether they still perform the needed functions and should be retained. New technology, new knowledge and new practices often allow organisations to redesign routines to make them efficient and effective" Lampel, 2002, 214. Senge's view on this [position is of emergent disciplines which according to him lead to the innovation of the learning organisation.

in using the term "disciplines" Senge is refereeing simultaneously to ways of understanding and ways of doing. He is referring to bodies of theory, which have developed over time. Accordingly therefore, a discipline is a developments path to greater proficiency. (ULMC, R5). Senge proposes five disciplines or theories which may have developed separately and probably a collective effort of different people. These include, systems thinking, personal masterly, mental models, building a shared vision and team working.

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