227 - the Learning Business | Scoins.net | DJS

227 - the Learning Business

We are encouraged as workers to continually reflect upon our progress, so as to inform what we do and help us perform better. 

A simple feedback loop might include questions:

Task done
? Could it have been done better?
? What could have been improved?
? Ideas to make improvement occur?
? Do I need to discuss this?
? Do I need to change something?
? Do I need to research any of those changes?
? Can I experiment?
Resulting action.

it ought indeed to be a reflexive as well as a recursive action. Procedures of best practice are developed in the light of such experience. The benefit is that the procedure protects the inexperienced from disaster, as it protects the more experienced from cutting corners. 

If a frequent question is “Does the standard procedure apply here?” and if that question is answered with care for consequences more than a regard for corner-cutting, then the general benefit to the business is positive. This is likely to be as much to do with the change in ethos and the positive attitude this brings to everyone’s collaborative approach to work as any other facet of the business in operation. Indeed, when one of the resulting thoughts includes such things as ‘But <name> is an obstacle’, and when the personnel involved are chasing their own agendas rather than that of the company as a whole, things rapidly fall apart.

So to have a business that learns, one needs to have a collective attitude that is widespread. It also needs to be self-correcting, in the sense that behaviour which runs counter to the learning side of the business is itself ‘fixed’ by the collective, just as people drifting from policy are gently steered back. The current big new idea here is that the whole is a positive and encouraging environment, not one of censure, blame bitching and internal politicking.

The term ‘learning organisation’ is explained on wikipedia, paraphrased here. There are five disciplines: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning.

A learning organisation is a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capacities to create results they really care about.[4]  Peter Senge popularised the concept of the learning organisation through his book The Fifth Discipline.

This ... encourages organisations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking. Organisations should become more like communities that employees can feel a commitment to.[11]

The five elements explained:

Systems thinking. This is a conceptual framework that allows people to study businesses as bounded objects.[6] Learning organisations use this method of thinking when assessing their company and have information systems that measure the performance of the organisation as a whole and of its various components.[7] Systems thinking states that all the characteristics must be apparent at once in an organisation for it to be a learning organisation.[6] If some of these characteristics are missing then the organisation will fall short of its goal. However, O'Keeffe[3] believes that the characteristics of a learning organisation are factors that are gradually acquired, rather than developed simultaneously.

Note that the business has information systems that measure the performance of the organisation as a whole and of its various components. We assume that these measures of success are valid, are themselves subject to learning procedures and capable of alteration in line with being a learning organisation. I have written at length already about the widespread general failure to do this. Like essay 84, five years ago.

Personal mastery. The commitment by an individual to the process of learning is known as personal mastery.[6] There is a competitive advantage for an organisation whose workforce can learn more quickly than the workforce of other organisations.[8] Individual learning is acquired through staff training, development and continuous self-improvement;[9] however, learning cannot be forced upon an individual who is not receptive to learning.[6] Research shows that most learning in the workplace is incidental, rather than the product of formal training,[3] therefore it is important to develop a culture where personal mastery is practised in daily life.[6] A learning organisation has been described as the sum of individual learning, but there must be mechanisms for individual learning to be transferred into organisational learning.[8]

There are several important points here, which could so easily be impediments to changing a business into a learning organisation. The resources for the training; the provision of capacity for continuous development; the cultural development; the mechanisms for transfer from individual to the whole.

Personal mastery may be seen as threatening the organisation, which is true while the whole is not in agreement (shared vision, below), while one individual who ‘gets it’ is perceived as threatening one who perceives his position as ‘higher’; one who doesn’t ‘do’ learning indeed, is incapable of personal mastery. Such people will not survive, but the process by which they are weeded out is fraught with difficulties that threaten the organisation as a whole. Resistance to learning will occur where individuals decline, in some sense, to participate.

Mental models. The assumptions held by individuals and organisations are called mental models.[6] To become a learning organisation, these models must be challenged. Individuals tend to espouse theories, which are what they intend to follow, and theories-in-use, which are what they actually do.[6][7] Similarly, organisations tend to have 'memories' which preserve certain behaviours, norms and values.[10] In creating a learning environment it is important to replace confrontational attitudes with an open culture[9] that promotes inquiry and trust.[3] To achieve this, the learning organisation needs mechanisms for locating and assessing organisational theories of action.[7] Unwanted values need to be discarded in a process called 'unlearning'.[10] Wang and Ahmed[8] refer to this as 'triple loop learning'.

Here I think the vital piece is replacing confrontational attitudes with an open culture that promotes inquiry and trust. Unwanted values then includes all the ‘me me me’ agendas, all the internal politicking, all of those personal agendas devoted to looking after number one. To reach such a point implies, to me, a whole that is surprisingly comfortable; the possibility of discontinued employment does not occur, except perhaps in applying to everyone not to individuals.

Shared vision. The development of a shared vision is important in motivating the staff to learn, as it creates a common identity that provides focus and energy for learning.[6] The most successful visions build on the individual visions of the employees at all levels of the organisation,[9] thus the creation of a shared vision can be hindered by traditional structures where the company vision is imposed from above.[3] Therefore, learning organisations tend to have flat, decentralised organisational structures.[7] The shared vision is often to succeed against a competitor;[8] however, Senge states that these are transitory goals and suggests that there should also be long-term goals that are intrinsic within the company.[6]

Vision within the company depends on perceptions of equality, on flat, decentralised structures and, perhaps a lack of imposition. Which might be consensus.
Large businesses find their size works against knowledge sharing. 150 staff is about the limit; there is good argument for having units far smaller than this, which drives the need for teams. How these teams then liaise is another matter.

Team learning. The accumulation of individual learning constitutes team learning.[3] The benefit .. is that the problem solving capacity of the organisation is improved through better access to knowledge and expertise.[9] Learning organisations have structures that facilitate team learning with features such as boundary crossing and openness.[7] Team learning requires individuals to engage in dialogue and discussion;[3] therefore team members must develop open communication, shared meaning, and shared understanding.[3] Learning organisations typically have excellent knowledge management structures, allowing creation, acquisition, dissemination, and implementation of this knowledge in the organisation.[8]
So talk is good, and, I suspect that such talk is not ‘meeting’ as seen elsewhere, because one of the shared visions would, I guess, be supportive productivity.

Wonderful: how do you make it happen? Most of the problems come from failing to fully embrace the five elements above.  Researchers embracing this outlook have, wikipedia tells me, found it difficult to find case studies. Internal politics works strongly against success.The internal culture seems to work very well in a business that is expanding (rapidly, I think), for then the politics is suppressed to an extent. 

“Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, describes a poll of 23,000 employees drawn from a number of companies and industries. He reports the poll's findings:
* Only 37 percent said they have a clear understanding of what their organisation is trying to achieve and why
* Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team's and their organisation's goals
* Only one in five said they had a clear "line of sight" between their tasks and their team's and organisation's goals
* Only 15 percent felt that their organisation fully enables them to execute key goals
* Only 20 percent fully trusted the organisation they work for

Then, Covey superimposes a very human metaphor over the statistics. He says, "If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.”   Chip Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Other factors of the business tend to conflict. The learning organisation favours individual and collective learning processes at all levels, but does not connect them properly to the organisation's strategic objectives. That is, such a link is assumed, when it needs to be created and reinforced, and perhaps seen to occur. That suggests to me that the measurement of learning needs to be thought about. Measures of success, again.

I can see problems with any bureaucratic organisation in trying to embrace such concepts. The idea works strongly against empire-building; it works against ivory towers too. This may go some small way to explaining why education systems themselves seems to generally fail at application of learning.

What is wrong with our educational institutions? The businesses in learning that are not themselves learning businesses?
The first place I looked [http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/09696470510592539  £20, ouch!!]   found that few of the underlying values that serve as the underpinnings of the learning organisations are actually honoured in universities. In the language used above, a lack of shared vision and probably very little personal mastery despite all the qualifications. Academic politics, no doubt.

This source [²] gives direct access to a relevant paper, saying the same as I have already written in far more words. 

I liked this bit, mansplaining why it ought to work:

Within the tertiary education context there is, prima facie, fertile ground for the development of a learning organisation. A university is both explicitly and implicitly built on notions relating to the importance of learning at an individual level and the idea of learning as the basis for and driver of development is well recognised within universities. Unlike concepts such as knowledge management which pose an implicit threat to intellectual property rights and academic autonomy, the idea of organisational learning to produce a learning organisation is likely to be one which sits easily with most staff within a university. Given that for many academics the attractiveness of their chosen profession lies in the opportunity to explore new territory and to learn from these explorations, it seems likely that involvement in organisational learning would act as a significant motivator and satisfier within the workplace. Within the wider organisation context, the learning organisation concept and organisation learning processes are also likely to be attractive because, in their indeterminateness, they offer the possibility of context-sensitive permutations of both processes and desired outcomes.

I have copied the last couple of pages from this source far below, ² but summarising here:
Impediments are: 
Fragmentation, resulting from linear thinking, specialisation and independent, warring fiefdoms.
Reactiveness, reflecting a fixation on problem-solving, rather than creation and innovation. 
Competition, creating an environment in which looking good is more important than being good, measurable, short-term gains counts more than long-term achievement, and problems are solved by individuals in isolation.
•  Power,  politics and time
•  Lack of appropriate structures: Recurring themes are the need for teamwork, work across traditional functional and other boundaries, a systems approach, and organisational structures that encourage openness and bottom-up as well as top-down flows of information.
Need for leadership and openness. Recurring themes are the need for involved leadership and openness, a risk taking and action learning approach, awareness of existing mindsets, empowerment and continuing education. Of these, leadership is crucial, not just at the top.

I found a case study of Karlstad University, ³ which wants to be a learning organisation and is not succeeding. I put its points in the footnote, but here draw attention to the data acquisition, what is done with it and how the feedback loops, while not at all wrong in existing, actually succeed in preventing the change that learning requires – they block progress because they are somehow defensive. To me that echoes immediately that they prevent learning, when they should have the opposite effect.

I found an Australian thesis approaching this problem, where towards the end, Reece says (I’ve edited it down a bit, so this is not exactly a quote):
The ten dimensions of an Australian university as a Learning Organization are (Reece, 2004):
•  Leadership
•  Vision
•  Organizational culture
•  Human resource management
•  Role in society
•  Accessibility
•  Resources
•  Innovation and creativity
•  Information Communication Technology
•  Global reach

While the leadership of University ‘A’ does not fully meet all the characteristics, it has served it very well. During the tenure of the current Vice-Chancellor, there began a transformation from a collection of unrelated disciplines into a teaching university that has a well-defined vision, known as ‘the mantra’. This has had a significant impact on the organisational culture of the University. The mantra seems to have given the staff a common purpose and a shared mental model that allows them to act towards a common goal. This has, in turn, enabled the University to be more selective about which areas of teaching and research it will expand and those it will allow to wither, so that the vision and thereby the role in society are all aligned to achieve the same outcomes. By having made the vision and role explicit, this has enabled the organisational culture to become more aligned to achieving the strategic objectives and made people more open to ‘learning’.

This transformation is primarily due to the current Vice-Chancellor using a very strong and strategically focused leadership style, aimed at honing and focusing the teaching and research efforts of the University to servicing the service professions as a whole and the users of Information Communication Technology in particular. The use of ‘the mantra’ has given the staff a clear vision of what they, as individuals, groups, departments, faculties and divisions, are there to achieve. This has had had a profound impact on the way the Human Resource Management of the University has operated and it has ensured the current staff have the appropriate abilities, skills and knowledge but, where staff are deemed unsuitable, for academic renewal or further education training or development, then an appropriate redundancy package is offered. Consequently, it is argued that this University is beginning to ‘learn’.

So it can be done within a university, once the people at the top decide it should.

DJS 20170616 
top pic taken blindly from google search. 
I know where I should have picked. Chicken.

1 Dance of Change Senge, Peter., Kleiner, Art., Ross, Richard., Roth, George., Smith, Bryan. (1999). "The Dance of Change" New York: Currency Doubleday.

2 http://www.academicjournals.org/article/article1379595462_Lewis%20et%20al.pdf

Impediments to learning by and within organisations 

Fragmentation, reactiveness and competition: Reflecting on the impediments to learning by organisation and within organisations, Kofman and Senge (1995) identify factors which they argue also form the basis of learning disabilities in society as a whole, namely:

1. Fragmentation, resulting from linear thinking, specialisation, an independent, warring fiefdoms.
2. Reactiveness, reflecting a fixation on problem-solving, rather than creation and innovation.

3. Competition, creating an environment in which looking good is more important than being good, measurable, short-term gains counts more than long-term achievement, and problems are solved by individuals in isolation.

Power, politics and time

In addition to the impact of societal characteristics such as fragmentation, reactiveness and competition upon learning capacity, within universities, as within other organisations, issues of power, politics and time also fundamentally determine the amount and nature of learning that can take place. In an organisation under stress, challenged to find new directions and respond to frequently changing environmental pressures as well as increased scrutiny, it is likely that much time will be spent on ‘fire fighting’ and ‘window dressing’.

Learning across the university

The literature on the learning organisation and organisational learning consistently identifies appropriate structures and culture as keys to unlocking the possibility of ongoing learning (Senge, 1990; Watkins and Marsick, 1993; Garavan, 1997; Applebaum and Reichart, 1998; Reynolds and Ablett, 1998; Grieves, 2000). Within the scope of structure, recurring themes are the need for teamwork (Senge, 1990; Watkins and Marsick, 1993), work across traditional functional and other boundaries, a systems approach, and organisational structures that encourage openness and bottom-up as well as top-down flows of information (Senge, 1990; Watkins and Marsick, 1993; Rolls, 1995; Applebaum and Reichart, 1998; Goh, 1998; Teare and Dealtry, 1998). Within the scope of culture, recurring themes are the need for involved leadership and openness, a risk taking and action learning approach, awareness of existing mindsets, empowerment and continuing education (Redding and Catalanello, 1994; Senge, 1990; Watkins and Marsick, 1993; De Geus, 1996; Applebaum and Reichart, 1998; Teare and Dealtry, 1998). Across the university, leadership, human resource development and knowledge management strategies act as systemic keys able to open the door to organisational learning.


Absolutely critical to the development of a university as a learning organisation is the Vice-Chancellor’s commitment to providing the time, support and role modelling necessary for organisational learning as well as his/her commitment to ‘servant leadership’ – democratic behaviour, competence and concern for the well being of those being led (Kofman and Senge, 1995).

Human resource development

Good leadership, while essential at the top, needs also to be seeded throughout the organisation. Thus, leadership training and team building activities, focusing on enhancing interpersonal communication, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills must involve people from the highest to the lowest levels of staffing if an institution-wide learning potential is to be created. Teams need to be established with reference what is known about the enabling factors associated with effective, self-managing teams – namely, clear goals, decision-making authority, accountability an responsibility, effective leadership, training and development, resources, and organisational support (Hunter et al., 1996; Yeatts et al., 1996). Many university staff is used to wording in research teams or on committees but if teamwork is to be used successfully to develop a learning organisation, training for effective teamwork must be supported by the conscious development of teamwork strategies in each new teamwork context. Rewards and performance management strategies must also be tied to effective teamwork, especially in the initial phases of any attempt to change work patters, and it is probably helpful to ensure that enthusiast for teamwork undertake the initial teamwork projects.

What does the concept of learning community offer Universities?

It could be argued that the notion of the learning organization provides managers and others with a picture of how things could be within an organisation. Along the way, writers like Peter Senge introduce a number of interesting dimensions that could be personally developmental, and that could increase organisational effectiveness – especially where the enterprise is firmly rooted in the ‘knowledge economy. However, as we have seen, there are a number of shortcomings to the model – it is theoretically underpowered and there is some question as to whether the vision can be realised within the sorts of dynamics that exist within and between organisations in a globalised capitalist economy.

It might well be that ‘the concept is being oversold as a near-universal remedy for a wide variety of organisational problems’ (Kuchinke, 1995; Kerka, 1995). The concept of the learning organisation has three major limitations: first, it focuses mainly on the cultural dimension and does not adequately take into account the other dimensions of an organisation. To transform an organisation it is necessary to attend to structures and the organisation of work as well as the culture and processes. ‘Focussing exclusively on training activities in order to foster learning favours this purely cultural bias’. Second, while it favours individual and collective learning processes at all levels of the organisation, it does not connect them properly to the organisation’s strategic objectives. Popular models of organisational learning (Dixon, 1994) assume such a link. It is, therefore, imperative, ‘that the link between individual and collective learning and the organisation’s strategic objectives is made’ (ibid.: 147). This shortcoming, Finger and Brand argue, makes a case for some form of measurement of organisational learning – so that it is possible to assess the extent to which such learning contributes or not towards strategic objectives. Third, it remains rather vague. The exact functions of organisational learning need to be more clearly defined.


A review of an existing field of knowledge ought always to show a positive and generous face. There is certainly too much of value in the available variety of organisational approaches for them to be dismissed as useless or trivial. Finger and Brand conclude that there is a need to develop ‘a true management system of an organisation’s evolving learning capacity. This, they suggest can be achieved through defining indicators of learning (individual and collective) and by connecting them to other indicators. In our view, organisational learning is just a means in order to achieve strategic objectives. But creating a learning organisation is also a goal, since the ability permanently and collectively to learn is necessary precondition for thriving in the new context.

Therefore, the capacity of an organisation to learn, that is, to function like a learning organisation, needs to be made more concrete and institutionalised, so that the management of such learning can be made more effective. Such an approach offers universities a way of focusing on differences stemming from the relatively unique tasks of organisations or broad types of organisation.

The critical challenge of the university is attracting and more importantly retaining senior competent staff highly committed to the future of university leadership development. If we take the importance of these realisations seriously in our framing of organisation questions of the University, then we shall go along way towards a more sensitive, practical and demystified awareness of how much socially organised knowledge is transmitted.

3   https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:6505/FULLTEXT01.pdf   of Karlstad university, reviewing how it meets the requirements of a learning organisation.
I have picked out some bits of the conclusions. The paper is available from the link above, so I see little point in copying it here.

the results of the evaluation system show the university has a lack of systematic routines for data gathering about internal processes, and there is an absence of qualitative data gathering, which indicates an ignorance of feedback internally as well.

The results of the evaluation system reveal the university has a lack of systematic data processing, difficulties to examine underlying structures of problems, lack of pro-active problem identification and repeated problem-solving, which indicates Karlstad University does not apply system thinking in problem-solving processes. 

Furthermore, the results show that the university does not systematically evaluate actions taken and there is a lack of systematic improvement of problem-solving routines, which indicates ignorance of feedback regarding actions taken and difficulties to learn from experiences. Such results indicate that the university applies one-dimensional learning rather than two-dimensional learning such as second order/double loop/development oriented learning, or the mix of these learning strategies, which characterises learning organisations. A learning organisation uses a well-balanced mix of both learning qualities. 

It is also characteristic of a learning organisation to have a learning culture that allows and encourages questioning, the production of and absorbance of new ideas, conflicts, risk-taking, mistakes and knowledge transfer. Within such an organisation there are supportive structures for these activities. The analyses of the norm system reveal that Karlstad University does not meet these requirements in the theoretical model. The culture of this university seems to be non-encouraging regarding most of these aspects, and there is also a lack of supportive structures as well. A learning culture, and supportive learning structures, is distinguished by a high degree of communication flow characterised by dialogue. The results of the communication system show that while quality of communication sometimes is distinguished by dialogue, sometimes there is an unclear quality in that communication. Results have also shown that the communication flow often is perceived as poor among organisational members and that organisational defensive routines block dialogue from bottom-up within the university. The organisational diffuseness and time pressure that the respondents in the study experience together with a lack of natural meeting arenas hinder dialogue from taking place. The university has been designed in a highly differentiated and fragmented way, where the different parts have little contact with one another. 

A learning organisation is usually distinguished by a strong common vision, which emerges from organisational members, and with which they can identify themselves with. The insights into the vision system of the studied university show that there exists ambivalence in the formulation process of the vision and divergence in the identification with the vision. However, the content of the vision that the university works towards really does meet the characteristics of a learning organisation, which probably will be of importance for further future development. The supportive learning structures of the theoretical model are characterised by multi-disciplinary groupings, where a variety of organisational members can be included and where learning and knowledge transfer more easily can take place. 

The learning that takes place on the organisational level seems to mainly be one-dimensional learning, rather than a mix of two-dimensional learning that the literature points out as a characteristic trait of learning organisations.

How to Improve the University’s Ability to Work as a Learning Organisation

As the results of the system theory analyses have shown, the university suffers from a self-locking structure, where reinforcing feedback loops between the subsystems block the university’s abilities to function as a learning organisation. However, reinforcing feedback loops in themselves is not problematic; rather it is what they reinforce that produces problems. The presence of organisational defensive routines in all subsystems, reinforced by reinforcing feedback loops between them hinder the university’s pre-requisites to meet the requirements of the theoretical model. In order to improve the university’s preconditions to function as a learning organisation it appears to be important to keep the reinforcing feedback loops travelling between the subsystems, but it is also important to change the characteristics of what they reinforce.

The norm system contains mental models such as organisational defensive routines, which might block learning. These mental models pervade all subsystems, and consequently, the entire organisation. Accordingly, these mental models need to change. Such changes are not easily carried out, since they cannot be ordered by the management, at least not from the cultural perspective and the theoretical model of a learning organisation applied in this study. If the management and key individuals at different organisational levels alter their mental models and behaviours, organisational members are likely to follow since the management and key individuals are norm setting for the organisation as a whole. 

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