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Organizational Learning, Learning Organizations and Knowledge Retention - What Happened in 2008? (and 2009?)

Can I suggest these critical areas of operation and key responsibility areas for all management teams were at best only paid lip service or at worst were totally ignored over the last decade or so. As an ex banker/financier who has written much about how to lend money I find it incredible that I have seen bad lending practices reemerge and create disasters about every ten years since I left that crazy (and wonderful) industry. Where is the accumulated knowledge and why have successive generations of lenders learnt so little? Why is the American car industry so unable to make adjustments to world-wide automotive trends that are as obvious as the nose on their face or do they not recognize the effect of the present/past and inevitable future cost increases of petrol?
Organizational Learning
‘Learning is a characteristic of an adaptive organization, i.e., an organization that is able to sense changes in signals from its environment (both internal and external) and adapt accordingly.’ [1] The object of this learning is to have our organization positively benefit from experience (on observation) and through incorporating the learning as feedback into the planning process seek constant improvement and adaptation of the organizations processes to better satisfy the market. Obviously importantly the other major goal is to improve the internal economics of the organization and all that desire (or need) entails.
Types of Learning
The learning model developer Chris Argyris Ph.D through his learning models “has made a significant contribution to the development of our appreciation of organizational learning and almost in passing, deepened our understanding of experiential learning.” [3]
“Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on ‘techniques and making techniques more efficient’ (Usher and Bryant: 1989: 87) Any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective. Double-loop learning, in contrast, ‘involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies” [3]

Learning Organizations
‘A “learning organization” is one that actively promotes, facilitates, and rewards collective learning’ [1] and then effectively captures and distributes that knowledge.
Knowledge can be gained and “captured” from individuals or groups. Methods can include; work study, publications, individual or team activity reports, debriefing after successes and failures, interviews with stakeholders such as customers suppliers and individual staff or teams and presentations from industry experts or user groups.
In one organization I worked for company wide training bulletins were distributed on individual errors that had occurred or on major successes achieved. In another, complaint letters where reviewed at morning operational meetings, appropriated remedies where decided and operational procedures (or changes) where distributed immediately.
“Capturing includes organizing knowledge in ways that people can find it; multiple structures facilitate searches regardless of the user’s perspective (e.g., the old who, what, when, where, why and how).” [1] ‘Capturing also includes storage of the knowledge where it is readily retrievable in repositories, databases, or libraries etc.’ [1]
This brings me to the current economic malaise we find ourselves in (end 2008 early 2009) and the problem of knowledge retention. However perhaps we should deal with that later in this essay.
Learning organizations need a culture of knowledge sharing and not a culture of “knowledge is power” where the common belief is that we must keep what we have learned to ourselves to maintain our power. Stupid you may think however in many of the organizations (particularly in Asia) that I have consulted for this is exactly the culture that exists.
“Organizational learning is a social process” [1]
“Using knowledge may be through simple reuse of existing solutions that have worked previously. It may also come through adapting old solutions to new problems.” [1]
The primary challenge for a learning organization is to ensure that once any individual or part of the organization learns something that it is retained and then to make certain that it quickly becomes part of the total groups knowledge base and that it is available for immediate distribution and use.
Knowledge Retention
Above I have mentioned some structured methods of promoting knowledge retention however there are other issues or methods that need to be addressed and that must become integral to how the organization operates.
From Christoph Schmaltz (Headshift) [edited]
‘1) Increase transparency
Give employees smart tools that enable them to easily communicate, collaborate and connect with each other on an organization-wide level.
2) Enable free flow of information
Employees [themselves] should be able to decide what information is important and relevant to their work.
3) Focus on personal productivity
Employees are primarily concerned about their own performance. Give employees simple tools that make them more productive and that at the same time the encouragement to input into a network that effects and benefits the organization as a whole.
4) Get out of the way!
Facilitate but rather than control the individuals and processes.’ [4]
One more issue - Continuous Planning
Finally I would like to emphasize the role of continuous planning. I have conducted many planning sessions both for my past employers and for companies to whom I have since be employed as a consultant. Most individuals and organizations are fine with setting the vision, the mission the objectives and the strategies. Then comes the hard part… deciding on what actions to take to achieve all of the above, who will be responsible for outcomes, by when the tasks are to be completed and how the success of each action will be measured. Even if the “hard part” is completed more often than not the plan is placed in a drawer and everyone thinks quietly to them self… “great that onerous waste of time is over for another year”.
It is my habit at training courses to ask my participants to recite their company vision (which is often an the office wall outside) and 99 times out of 100 I draw a blank. Now if our employees can’t even remember (learn) our vision what chance of any other meaningful learning and retention.
There is only one way to overcome this problem and that is to live by the old adage “plans are nothing, planning is everything”. The ways continuous planning can be implemented are varied however here is a method that worked for me. I’m not big on meetings so with my management team our meetings consisted of a fifteen to twenty-minute coffee break at 10.15 am. At this meeting only quick updates and follow-ups were discussed and tasks and mail where distributed. Once a week a one-hour general meeting was held thirty minutes before normal starting time and thirty minutes during the normal working hours.
This meeting was split into three sections, 20 minutes of general communication, 20 minutes of learning activity and 20 minutes of planning updates. The results and updates where immediately posted to the relevant process owners and their managers. This ongoing planning kept us in focus and allowed us to make the needed operational changes as we progressed through the original plan’s cycle.
This essay is by no means intended to be a complete guide however perhaps it is an adequate starting point.


Copyright Orglearn - Richard Townsend 2008-2014