Tag Archives: continuous learning

How many ‘loops’ in your organizational learning?

I attended an interesting presentation this week on enhancing our organizational culture. What it will take to make our organization a great place to work? How we might emulate our friends at FCC? Etc.

When I perused the list of bullet points presented by the consultants, I immediately thought that excluding the need to become an organization that is continuously learning was a palpable oversight (literally my heart raced a little)…. Given my passion for the topic, I asked the question AND was relieved to see it show up a few slides later as a future state for our organization….

The reason I provide this backdrop, is to help you understand the conversation that followed and the colleague who stopped me after the presentation to ask how I might define ‘continuous learning’….. it was my chance….. carpe diem…. finally a forum to share all of this information I’ve been gathering over the term.

What I offered (in the 5 minutes that followed) was my own definition of creating an organization that: is mobile, is willing to change practices when new information becomes available, supports employees when mistakes are made and to take risks, encourages learning at all levels – from individual to organizational, finds ways to ‘transfer’ learning, and supports ‘single to triple loop learning’….. (yes I really can talk that fast & no I didn’t use this new-found jargon with my colleague.)

It was quite a different definition from my colleague’s. Her definition was a more traditional one – where practicing continuous learning means providing regular in-services for employees and supporting professional development. Two important aspects, BUT, I’d offer that in today’s environment we need to do more AND, perhaps the starting point is to design a common definition for ‘organizational learning’ if we are going to be successful in this goal.

THERE…. a NARRATIVE to set the stage for this post 🙂

So how did I do with my 5 minute elevator speech? Well, one of my favorite definitions of a ‘learning organization’ (or as I like to say – an organization that practices continuous learning) comes from Garvin:

A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. (p 2)

Or to enhance that definition,  Garvin & Edmonson  in their short video help us to understand why we as leaders need to support learning at all levels of our organizations. How we need to make it safe to take risks and report mistakes; the importance of creating concrete and systematic processe; and our commitment to develop ways to reflect on past practice. The authors recommend that we start with our own groups and model the behaviors – show curiosity, ask a lot of questions, admit when things are puzzling, acknowledge uncertainty, invite others input….. some pretty straight forward ideas to get us going.

Vassalou‘s adaptation of the work of Goh helped me to visually describe the concept of a learning community:

The Learning Community

As Vassalou suggests, the basic building blocks of a learning organization are: a widely shared and understood mission, dynamic and actively involved leadership, knowledge dissemination and sharing, brainstorming and team problem solving, and an openness to responsible risk taking and a willingness to acknowledge failures and learn from them. Supporting the learning organization is a structure that encourages upward and downward information sharing with minimal boundaries and hierarchies, and life long learning practices where employees possess the right skills and are capable of single, double and triple loop learning (p 357). When I think back to the presentation I attended this week – these are exactly the characteristics that we need to commit to if we are going to become a high performing and learning culture.

So, those in the know regularly use the ‘loop’ terms for describing organizational learning…. and I found it somewhat difficult to pinpoint the various levels prior to reading the work of Vassalou. She helped me get a handle on the three types of organizational learning. It makes a lot of sense when you say it this way….. “single-loop is about ‘doing the same things differently’, double-loop is about ‘doing completely different things’ and triple-loop is ‘changing the assumptions about the way things are done'” (p 355). As she went on to explain (citing Argyris 1977):

In single loop learning, decisions are based solely on observations and result in the correction of errors. Double-loop-learning encourages critical rethinking of the existing knowledge, which has proven inadequate. Finally, triple-loop learning forces the individual to challenge deep-rooted assumptions and norms that have previously been inaccessible, because they were either unknown or known but undiscussable. p 355

When you reflect on the concepts identified in each ‘loop’, it encapsulates what I would hope a learning organization would as discussed in an earlier post, ‘act’ their way into.  Where leaders resist the temptation to assimilate and encourage questioning and calculated risk taking….. where it is safe to discuss and challenge deeply rooted assumptions and norms. It also speaks to an organization that involves the HRD (Human Resource Development) representatives at senior level discussions…. not where ‘training’ is an after-thought or an accreditation requirement to provide mandatory in-services or skill re-certification.

The final question that I’ll briefly tackle in this post, is to ask if an ‘organization’ can really learn, or is it really just the collective learning, experiences and actions of individuals. The analytical me knows that a ‘non-human entity’ can’t learn, but the reflective/reflexive me recognizes that how an organization reacts to change, and the importance that leaders place upon formal and informal learning is more than just offering up some in-services to our employees or a sum of the parts. As  Vassalou asks:

Organizations are not merely collections of individuals, yet there are no organizations without such collections. Similarly, organizational learning is not merely individual learning, yet organizations learn only through the experience and actions of individuals. What, then, are we to make of organizational learning? What is an organization that it may learn?

It didn’t take me long to realize that this question, could have been an entire term of reading all on its own…. but suffice it to say, most authors feel that individual learning is more related to skills and processes where organizational learning monitors outcomes and includes a variety of environmental and political impacts.

As Berg and Chyung (citing Marsick & Watkins 2001 & O’Neil 2003) relay :

While each level of learning has distinct attributes, all three contribute to the success of a learning organization. At the organizational level, learning is described as a collective experience and tends to result from the need to respond to an organization’s environmental influences. The group level of learning is described as the mutual construction of new knowledge including the capacity for concerted, collaborative action. Learning at the individual level is the way in which people obtain knowledge and skills, through the promotion of inquiry and dialogue and the creation of continuous learning opportunities.

For me, the important take away is that we need to encourage learning at all levels. As Wilhelm helps us to understand: investing in individuals drives employee engagement, attention to groups encourages innovation and thinking outside the boundaries of employees day-to-day jobs and learning at an organizational level encourages alignment of employees and leaders around the organizational vision and strategy.

So tomorrow (perhaps over your bowl of fruit loops)….. why not think about the importance of the various loops of learning required for our organizations to become ‘organizations that are continuously learning’.

Thoughts from those with more or similar experiences?


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