Tag Archives: empowering

Should we call ourselves ‘learning organizations’?

If anyone has just tuned in recently, you might be wondering about my recent obsession with topics on a similar theme. Well, since it was a few posts ago that I explained this, I’ll reiterate that I’m studying independently this term and using my blog as a means of critically reflecting upon the reading and writing I’m doing for a class entitled “Learning in the Workplace”.

I’m finding that I’m likely a more arduous task master when I’m personally being held accountable for my progress than when I’m provided with a required reading list…. SO I’d encourage you to offer blogging and critical reflection up as an option for your learners…. I think it works.

ANYWAY……This week, I thought by the titles that I chose, that I would be starting to assemble and synthesize data on techniques for workplace learning (as I’m required to submit a paper on this topic)….. the literature again had much to offer, but I found a few concepts that I felt were foundational to the topic and that required a bit of attention prior to a focus on techniques.

The first concept that intrigued me was a definition by Rashman et al (citing Gorelick 2005): “if organizational learning is seen as a continuous learning cycle, then an organization can not arrive at a point in time when it declares itself a ‘learning organization’, a noun or an end state. On the other hand, any organization can identify with being in a constant state of learning and declare itself to be practicing organizational learning (p 470).

The idea of practicing organizational learning, appeals to me. It encourages us to remain ever vigilant and to guard against complacency with our techniques. It means staying in touch with recent literature – perhaps by setting up RSS feeds to help us keep up OR by recognizing that simulation is not just a fad and that it is one of the best ways to engage learners actively. It’s a technique that begs us to review those mandatory re-certifications that we do each year and ask – isn’t there a better way…..

The second notion that I gravitated to, was to find a model that could help me explain why some organizations are successful at practicing organizational learning and why others struggle.  Won Yoon et al (2009), (p 62) suggest that the flow of learning and knowledge should look like this:

As the model suggests, organizational learning starts with members’ expertise and information sharing. It increases when members socialize and adapt to new ideas. Validation occurs when members transform the knowledge into meaningful and practical knowledge. For this new knowledge to be applied, it will need to be justified as applicable to the work setting and then embedded into the nonverbal climate and underlying norms through reflective practice. Finally, for new learning to be sustained it requires organizational support, appreciation for diverse perspectives, group collaboration, trust, empowerment, collaborative problem solving and strategic leadership (p 62 – 64).

What I like about the model is its relevance to our current environment of supercomplexity. It is modern and inclusive and recognizes that to be successful, organizations will need to value both their employees and their leaders. It recognizes that a culture of ‘top down’ management is doomed to fail – as without the individuals’ knowledge and trust, organizational learning won’t be possible. It also advocates for employee support and the need for a culture of safety – where we learn from our mistakes.

I liked the quote by Simon (1991) who claims that “all learning takes place inside individual human heads; an organization learns in only two ways: a) the learning of its members, or b) by ingesting new members who have knowledge the organization previously didn’t have (p. 125).” Perhaps the model that Won Yoon’s group describes above is the way that we’ll get this learning out of individual’s heads and embedded into our organizations and cultures.

The final concept that I highlighted this week, was the recognition that organizational learning is unique within private and public sector organizations. The two sectors share some complex challenges, but according to Rashman et al (2009) they have different drivers and goals for knowledge. They also have different purposes, structures, and stakeholders. As the authors suggest (citing Hartley 2006), “if the purpose, drivers, catalysts and key actors are different between sectors, it is possible that the nature of knowledge and knowledge creation differ also (p 465)”.

In their systematic review, the authors found that there is negligible research on learning and knowledge transfer in the non-profit sectors. I see this as both an opportunity and a curse……  It supports my own research interests and the importance of specifically examining organizational learning and knowledge in the public-sector. BUT, as a practitioner, it requires me to review what is written with a degree of scepticism; as it may have limited relevance to the population and culture that I’m part of.

I’ve often been part of the public/private debate…. habitually the lone voice saying – we are different. I’ve witnessed much of what Rashman et al (2009) spoke of –  both large and small ‘P’ politics in action and I’ve been under the microscope when spending from the public purse (don’t actually disagree with this :)). We try to show value that isn’t motivated by profit and find ways to recognize our best and brightest when HR policies make it quite tough. We’ve struggled with being nimble and moving our large workforce expeditiously, and although we work together we have silos within professions and across boundaries.  We’ve become accustomed in healthcare to doing things a certain way and at times…. perhaps we’ve used our patients as an alibi – knowing that everyone values healthcare and will cut us a pass when we feel we had no other choices. We believe that we just can’t make mistakes – people will die…. and are still having trouble believing that we need to admit to, support (rather than blame), and learn from our mistakes  – as we’re good human’s in bad systems. Yep…… it’s official – we’re different from private.

The whole idea of culture and leadership (stay tuned as these are my other research questions this term) – are important concepts in supporting learning, especially in public organizations. As Moynihan and Landuyt (2009) found:

Leaders seeking to foster learning should recognize that most relevant organizational variables combine structural and cultural aspects, which are mutually dependent on one another. The strongest influences are the existence of work groups that are purpose driven and incorporate the views of all members, including dissenting views. Such learning forums can be fostered through formal requirements, but they need appropriate cultural characteristics to succeed. Mission, orientation, decision authority, information systems and resource adequacy are also positively related to improved organizational learning. (p 1097)

I liked the author’s idea of giving employees some ‘elbow room’; empowering those closest to the work to have input into how work is structured and the permission to experiment.

I’ve recently been reinvigorated by our journey in lean – it’s not a panacea but its the best thing I’ve seen in years to address the learning challenges I highlighted above in the public sector. I love the idea of  A Little Less Planning: A Lot More Doing… sign me up. Most days lately I shake my head and ask – what took us so long? But no sense in dwelling on that.

So as we move ahead with the many changes coming, it will be important to reflect on all the good work that has gotten us to this point. AND in my opinion, it’s also important to be comfortable with being different…… and rather than trying to imitate private – we need to put strategies in place to do a better job of practicing organizational learning – public style.



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