Tag Archives: knowledge transfer

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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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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