Tag Archives: organizational 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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Can we become the culture that ‘learns the fastest’?

I recently spent some time in a beach chair (after a busy day on the golf course), reading a bit more about organizational culture. What does it mean? Why is it important?  And why do some organizations seem to drive excellence while others have a ‘that’s how its done around here’ attitude?

According to Glisson (2007) “a number of studies in various types of organizations link culture and climate to service quality, service outcomes, worker morale, staff turnover, the adoption of innovations, and organizational effectiveness (p 739 )”. For example, when we enter a hospital and a banner greets us that reads – the employees and physicians of X welcome you to our institution (FYI – this is a real life example) – we know we’ve likely hit upon a site where culture creates a sense of purpose and a feeling of family….. where people are valued for their expertise, where the stories we tell about colleagues are positive and supportive.  So what do they do differently at a place like X to create the type of culture we all hope to have?

With my own interest in healthcare, I loved the bold statement from James Anderson (retired CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center)….. who publicly declared that their organizational aim was to ‘become the organization that can learn the fastest’ and their goal is to ‘be the safest hospital’. Now that’s a leader with a clear vision of what a culture should be. A leader who models the change he wants to see. He and his team have defined excellence in their culture.

Changing corporate culture is difficult. According to Beer & Nohria about 70% of these cultural changes fail – mainly because we immerse ourselves in ‘an alphabetic soup of initiatives’…. I’m sure we all have organizational stories of our ‘flavor of the day’ initiatives where our employees just keep their heads down and wait for the next flavor, OR stories of the plethora of projects we ask our staff to take on at one time – with no additional resources or a firm commitment to stay the course and measure outcomes. BUT change is a topic for another post, so I’ll return to a focus on culture.

The signs and symptoms of an unhealthy culture (according to FCC) include a:

lack of teamwork; poor communication; siloed behaviour; infighting and competition for scarce resources; unclear objectives; overly complex customer interface; and blame, finger-pointing, fear, and mistrust. Organizations may do well on the bottom line in the short-term despite problems with the culture, but in the long-term an unhealthy culture leads to poor performance. (p 3)

Ultimately, the old adage that culture trumps strategy – is true….. the best strategy in isolation will fail every time.  I like the idea that culture isn’t “what we say, it’s what we do without asking”. “Where a healthy culture allows us to produce something with each other not in spite of each other” according to Nilofer Merchant.

What does it say about a culture, when on your first day of orientation, the CEO and Senior Leadership Team meet each new employee and say this is ‘how we do things around here’….. its our culture and the expectation of each of us on the team at FCC. Now that’s a culture that gets recognized and one where people say, I want to work there.

So….. what can WE do in our own organizations to transform our cultures?

There is a lot of great advice out there on leading cultural reform. For me, what resonates is the data specifically related to healthcare transformation. Back at James Anderson, building a culture of reliability includes things like: constantly asking why, a commitment to resilience, front line leaders rounding daily with staff giving 5:1 positive to negative feedback …..these are just a few of the examples you’ll find (on their website) of a transformed culture.

Christine Daley endorses the attitude of Anderson, and identifies that health care organizations often have trouble learning from our failures and using what we learn to make sustainable change. She quotes Senge and his belief that organizations have to strive to become learning organizations (or perhaps better described in my last post as those who practice organizational learning).  As Senge suggests, this process is one “by which individuals continue to expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together (p 26)”.

What I’ve found, is that we are trying to change our culture of blame….. but so far, we have only created pockets of safety for our staff, it’s not safe everywhere and with everyone – we still have lots of work left to do. We often forget that practitioners are usually devastated by an error, sometimes they never recover. And rather than support them because we know it was the system that failed and not the well-meaning individual; instead we remind them constantly that they were the cause…. BUT, its hard in an industry when errors mean harm to the patients we work so hard to protect. When our errors end up on the front page of the paper and in a court room where the outcome is still to assign blame and cost.

It would be great if jargon like collaboration, innovation, creativity and continual self-transformation and learning could be terms that we take to heart in our healthcare cultures. I paused when I read Daley’s example of ‘knowing less than our individual members’ – where nurses are aware of new research that would enhance patient outcomes but are asked to work according to outdated organizational policies and practices (p 27). These comments were front and centre for me at a meeting this week, where we talked about specific policies that we are working on and the need to stop the ‘continuous tweaking’, that we should be satisfied with what we’ve got and move on to other and more important things. I wanted to say, stop, but, but, but….. there must be a way for us to continuously adapt our culture. We can’t just move on and be satisfied – but, being new to the committee I stayed silent (and thought yep, this IS how we do things around here)….

I  subscribe to Daley’s ideas of how we bring organizational learning theory to patient care:

Perhaps these themes (specifically adapted to our culture) will help us to see that organizations that practices continuous learning are likely also the ones that see cultural transformation.

Conceivably what’s working at FCC, can also be the 7 steps that will lead reform for us in healthcare:

  1. Identifying a need for change
  2. Establishing and articulating the vision
  3. Enlisting the appropriate help
  4. Leading from the top
  5. Communicating to engage all
  6. Sustaining the new culture
  7. Measuring progress

If it was/is possible at FCC, I believe that we all have bright people in our cultures who can also make it possible. When I look at my own culture (with my rose-colored glasses on),  I choose to believe we have: identified the need for change (#1), enlisted the external help that we’ll need (#3) AND I am hopeful that our leadership team holds ourselves as accountable and responsible to lead the change (#4). Now its up to all of us to ‘act our way into it’ as you’ll see next.

When I’m struggling to find a way to innovate or see my way to the end, the IHI (Institute for Healthcare Improvement) is often my guiding compass. This summer, they published an article that told me that creating a culture of excellence is not as difficult as we might think. They recommend that we ‘act’ our way into it…. that new cultures are not planned out on paper, but are acted out over time. They offer that there are a few ‘vital behaviors’ that create desired results – perhaps for front line staff it’s always asking for help or that leaders will visit the front lines every day….. but over time, if we all ‘act’ the same way and our teams see that this is the new normal, we’ll create a new attitude in our workforce. According to IHI, gone will be statements like ‘well those things just happen’ and ‘we’re not like them’ and instead we’ll hear ‘how could we’ and ‘why don’t we’ ( p 69).

It seems like a pretty simple theory…

It makes me think about the famous quote that many people have at the bottom of their e-mails that reads…. ‘be the change you want to see’ (Gandhi). And here I’ve been the one skeptical of those canned quotes…. seems they are effective after all.

SO….. that’s a lot of surmising (from a beach chair), but it has given me a new energy for what’s ahead and a bit of personal CPR for where our organizational culture is going. What about you – are you willing to ‘act your way into’ a new culture where we commit to ‘learning the fastest’?


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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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‘Knotworking’…. not to be confused with not working

My mission this week was to start reviewing the work of Tara Fenwick on workplace learning. My intentions were good, I downloaded a variety of her research and then made the mistake of starting with the article with the most interesting title “Organizational Learning in the Knots “. The metaphor of ‘knotworking’ resonated with me. I liked the idea of a focus on discursive practices (how cultural meanings are produced and understood), where learning happens via inter-organizational collaboration, and the potential to create cultures where expertise trumps hierarchical structures.

It seemed like a theory of learning that might help us thrive in these times of supercomplexity (that I talked of last week). I also agreed that it is a strategy that has already been observed and has the potential to be effective in healthcare practices.

So I was off…. there must be more written on a concept so easily to visualize. How did/do Engestrom and his colleagues define this concept?

Knotworking is characterized by a pulsating movement of tying, untying and retying together otherwise separate threads of activity. The tying and dissolution of a knot of collaborative work is not reducible to any specific individual or fixed organizational entity as the center of control. The center does not hold. The locus of initiative changes from moment to moment with a knotworking sequence. (1999)

Professor Yrjö Engeström, recently spoke of ‘knotworking’ as a space where separate actors can quickly come together and tie a knot and work together and solve a problem or design a task in the most efficient way possible (IFLA August 2012). He spoke of using the concept to transform our work cultures – allowing workplaces to be more flexible, fluid, and agile. The ability to form evolving partnerships and to work more closely with our clients.

The concept requires a shift in how we think about teams and our traditional organizational cultures. It requires managers/leaders to give up control and empower those around them who have the expertise. As Blackler and McDonald found, we must act in ways no longer bounded by the knowledge, practices and relationships that normally regulate our work. Decision making becomes less hierarchical; we create new cultures that moves across boundaries sideways – instead of having to ask for permission from above (Engestrom lecture).

Those who thrive are those who are tolerant of less structure, those able to tolerate the permeable open shape and everyday improvisation (according to Fenwick). It’s a self-reflexive process – where those moving in and out of knots are able to shape their own environment, rather than having it shaped for them. Knotworking also recognizes that in today’s society, expertise is often not held at a local level and is often inter-organizational. It encourages us to ask the question – who best to address this problem/opportunity – moving experts in and out as needed. And its a society where patients/clients are partners on the team – we actively listen to their perspective and what they might want from our service or product.

For those better able to visualize a concept graphically, Blackler and McDonald, help us to think of ‘inter-subjective’ sense making and identify quadrant four on their diagram (a rather new addition to org. learning).

The diagram addresses the complex collaborative requirements of today’s workplace and the importance of lateral, rather than hierarchical relations in the organization of technical work…..

There were a number of interesting accounts of knotworking in educational and healthcare practices that I reviewed, but I was best able to visualize its use when I listened to Engestrom speak of this concept used to examine the role and future of the academic library. The traditional home of knowledge. Where learners and researchers had previously gathered BUT where chairs now often sit empty. He spoke of how researchers have disappeared from the physical space and how they now sit at home retrieving sources and texts on-line. That the relationship is now often anonymous and the expertise of librarians is often underutilized….. he spoke of how all stakeholders had agreed that traditional services weren’t working and that a new concept with new ways to serve customers was needed.

So if the historical library evolved, what might a knotworking library look like?

What the group envisioned was that the client would become part of a research group – no longer an individual but a partner in co-configuring ongoing services. The role of the librarian would not be static but they will move from group to group and create knots to solve problems in a rapid and fluid manner. They’ll offer expertise where needed on resources, data management, publishing activities, while still providing traditional student services, etc. Everyone agreed that it will be demanding work, it will require quick learning and the ability to quickly adjust to new tasks, new clients and new groups – however it has the potential to be extremely rewarding work and it becomes a continuous learning process.

That example, helped me reflect on the practical application of this model and metaphor.

SO NOW WHAT: As I tell my own students…. break it down, pick just one thing that you can reflect upon and use to positively impact your practice.

For me, as I researched and reflected on the metaphor, I had many examples where teams that I’m involved with are approaching ‘knotworking’ and opportunities where we can take this to the next level….. However, one nagging relationship kept creeping into my thoughts. A situation where the knot is  double or triple tied …. it’s the knot that just won’t give way; there is no option for the ‘pulsating’ movement of tying, untying and retying together. No wonder that this is an area of discomfort, where we continue to have ‘conflict’ and ‘mis-communications’.  I’m seeking fluidity, I’d like to see these employees move in and out of our teams, take ownership, address the needs as they arise…… and this team is still embracing current hierarchical culture. More comfortable with Fayol’s traditional  management style – plan, direct and control activities – following traditional discursive practices. Perhaps what’s needed is a new approach – an understanding of the tensions. A meeting with this manager to ask how we might encourage more flexibility, support to adjust the locus of control to where the work is being done…. a time to pilot a few new practices.

Why not, for this group perhaps we can change what’s not working into ‘knotworking’…..

I think the concept has promise in today’s cultures where we are learning to work and working to learn….. what about you?

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