A Critical Review of Learning Organizations in the 21st Century

A Critical Review of Learning Organizations in the 21st Century

Victor X. Wang (Florida Atlantic University, USA) and Geraldine Torrisi-Steele (Griffith University, Australia)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch051


With the forces of globalization, economic turbulence and persistent change bearing down on organizations, it is imperative to an organization's survival that it ‘stays ahead of the game'. Knowledge and the ability to learn faster than competitors is ultimately what will sustain the organization in the 21st century. In the present chapter, the authors critically analyse what it means to be a learning organization. An analysis of organizational components such as structure, atmosphere, management philosophy and attitudes, decision-making and policy-making, and communication is used to help distinguish learning organizations from static organizations. It is argued for an organization to be a learning, rather than static, organization, its leaders must be flexible and people-centered, and engage in the use of supportive power, involving high participation at all levels, and conducting multidirectional communication in order to turn static organizations into learning organizations.
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In everyday conversation, the word organization regularly arises. It is used to mean the way something is done or some kind of systematic, regulated processes used to achieve a goal (Kuhl, 2013). The process of organization might relate to a trip away, a collection of books or music or other items, tasks to do in the day, and so on. Organizations can also refer to a group of people who come together and work towards some common goal in a structured way. Such groups of people or organizations vary greatly in size. A company of five people may be considered an organization. On a much larger scale, a multi-national corporation comprised of several hundred employees is an organization. A small college is an organization, and a mega-university is an organization. A church is a religious organization. Even a whole country can be treated as an organization. The essence of the concept of organization, is some kind of systematic, or regulated process to achieve a goal. Hence, one of the defining characteristics of an organization is that it must have a goal, and also there must be rules and regulations that apply to the processes for achieving that goal. An organization must also have some kind of hierarchy with leaders, managers, supervisors and above all employees, or followers or members. As an organization, a hierarchy or chain of command is imperative. Otherwise, there may chaos, rather than systematic regulation, will reign in the organization. A society or a culture can also be an organization. People are the major players in any organizations. People in an organization make policies, rules, and regulations as to how people should contribute to a certain organization. There are organizations where people are takers from their organizations. There are organizations where people are basically contributors to their organizations. In addition to goals, membership, and hierarchy, another central characteristic of an organization is decision-making autonomy in relation to things such as membership, goals and processes (Kuhl, 2013). Evidently, though, complete independence can never be achieved since the organization is embedded in surrounding society and so it is subject to the norms and restrictions of that society (Kuhl, 2013).

In an effort to better understand organizational structures and processes, various authors have proposed typologies of organizations on the basis of different characteristics such as organizational structure, leadership types, organizational culture. In 1990 Senge wrote an article in the MIT Sloan management Review called “The learning organization” and published a book called The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Even though the term being used many years earlier, Senge (1990) has come to be “synonymous with the idea of learning organizations” (Ortenblad, 2013). Senge’s work ignited the production of a large volume of literature related to learning organizations. Subsequently, a ‘learning’ organization has become one categorization of an organization according to the extent to which members learn, and the extent to which the organization itself is able to transform.

Despite the volume of literature and depth of discussion surrounding learning organizations a single definition remains elusive (Santa, 2015). Ortenblad (2013) suggests that there are essentially four categories of definitions of the learning organization concept:

  • 1.

    Learning at work

  • 2.

    Organizational learning

  • 3.

    Climate for learning, and

  • 4.

    Learning structure.

However, for the purposes of the present chapter, the authors consider a learning organization as a ‘company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself’. What this means is explored more fully throughout the chapter. An antithesis to the learning organization, is a static organization. Static organizations are characterized by lack of change and rigidity – they have fixed practices, fixed size and so on. Like static equations, these organizations have no variables – they do not change over time.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Learning Organizations: Learning organizations refer to innovative organizations that strive to transform themselves from static organizations to learning organizations. Anything that does not work for these organizations is bound to be changed in a timely manner. In this article, learning organizations are flexible, people-centered, operated through supportive power with high participation at all levels. Decisions are treated as hypotheses and their system is open. Communication is multidirectional. Above all, employees’ energy is released rather than suppressed. Learning organizations are full of learning facilitators instead of knowledge dictators. Leaders in learning organizations serve as resource persons, linking employees to learning resources. Leaders in learning organizations reward their employees in a fair and open manner. Leaders in learning organizations are creative leaders that strive to release the energy of their employees. They understand that power they hold need to be delegated rather than reinforced through coercion. Coercion is a technique mostly used by leaders who do not believe in the Y assumptions of human beings. Creative leaders in learning organizations have faith in pent up energy of human beings. Therefore, they utilize a facilitative approach to their leadership styles.

Static Organizations: In general, static organizations refer to organizations that are not moving or changing in the right direction. In this article, static organizations refer to organizations that are rigid, task-oriented, controlled through coercive power without proper participation expected at all levels etc. Any decisions made in these organizations are considered final and communication is top-down. Many factors lead to static organizations. Confusion between management and leadership is a huge factor that leads to static organizations. Employee morale is another factor that leads to static organizations. The level of education of employees also contributes static organizations. When examining static organizations, it is always a good idea to approach them comprehensively. One single factor alone does not necessarily leads static organizations.

Restructuring: It refers to the process of reorganizing an organization, often to make a work force smaller in order to be profitable in a global economy. Restructuring often occurs as a result of organizational leaders’ changing their management philosophies. Sometimes, organizations have to shut down in order to do restructuring. Leaders and employees in these organizations need to reflect upon their practices to find out where things have gone wrong. Often times, they find conflict between leadership and management. Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Management is about coping with complexity whereas leadership is about coping with change.

Dimension: It this article, it is used as a countable noun. Thus, it means a measurement of something in one direction.

Downsizing: It refers to the process of making smaller, esp. a work force or business. In this article, it also refers to laying off employees. Although this may not be the best solution to existing problems in today’s organizations, this technique may help ease the shrinking operating budget of an organization. Employees are meant to produce surplus value. If they are unproductive for whatever reasons, their jobs should be terminated and handed over to those who can produce surplus value.

Merging: It refers to the process of being combined or becoming combined. Organizations often merge into one in order not to waste resources. For example, recently K-Mart and Sears in the United States of America merged into one company where customers can use the same credit card issued by Sears to shop at both K-Mart and Sears. This kind of merging will facilitate their management at both Sears and K-Mart. Many universities and colleges in developing countries have merged into mega universities in order to better serve students.

Ambiguity: This is the noun of the word ambiguous which means confusing, able to be understood in different ways.

Hierarchical: This is the adjective form of the noun hierarchy which means an organization from higher to lower by rank, social status, or function. In this article, it also means that a static organization is too rigid. It adheres to a rigid chain of command.

EI: It describes the ability, capacity, skill or, in the case of the trait EI model, a self-perceived grand ability to identify, assess, manage and control the emotions of one's self, of others, and of groups.

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