Comparing Learning Organizations with Static Organizations

Comparing Learning Organizations with Static Organizations

Victor X. Wang (Florida Atlantic University, USA) and Bernice Bain (Southern New Hampshire University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6046-5.ch013


A major challenge for organizations is remaining competitive in today's global society where sustainability is the most pressing problem (Ramirez, 2012). This chapter compares the characteristics of static and learning organizations, explains the systems thinking (the root of learning organizations), identifies the components required for transition from a static organization to a learning organization, considers two examples of learning organizations, and explores various critiques organizational leaders should consider. Leaders who strive to turn static organizations into learning organizations by changing corporate leaders' and employees' mindsets (Bennis, 1989; Bennis & Nanus, 1997) should consider the transitional process of that change. Learning organizations can permeate various social systems and industries including those that seem to need static traits such as construction. Organizational leaders should consider benefits and critiques as they develop a strategic approach to sustainability and growth.
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Both scholars and practitioners have pointed out that learning organizations are born of static organizations just like the saying, “failure is the mother of success.” To better understand the attributes of learning organizations, some important aspects of static organizations must be discussed first. Numerous studies (Arends & Arends, 1977; Baldridge & Dean, 1975; Bennis, Benne, & Chin, 1968; Goodlad, 1975; Greiner, 1971) have indicated that static organizations possess some dimensions that are worth the attention of corporate leaders, Human Resource Development (HRD) and Human Resource Management (HRM) practitioners. Without the knowledge of static organizations, it will be challenging for organizational leaders, HRD consultants and HRM practitioners to transform them into learning organizations. Static organizations are, first of all, rigid (Knowles, 1978). In these organizations, much energy is given to maintaining permanent departments, and committees. Respect is given to tradition, constitution, and by-laws. These organizations are hierarchical; they adhere to a chain of command. Employees’ roles are defined rather narrowly. Both organizational leaders and employees are doers mainly focused on tasks (Hersey & Blanchard, 1969). The organizational atmosphere is impersonal, cold, formal, reserved and suspicious. Personnel are managed through coercive power, which is “influencing others to do something against their will and may include manipulating penalties and rewards in their work environment” (Northouse, 2010, p. 9). Employees are discouraged from thinking, cautious, and low risk-taking. They tend to avoid errors. It is not an open system (McGregor, 1960), where members are aware of the organizational environment (Griffin, 2012). Instead, static organizations feature closed systems, which Griffin (2012) defined as one that “does not interact with its environment” (p. 19). Therefore, resources are hoarded and protected in a static organization (closed system). There is little tolerance for ambiguity. In static organizations, there is high participation at the top, but low participation at the bottom. Employees are reserved and do not work wholeheartedly for organizational goals. There is a clear distinction between policy-making and policy-execution. It is worth noting that decisions are made by legal mechanisms and that any decisions made are considered final. Communication is one-way or downward where the natural flow of information is restricted. Feelings are repressed or hidden. These are the basic characteristics of static organizations that prevent today’s organizations from remaining competitive in a global economy and society. Because static organizations reveal these unproductive practices, HRD and HRM consultants constantly seek to solve these problems. These problems are manifold and solving one problem does not lead to stopping static organizations from collapsing. The best solution is to transform these static organizations into learning organizations that will embrace these problems in a way that these organizations can be reinvigorated again in this global economy (Cramer & Wasiak, 2006). A pertinent question to ask is “what are learning organizations?

Key Terms in this Chapter

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.

IQ: This refers to one’s intelligence quotient, a measurement of intelligence based on standardized test scores. Although IQ tests are still widely used in the United States, there has been increasing doubt voiced about their ability to measure the mental capacities that determine success in life. IQ testing has also been criticized for being biased with regard to race and gender.

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

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.

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 lead 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.

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.

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.

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