Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization

Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8318-1.ch012


Organizational learning and learning organization are two constructs based on conceptual metaphors. Organizational learning is a process that occurs across individual, group, and organizational levels through intuiting, interpreting, integrating, and institutionalizing. It is a purposeful process designed and sustained by inspired leadership. It may be an adaptive process based on the single-loop learning or a generative process based on the double-loop learning. The organization that is capable of transforming organizational learning into the engine of knowledge creation aiming at building up a competitive advantage may become a learning organization. Peter Senge developed the theory of the five disciplines that may transform a company into a learning organization, focusing on systems thinking. The purpose of this chapter is to present different views concerning organizational learning and its main characteristics.
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Based on a rich experience in management consulting, Karl Albrecht (2003, p. 4) challenges us with his law:

Intelligent people, when assembled into an organization, will tend toward collective stupidity.

However, this is not a scientific law as it is the energy conservation law, with its deterministic consequences. It is just a conclusion framed by an expert in organizational management. As the author emphasize, this collective incapacity of an organization to learn is optional “to the extent that intelligent people allow it to happen. It is optional to the extent that leaders show behavior that they accept and condone it” (Albrecht, 2003, p. 40). The main reason for such a behavior comes from the extension of economic thinking over the human nature, making the business thinking to shift “steadily in recent years, toward the impersonal and inhuman view of the enterprise. At the extreme of this view, assets are simply assets – including human beings” (Albrecht, 2003, p. 5). The author identifies two kinds of collective stupidity: the learned kind and the designed-in kind. The learned stupidity happens in organizations where people are not authorized to think, or at least they feel this way. The designed-in stupidity happens when the organizational structure and rules make it difficult or impossible for people to think creatively, constructively, and independently.

Irving Janis, a professor of Yale University, studied the phenomenon of collective stupidity at the group level and coined the term GroupThink for it (1982). It happens when a group falls into an artificial consensus that blocks its ability to think creatively and to analyze a certain problem in its complexity. An intriguing case study is the Bay of Pigs decision, made by President John Kennedy in consultation with his cabinet and advisors. According to Janis research, Kennedy’s group had split into two adverse parts. One part was in favor of the United States supporting the invasion of Cuba by a group of expatriates, while the other part opposed that idea. After some debates, the part in favor of invasion was able to tilt Kennedy’s thinking in that direction, and began – as Janis believes – to put pressure on the other part of the group. Thus, the final decision was based mostly on this social pressure and not on an open minded debate. The mission based on that decision failed, and the disaster remained associated with the Kennedy’s image as a leader.

Albrecht (2003) explains that there is a natural tendency of any group or organization to increase its entropy in concordance with the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is a measure of irreversibility in natural processes, and reflects the degree of disorder in evolving closed systems. The reverse of entropy would be syntropy: “We can define syntropy as the coming together of people, ideas, resources, systems, and leadership in such a way as to fully capitalize on the possibilities of each” (Albrecht, 2003, p.42). Thus, syntropy would be a characteristic of intelligent organizations, i.e. organizations able to learn from both their successes and failures. The question many people formulated so far in different ways is if we can talk about intelligent organizations and their capacity to learn, since learning is an essential feature of the human mind:

When we begin by assuming that individuals are the only proper subjects of learning and that we know what we mean when we say that individuals learn, then we are likely to be puzzled and disturbed by the notion that learning may also be attributed to organizations. (Argyris, 1999, p. 7)

Organizational learning and learning organization are constructs based on metaphorical thinking. “It stems from an analogy, namely, the idea that a goal-oriented social structure, such as an organization, is able to learn like an organism” (Maier, Prange & Von Rosenstiel, 2003, p. 14). In this metaphor, knowledge about individual learning help us understanding this hypothetical construct of organizational learning. “If individual learning is regarded as a basis of organizational learning, learning processes studied in psychology may indicate ways to promote organizational learning” (Maier, Prange & Von Rosenstiel, 2003, p. 15).

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