Friday, 28 November 2008

The learning organisation

Daniel Wain’s latest column in People Management magazine offers some resounding shibboleths about learning.

Learning is as natural to people as breathing
Learning is not mandatory, but neither is survival.

But I part company with him when he questions the concept of the learning organisation. Wain argues that ‘learning organisation’ is an oxymoron because “learning involves risk and innovation” (agreed) while “organisation equates to routine and predictability” (er, no it doesn’t - you could perhaps argue that’s what organising equates to, but that’s not the same thing). When he goes on to argue that only people learn, not organisations, it’s clear he’s missed the point about the latter.

Organisations are not impersonal bureaucratic monoliths, albeit sometimes some of them seem like it. Organisations are groups of people, who come together to achieve shared goals. They don’t comprise anything other than people, and the mechanisms people create (and can change). Can you imagine an organisation without people? Of course not - it couldn’t exist.

Peter Senge described the learning organisation as one “where people continually 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 to see the whole together”. That’s from The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, originally published in 1990, and its sentiments are entirely consistent with those of Wain’s recent column. So it’s a bit puzzling that he rejects the concept of the learning organisation as “unsound” - time for a rethink, Daniel!


Ken said...

The following letter appeared in the 11 December issue of People Management:

Daniel Wain argues that the concept of the learning organisation is "unsound both grammatically and pragmatically" and moreover "only people can learn". In fact, organisations do create new knowldge and learn through their cultures, systems and technolgies. And they do apply this learning, even though employees come and go. Granted, organisations can make mistakes regarding the global financial disorder but then so can governments, regulators and the ordinary person in the street.

John P Wilson
Institute of Work Psychology
University of Sheffield

Peter Farr said...

This sounds rather like a variation of Margaret Thatcher's famous assertion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. Organisations can acquire unique new knowledge that is shared by all members and in that sense can be said to learn. Wain's somewhat pedantic recourse to grammar does seem to miss the point rather and whilst we could argue that only individuals learn (something that is not so in nature without having resort to Group Selection) Wain seems to be focussing on the mechanism rather than the outcome.

Organisations are made up of individuals who learn and therefore present as complex yet single entities that have learnt. How the organisations did it doesn't really matter much.

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