The Manager's Pocket Guide to Organizational Learning

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Today's organizations are in the learning business. Employees must take in a constant supply of new information and apply it to their work regardless of their position. Organizational learning is the process of forming and applying collective knowledge to problems and needs. Organizations learn through five main activities: 1) systematic problem solving; 2) experimentation with new approaches; 3) learning from their own experience; 4) learning from the experiences and best practices of others; and 5) transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization. Organizational learning requires constant reexamination of the effectiveness of one's ideas while engaging in a long-term effort to change the behaviors and practices of individuals, groups, and the organization as a whole. This pocket guide can aid you in these tasks. It is intended as a handy, easy-to-use reference that will help you identify useful learning strategies which you can then adapt to your particular circumstances.

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Chapter 1: Organizational Learning and Individual Training

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Organizational Learning and Individual Training

Organizational learning does not refer to training events such as classes, workshops, and seminars. We automatically think that attending a workshop, reading professional material, listening to or watching taped presentations, or participating in a computer-based program will produce workplace learning.This notion stems from an old paradigm of instruction that learning must be structured and instructor-directed and be based on new information from an expert. This way of thinking denies all of the various ways in which people actually learn in the workplace. In fact, employees learn most of what they need to know from co-workers, on the job.Employees do not need to participate in training programs in order to learn. Training events might contribute to individual learning, but they are not sufficient for individual, team, or organizational success because they are not generally linked to the business objectives and strategic goals of the organization.  

Chapter 2: Levels of Learning

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Levels of LearningThree levels of learning interact to make up organizational learning: individual learning, small-group learning, and whole organization learning.This integration of individual, small-group, and whole-organization learning can be likened to the learning that takes place within a flock of geese: in the spring, each newborn chick learns quickly how to survive through a combination of instinct, imprinting, modeling, and reinforcement. Soon the brood of chicks is walking in single file behind their mother under the protective gaze of their father. This family group is constantly together, searching for food and interacting with their surroundings. By late spring, each family of fully grown geese has joined other families, flying together in perfect formation, sharing leadership, and cooperating as a community for the safety and benefit of all. The results of individual, small-group, and whole-organization learning can be seen within the span of a few short months.

 

Chapter 3: Learning How to Learn

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The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Organizational Learning
Use a variety of strategies to facilitate their learning. In short, helping them learn how to learn.Start by noticing how you learn best in different situations— the conditions, and why you learn best under those conditions.This means taking a mental step back from the learning process and analyzing what it is about the process that helps you learn and what the barriers are that prevent you from learning.

Perhaps the best way for you to learn how to use new accounting software, for example, is by trial and error: you like to figure things out as you go along. In another situation such as giving performance feedback to someone you supervise, for example, you might prefer to role play the situation and have an experienced coach observe your interaction with the employee and evaluate your actions.

Another manager might prefer to read about these skills first, or talk about them with colleagues, or see a video model of the skills that are needed.  

Chapter 4: Managers as Model Learners

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Managers as Model Learners

As a manager, your role must be to model organizational learning behavior. If you want others to be constantly learning, you must set an example for them. If you say that you want teams to reflect on their actions, derive lessons from their experiences, and share these lessons with others, then you must do this yourself, and make this visible to the group.

To create a community of learners, leaders must be learners themselves.In the current environment of major structural changes, a leader must be at the vanguard of organizational change, questioning long-held corporate beliefs and assumptions, asking new questions, not just seeking new answers. Becoming a catalyst of paradigm shifts means more than acquiring new skills: it requires assuming a whole new way of being—as a theory-builder, a visionary, and a learner.In the new model, leaders will build and nurture learning organizations.   

Chapter 5 :Individual Learning

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The Manager’s Pocket Guide to Organizational Learning

• Knowing what you have to do to help the organization succeed.

• Creating new approaches to old problems.

Organizational learning by individuals is learning that is linked to the goals of the organization: an employee who becomes a more effective member of the organization, but also an employee who is learning with the intent of building his/her individual capacity to help the organization achieve its potential.

This kind of learning requires alignment. That is, what is being learned must be consistent with the desired results for the organization. You are learning project-management skills because you are taking on the leadership role in a major project that will help the company expand its market share in a target population, which the company needs in order to continue to grow. You are not learning project-management skills just because the course is available, or because you have money in your budget, or because everyone else is doing it.

 

Chapter 6: Strategies for IndividualLearning

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Strategies for Individual Learning

Learning at the individual level can be enhanced by the use of specific strategies (a selection of these strategies follows). To have maximum effect, each of these strategies must be tailored to the needs of learners. Learners should work with their supervisors and come to agreement on goals and performance outcomes for the activity. This important question should be answered at the outset: What should the learner get out of this experience, and how should this learning be applied on the job? Having this kind of plan is critical to achieving organizational learning.

Personal Visioning
We are driven by goals. Having a clear image in our minds of what we are trying to become motivates and keeps us focused on what we need to do. A personal vision is a long-term goal that guides our learning. We might not reach that goal, but that is not as important as having a self-development north star to follow. Develop a personal vision for yourself, and help employees develop their own personal learning visions aligned with the vision of your organization.  

Chapter 7: Small-Group Learning

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Small-Group Learning

This chapter explains how work groups and teams can be opportunities for learning. The more powerful structure for learning, however, is the true team. Katzenbach and Smith provide this definition of teams:. . . a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.This definition suggests that teams are more dependent on organizational learning for their success. Team members learn collectively. But whether group members are working together simply because they share the same task (work group) or they are together because their success is determined by their ability to function as a cohesive, coordinated, integrated unit (team), groups can and do learn

.Group-focused organizational learning enhances the capacity of a small group (approximately two to twenty people) to act as a unit in the workplace. The members’ collective know-how and know-why change the culture, behavior, and effectiveness of the group. They are both learning together and learning how to learn together.  

Chapter 8: Strategies for Small-GroupLearning

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Strategies for Small-Group Learning

Learning at the small-group level can be enhanced if specific strategies are used. (A selection of these strategies follows.) To have maximum effect, each of these strategies must be tailored to the needs of a particular group; the group members should work together to agree on goals and performance outcomes for each activity. Ask yourself: “What should the group get out of this experience, and how should this learning be applied on the job?” Orienting group members to the same goal is critical to achieving organizational learning.

Shared Vision A shared vision is the backdrop for learning and change. When employees know where they are trying to get to, they can identify what they need to learn in order to get there. To create a shared vision, you must achieve consensus on the direction of the group and on the desired results; everyone on the team must have the same goals for the future, and be guided by the same underlying principles. Managing by shared vision is much more productive than managing by coercion.  

Chapter 9: Whole-Organization Learning

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Whole-Organization Learning

How can you help the whole organization learn how to take effective action?

First, by helping everyone in the organization understand the dynamic interaction of all of its various parts, and then by reflecting on the significance of that understanding for building the effectiveness of the whole organization.

To learn, we need to feel the psychological safety and support of a community. We act like a learning community when there is a feeling of connectedness among the members, when everyone considers themselves to be members of that community, when there is continuity between generations (eventually new members add to or replace the knowledge of old members), and when there is a common purpose and shared aspirations. Creating a sense of community is the foundation for whole-organization learning.Therefore, the challenge is to change an organization into a learning community.

 To do this we must attend to the structure of the organization. Is it a structure that fosters community in the sense of connectedness, membership, continuity, common purpose, and shared aspirations? For example, a rigid hierarchy does not promote a sense of connectedness among employees.  

Chapter 10: Strategies for Whole-Organization Learning

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Strategies for Whole-Organization Learning

Causal Loop

One approach to analyzing and understanding the complexity in our organizations is to create a graphical representation, or map, of the elements of the system, describing how and when they relate to each other. One tool for mapping these relationships is the causal loop, a diagram that tells a story about the situation. You can use the drawing to explain the dynamic interdependencies that influence behavior in your organization; when you do this with groups of employees, the barriers to improvement will become explicit and resistance will drop because people will realize that this dynamic interaction is due to the structure of the organization rather than because of some failure in them personally. The focus will shift to solutions rather than blame, which makes causal loops good tools for learning how to learn, rather than simply learning how to solve an archetypal problem.

Drawing appropriate causal loops takes practice. You will need to learn the language of the loops—the symbols and the meaning of the elements of the drawings. You will also need to  

Chapter 11: Culture of the Organization

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Culture of the Organization

Schein has defined culture as the values, basic assumptions, beliefs, expected behaviors, and norms of an organization; the aspects of an organization that affect how people think, feel, and act. Members of an organization have a shared sense of culture that operates mostly unconsciously and that is manifested in every aspect of organizational life in subtle and notso-subtle ways.

 From the rituals of celebration to how decisions are made, culture is made up of the artifacts and the actions of the members. It is passed on to new employees in what they are told and what they observe in the behavior, symbols, and documents around them.

Continuous organizational learning depends on a culture of learning throughout the organization. Your role is to help shape this culture of learning. Make the pursuit of learning everyone’s responsibility, from top management down to the line worker.

Organizations are replete with examples of how culture does not support learning: employees pass around stories (true or not) about co-workers who were forced out of the company because they tried something new.   

Chapter 12: Communication

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Communication

Often what we think to be good interpersonal communication is actually a barrier to learning. Managers tend to say and do things to keep morale high, to be considerate and positive, and to not open the Pandora’s box of problems. But in effect, as Argyris points out, they are preventing employees from confronting problems and learning from mistakes. Managers’ behavior often discourages questioning about the underlying values and rationale for organizational decisions and practices.For the sake of harmony, bad practice goes unexamined. It is understandable. People do not want to experience embarrassment, loss of control, tension, and unhappiness in the workplace.However, the cost is enormous. The organization does not learn from its own behavior.

To avoid these organizational defensive routines, ask the hard questions and encourage others to do the same. Confront the hard facts and sensitive feelings. Ask others, “What goes on in this organization that prevents us from questioning these practices and getting them corrected or eliminated?”   

Chapter 13: Leadership

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Leadership
What do people mean by leadership?

Most employees are not looking for a leader like Gandhi or Churchill. For the most part, they just want someone who will help them be successful without a lot of pain. Unfortunately, what they usually get is someone who gets a lot of things done, but who does not help individuals, teams, and the whole organization learn.

A hierarchical, command-and-control leadership style is still predominant in all types of organizations regardless of organizational values and mission. Rummler and Brache contend that it is effective in certain situations, but when it comes to organizational learning, it is usually a barrier. This style closes off vital input from the various parts of the organization as well as from outside. Hierarchical leaders put energy into maintaining the lines of authority and communication represented by the organizational chart, and do not generally seek and use information from inside and outside of their functional area.  

Chapter 14: Knowledge-Management

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Knowledge-Management

Much knowledge in organizations goes unshared and unused.

I am sure you have had the experience of working on a project for several months, only to discover that a co-worker down the hall from you completed a similar project last year. Perhaps the new service your company is providing to its customers was tried by a former employee (now with a competitor) who left no record of the development, implementation, and results. Perhaps you were asked to make recommendations regarding a new business process, but you do not know how to find out what has been done before and who is knowledgeable about this type of process.

Knowledge-management is about transferring information and best practices from one part of an organization to another part. O’Dell and Grayson phrased it this way: Knowledge management is . . . a conscious strategy of getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time and helping people share and put information into action in ways that strive to improve organizational performance.  

Chapter 15: Evaluation

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Evaluation
Evaluation is essential to learning. Our society emphasizes right and wrong, good and bad, worthy and unworthy, winning and losing. Because of this, we tend to think that evaluation is about placing blame. Not true: the true significance of evaluation in organizations is that it provides information that will result in improved performance.

Evaluation means looking for indicators of progress toward and achievement of strategic goals, and understanding what it is about the learning process that is helping employees improve and sustain their performance over time. You must identify aspects of the organization that are barriers to learning and high performance, because this is how organizations change and improve themselves. All members of the organization need to be continually asking:

• What are we doing?
• How well are we doing it?
• How can it be improved?These reflective questions should be applied to all of the activities, processes, and systems within the organization.  

Chapter 16: Physical Environment

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Physical Environment

Is the physical environment of the workplace conducive to learning? Does the arrangement of work space and traffic flow facilitate communication among employees? Are the people who need to learn from each other coming into frequent contact?Most workplace learning takes place in informal interactions.A casual hallway conversation among co-workers can lead to a discussion where people compare experiences with a new process. A chance meeting between managers can result in a new strategy for dealing with a supervision problem. A free flowing, lunch-time discussion among work team members can lead to an innovation in how they do their work together.

Tom Peters wrote this in Liberation Management: Physical location issues are neither plain nor vanilla.In fact, space management may well be the most ignored—and most powerful—tool for inducing cultural change, speeding up innovation projects and enhancing the learning process in far-flung organizations. While we fret ceaselessly about facilities issues such as office square-footage allotted to various ranks, we all but ignore the key strategic issue—the parameters of intermingling.  

Chapter 17: Conclusion

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Conclusion

I have painted the landscape of organizational learning for you.Your next step is to focus on the details: to learn more about those aspects of organizational learning that will prove most immediately helpful in your work.Organizational learning is acquiring and applying knowledge at the individual, small-group, and whole-organization levels in order to build the capacity of the organization to achieve its strategic goals. Organizational learning is not simply a catalog of training programs, although training is a very important aspect of learning. Opportunities for learning and change are enormous in any complex organization, and they will become more obvious to you when you adopt a mental model of work as learning—when you accept the notion that you are in the business of organizational learning.The keys to effective organizational learning? Reflection and feedback. These are what allow individuals and groups to learn from information. We are bombarded by information throughout the workday. Valuable learning occurs when we can take in this information, reflect on its meaning and value, use it in our work, and receive feedback from others regarding its effects.  

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