Grasping the Learning Organization

Article excerpt

TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION IS LIKE TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF AN ELEPHANT--WHILE BLINDFOLDED. YOUR PERCEPTION OF THE WHOLE IS DETERMINED BY THE PART THAT IS CLOSEST TO YOU. WHEN PRACTITIONERS GATHERED TO DISCUSS LEARNING ORGANIZATIONS, THEIR CONVERSATIONS SHOWED HOW FAR WE HAVE COME AND HOW FAR WE HAVE TO GO IN TRANSLATING THE THEORY OF LEARNING ORGANIZATIONS INTO PRACTICE.

Right now--explain what a "learning organization" is and does. Can you answer completely? Perhaps you'd prefer to turn the tables--if you could grill other practitioners about learning organizations, what would you ask them?

In a recent series of focus groups, HRD professionals and frontline managers had the chance to take turns as explainers and interrogators, sharing what they already know about learning organizations and telling what they would like to know.

Nearly 50 practitioners representing most regions of the United States participated in the focus groups. Participants included senior trainers, HRD managers, line managers, and internal and external OD consultants. They represented private industry, universities, and government agencies, including Apple Computers, Amdahl, ASTD, Cable & Wireless Communications, General Electric, George Washington University, Hewlett-Packard, Levi-Strauss, Martin Marietta, Marriott Corporation, Pacific Gas & Electric, U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and Westinghouse.

We designed the five sessions to elicit different ideas and perspectives about learning organizations. Using David Bohm's concept of "dialogue," we asked the dozen or so participants at each one-day session to view each other as inquiring colleagues, suspend their assumptions, and explore possibilities, rather than advocate their points of view. We asked them to explore freely their beliefs, expectations, and questions about learning organizations.

We restricted our roles to clarifying their discussion agendas, keeping the conversation on track, managing time, relating topics and themes when needed, and handling other basic facilitation tasks.

Among other things, participants addressed such questions as these:

* What definitions of a learning organization make sense?

* What distinguishes organizational learning from individual learning?

* What does a learning organization look like and how can it be measured?

* Would training and development specialists play different roles inside a learning organization?

Grasping the elephant

Like the blind characters examining an elephant in the ancient fable, participants' answers depended on what parts of the concept they grasped. Each person started with some preconceptions. No one could articulate precisely why and how some organizations learn better than others.

Participants weighed the merits of nearly 20 definitions of a learning organization, debating which one explained the concept most lucidly and usefully. They also discussed how the definition of organizational learning differs from the definition of a learning organization.

Participants preferred definitions they considered concrete and nonacademic. Many tried to amend and combine definitions to produce a complete and precise one; these efforts proved difficult and perplexing.

Ultimately, the definition of a learning organization offered by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline most consistently captured the hearts and minds of participants: "Where people continually expand their capacity to create 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 how to learn together."

Most participants preferred the definition of organizational learning offered by Nancy Dixon of George Washington University: "The intentional action of an organization to continuously transform itself through both adaptive and innovative learning. …