Systems Integration through Concurrent Learning

Article excerpt

Systems integration efforts seek to synchronize many of the diverse work processes that share a natural relationship to a common goal. Systems integration initiatives tend to fall into four general categories:

* Information management; * Modeling and simulation; * Process control and engineering; and * Computer integrated manufacturing (CIM).

Concurrent engineering and business process reengineering have also emerged as useful methods for restructuring and controlling work processes. At the same time, human processes have been acknowledged as being critical in these approaches. But they have always been defined as being supportive rather than instrumental to the effectiveness of these techniques. Human processes can also be reengineered and are critical to systems integration efforts.

LEARNING, INNOVATION AND INTEGRATION

Systems integration focuses on improving relationships. Sometimes the way diverse parts of an organization should fit together are relatively apparent, as in the case of the need to integrate engineering, finance, manufacturing and marketing into new product development activities. In other situations, such as those that Bontadelli and Kirby refer to as "soft systems," the task of defining relationships can be considerably more complex. As they note, human elements play a larger role in soft systems and there is a eater emphasis on learning and improvement. One means of visualizing such relationships is what Senge terms "systems thinking." He describes systems thinking as "a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change, rather than static 'snapshots.'" Systems thinking is a learning process in which organization members continuously seek to refine their understanding of how things work to become more systemic. Such ways of thinking naturally support innovation and systems integration efforts.

Systems thinking is based on the concept known as "generative learning." Generative learning is learning to lean, as opposed to learning to do. It is based on the same logic that might be used by a weight lifter. The more you strengthen your body, by lifting weights, the more weight you will be able to lift. By contrast, the body builder lifts weights solely to look better, not to lift heavier weights. Through generative learning managers become enabled to learn more and learn faster. Typically, the more someone understands about something the greater the opportunities for visualizing breakthrough innovations. In the case of systems integration, the more systemic one's thinking becomes, the greater their ability to visualize new relationships.

LEARNING AND DOING

Training has often been regarded as the organizational process of learning to do. However, since most training focuses on the transfer of information from an expert source to a training participant, the absence of action or experience from this process makes it more like learning to acquire information. The "learning to do" that is often associated with the development of "know how" usually comes when new information is combined with action, experimentation and experience. For example, a baseball player who wants to know how to hit a curve ball can read about how Ted Williams did it, or they can actually step up to the plate and swat at a few pitches. Learning that comes via experience is both personalized and specific to the situation. It is a process of personal mastery of a situation. Here, learning becomes learning to know how to do. It represents the blending of information and experience into a customized way of doing things that suits both the performer and the situation. For example, a manager can learn to think about business process reengineering by using feedback loop diagrams to design a causal loop model of the process that integrates the various business functions together. Learning to learn and learning to know how to do have usually been regarded as both being important, but separate activities. …