The Role of Communication in Creating and Maintaining a Learning Organization: Preconditions, Indicators, and Disciplines
Barker, Randolph T., Camarata, Martin R., The Journal of Business Communication
It is no accident that most organizations learn poorly. The way they are designed and managed, the way people's jobs are defined, and, most important, the way we have been taught to think and interact (not only in organizations but more broadly) create fundamental learning disabilities. (Senge, 1990, p.18)
The interest in establishing a learning organization and the essential requirements for this desired state have received much attention (Daft & Huber, 1987; Senge, Roberts, Ross, Smith, & Kleiner, 1994; Huber, 1991; Benson, 1993; Schlender, 1992; Walsh & Ungson, 1991). A learning organization provides a stimulating climate for members to continually strive for new approaches in acquiring knowledge. Specifically, organizational learning can be defined as developing new knowledge that changes behavior to improve future performance (Simon, 1969; Argyris, 1977; Fiol & Lyles, 1985; Garvin, 1993; Sackmann, 1991; Putnam, 1983). Such learning is not simply about making better decisions but also about making sense of our perceptions and interpretations of our environment. Organizational learning may be either adaptive (the basic assumptions an organization holds about itself and the environment) or generative (the ability of organizations to question their perceptions of both their internal and external relationships). As Quinn (1992) suggests, "A unique characteristic of knowledge is that it is one of the few assets that grow most - usually exponentially - when shared" (p. 254).
Communication - which is embedded in every aspect of becoming and of continuing to be a learning organization - has not been adequately highlighted in the organizational literature (Daft & Huber, 1987). This article emphasizes that learning organizations can be developed through enriched relationships that are created and enabled through communication.
In a dynamic, changing environment, communication becomes critical for organizational learning and creating what Senge (1990) refers to as the five disciplines discussed later in this paper. Many definitions are found in the literature for internal and external communication in organizations. The traditional functional (maintaining) perspective focuses on communication's role in achieving the goals and objectives of the organization. This type of communication defines the structure and adapts according to the environment (Pace & Faules, 1989; Dumont & Lannon, 1990). Business communication is viewed as encompassing strategic choices, theory and skills, a reflection of managerial roles and a process (Suchan, 1991). It focuses both on investigation and intervention. Corporate communication traditionally provides an umbrella for many types of forms and formats: public relations, including speeches and press releases; public affairs, including lobbying; customer relations; and stockholder communications (Shelby, 1993). Each kind of communication becomes critical for organizational learning. The interpretive (organizing process) approach suggests that communication fulfills an organization-making function rather than just an organization-maintaining one. Effective communication is seen in employees collaborating, interacting, and engaging with others in ways which help them understand the importance and meaning of that engagement (Pace & Faules, 1989).
What potentially makes the communication in learning organizations different from that in other organizations is the dissemination and shared interpretation of information. The amount, timing, and kinds of communication used are paramount to learning. For example, in new product development, cross-functional activities, discussions, and communication enable organizations to rapidly develop and launch new products (Cooper & Kleinschmidt, 1991; Wilson, 1992).
While many organizations have attempted to become learning organizations, not all have been able to transform themselves and achieve the disciplines suggested by Senge or the kinds of communication presented above. …