A learning organization is most simply described as an organization in which learning has become a part of the organizational culture. As Lehr and Rice (2002, 1062) state, “organizational learning is most often treated as an extended process through which organizations grow, change, adapt, and improve to remain viable.” Interest in learning organizations can be tracked to the early interests in organizational change processes, organizational culture, and organizational improvement.
The goals of learning organizations include maximizing the organization’s potential, adaptability to turbulent environments, and flexibility for change, increasing knowledge sharing among employees, and creating strong organizational cultures. Learning organizations are contrasted with stagnant, unyielding, and overly bureaucratic organizations. The organizational learning literature is significant and growing (see Daft & Huber 1987; Weick & Ashford 2001).
Learning goes beyond information sharing to include understanding and “know-how” (Yanow 2004), involves application, is situated (Raz & Fadlon 2005), and involves various levels and types. For example, Argyris and Schön (1978) differentiate between simple problem–solution thinking (single-loop learning) and a more reflexive learning where the underlying assumptions, thinking, and even organizational processes come into question (double-loop learning).
Role Of Communication In Organizational Learning
Some theorists emphasize that communication is an important instrument of learning. The role of communication is to share information by making it explicit (Lehr & Rice 2002), as a mechanism to build trust (Barker & Camarata 1998), and to provide a means to overcome barriers to organizational learning. Weick and Ashford (2001), for example, treat clear communication as critical for message differentiation, as in the case of a pilot asking for “takeoff power” (an increase in power) who is heard by the engineer as asking to “take off power” (a decrease in power), resulting in a crash. Communication is the way information and “learnings” are moved around the organization. Communication is examined from a linguistic perspective as a resource for examining mistakes to enhance future learning (Jones & Stubbe 2004). While the instrumental perspective provides insights into organizational learning and offers communication as a mechanism to increase organizational learning, this view risks restricting communication to a role as only the conduit of information and a variable reflected in word choice.
Another view grounds organizational learning as a socially constituted, communicative process rather than merely an instrument of learning, critiquing the instrumental view as “divert[ing] focus from relational development, community-building and cultivation of dialogic processes in favor of a more traditional emphasis on organizational knowledge products” (Bokeno & Gantt 2000, 240). The creation of open dialogue and empowerment that defines the organizations in terms of relationships characterizes the desired culture of learning organizations. A learning organization looks to build relationships throughout the organization so that knowledge from workers on the front lines and outside the organization can be incorporated into decision-making (Yanow 2004). Styhre et al. (2006, 84) examine learning as “embedded in verbal and symbolic interaction.” The process view focuses on organizational learning as a result of communicative interactions and relationships such as storytelling, mentoring, and communities of practice.
Organizational learning from an interactive perspective focuses on the development of open relationships. One mechanism is dialogic mentoring, which meets the goal of learning organizations by letting the learners learn through relationships that enhance the processes of framing, support, modeling, argument, experimentation, and innovation (Bokeno & Gantt 2000). Dialogic mentoring emphasizes openness, welcoming, contradiction, and tension as healthy processes that energize learning. This relationship is primarily dyadic, with one mentor and one protégé. Mentoring can be productive, but is limited to organizations where those relationships can be developed.
Communities of practice offer another communicative approach that incorporates assumptions about empowerment, openness, and creating an organizational environment that cultivates learning in the organization, but shifts the focus from the dyadic to the group level of interaction. Within communication literature, communities of practice are considered mechanisms of organizational learning that are primarily communicative. Zorn and Taylor (2004) indicate that communities of practice serve as models for the way organizational knowledge is communicated in the organization. Iverson and McPhee (2002) note three elements of a community of practice that exemplify an active process of learning. First, members must share a repertoire or set of skills that are continually learned, rehearsed, and adjusted through the process of practice. Second, the members mutually engage with one another by communicating about their practices and by practicing together. Third, the members negotiate their joint enterprise through empowered interaction. Participation in decision-making about the nature of the practice is what allows the learning to become an organizational process. The negotiation of a joint enterprise encapsulates the ability to learn, give new directions, and even engage in double-loop learning that gives the reflexivity of organizational learning.
Learning organizations (including communities of practice) cannot be managed by command and control, but instead need to be cultivated by valuing their learning, providing resources and time for learning to occur, and encouraging participation. Learning organizations can be cultivated through communication practices of celebration by recognizing accomplishments, articulation through storytelling and putting knowledge into words, and collaboration by creating a collective, cooperative environment. Celebration, articulation, and collaboration provide conditions that nurture the learning culture through communication processes.
Organizational learning has been explored through measurement instruments as well as relational mechanisms to enact organizational learning. The Organizational Learning Profile is one representative instrument that considers the factors of information-sharing patterns, inquiry climate, learning practices, and an achievement mindset (Pace 2002). Information sharing examines the amount of information and the means of sharing, while inquiry climate focuses on the challenging, questioning, and experimenting behaviors that attempt to make improvements in the organization. The achievement mindset is “the perspective that organization members have regarding their desire to achieve in the organization” (Pace, 2002, 460).
Organizational learning can include so many different activities, processes, and goals that the construct can become devoid of meaning. Thus a learning organization becomes more of a stated goal than an achieved state.
Another criticism emerges from the tendency to treat learning as an unquestioned good, ignoring the risks of enacting large organizational learning schemes. Critics focus on the ideology of learning that serves management and its potential for abuse. Organizational learning asks for more effort and output from members, often with few extra rewards. Engaging in learning communities can lead to participatory surveillance (Driver 2002), when a team pressures fellow employees. Thus, it is important to accept the limits of organizational learning and minimize the negative outcomes of transforming to a learning organization through transparency and reflection.
Overall, organizational learning emphasizes the need for organizations to cope with changing environments and new technologies, and to find ways to improve performance. Organizational learning either focuses on communication as an instrument of learning or recognizes that learning happens through communicative interactions and relationships. Research in communication has focused on measuring learning, creating learning systems, and building relationships through mentoring and groups such as communities of practice. Whether organizational learning is genuine reform or creates new forms of managerial control depends on the context and enactment of these programs.
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