The value of Organisational Learning and Systems Thinking – Elite Series

According to Pawlowsky (2003), Shipton (2006) as well as all the relevant literature, there are various approaches to organizational learning and knowledge management. However, no matter the plethora of approaches, one thing is clearly a common ground among all relevant scholars: organizational learning contributes to organizational performance and prosperity.

Under the light of this widely accepted fact, managers should construct work systems that facilitate organizational learning, which in turn will facilitate the improvement of these very same work systems; an evolutionary upwards spiral that can result in long term organizational sustainability and prosperity. Keeping in mind that learning systems by definition have an embedded process of self-reinforcement or in other words self-improvement as well as the fact that genuine learning which taps in the full tacit depth and/or breadth and which consequently allows for the full potential to emerge can only happen voluntarily and in a secure hospitable environment, practitioners should be knowledgeable about organizational learning, construct only the very basic work systems and then provide the stimuli and the facilitating environment for organizational learning to occur improving gradually all work systems and processes. Managers can best utilize organizational learning and knowledge to better construct work systems by knowing and trusting the viral patterns of the process, conditions and broader theory, by having themselves a learning stance that not only provides leadership-by-example but also allows the whole range of organizational learning effects to be enacted, and by leveraging through appropriate spaces and initiatives its emergence.

Even though there are a lot more that managers could do to utilize organizational learning and knowledge to better construct work systems, their subjectivity and dependance to the organizational structure deriving from their very role and position, excludes them from being effective initiators on their own of productive organizational learning processes. As S. Beer cited by Hedberg and Wolff (2003: 538) pointed out, this kind of metalevel learning implies a clear understanding of the existing metarules and a respective language and experience to manage them which “lies outside the reach of managers”. In simple words this means that the Organizational Learning literature is so huge that if an individual would be able to study an adequate amount of it in order to achieve a comprehensive knowledge of this field, that individual wouldn’t be a manager but a scientist just because of the time needed that excludes the possibility of engagement with both tasks (studying OL and studying and being a manager) in parallel. Of course there are always exceptions at various levels, but only to validate the rule.

The same rule of time limitations applies also in the level of scientists, further complicating this way the synthesis of this vast amount of literature and delaying the dissemination and integration of this valuable – especially in our times – knowledge. To share a more personal learning, when I was told for the first time several years ago that a research takes years to be conducted and can only focus on very few objectives, I felt really surprised and frustrated. My first thoughts were that if it takes years, then when it will be published it would be already old news as well as that the complexity to synthesize findings afterwords would be enormous. Soon afterwords that I started my own research, I discovered that in practice no matter how I tried there was no other way.

Nevertheless, in my experience, if an organizational learning initiative is set up successfully and gains momentum within the organization, then managers not only can but also should utilize by keep nurturing and reinforcing the established organizational learning processes. This book aims exactly to provide practical tools based on the synthesis of the whole organizational learning theory that can be directly applied by anyone within any context and even without any broader theoretical knowledge. If the application of this tools is consistent and genuine, then the dynamics of continuous improvement, at all levels, will be set in motion.

Out of all the various frameworks listed by Pawlowsky (2003) as well as Shipton (2006), I would personally propose Senge’s Five Disciplines (1990) one as being the most practical and inclusive. The fact that research regarding Organizational Learning has been so diverse in focus and point of departure most probably is not by chance, on the contrary indicates the complexity of the process and the plethora of parameters that should be connected in and tuned with the specific and yet equally complex organizational structure. Such a complex and highly sophisticated procedure, in order to be understood as a starting point, implies long term study, high specialization and substantial experience that is beyond the time availability of the vast majority of interested and talented practitioners, whether managers or consultants. Senge’s (1990) framework of the Five Disciplines, if treated like disciplines and guidelines instead of as a prescriptive methodology, in combination with some study of the general concepts of organizational learning, results in continuously keeping sight of all organizational learning parameters and consequently can effectively guide any practitioner with a learning stance to productively manage and create work systems and processes highly conducive to organizational learning.

This book was created with the aspiration to answer the need expressed by numerous students of MSc in International Management regarding specific tools and constructs for the practical application of the generic principles provided by Senge in the Fifth Discipline (1990). Hopefully, by reading these two books, practitioners can overcome the time limitations imposed by the vast amount of OL literature and acquire a satisfactory level of expertise on OL in a holistic and timely manner.

Pawlowsky, P. (2003) ‘The Treatment of Organizational Learning in Management Science’. In: Dierkes, M., Berthoin Antal, A., Child, J. & Nonaka, I., eds. (2003) Handbook of organizational learning and knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61-88

Shipton, H. (2006) ‘Cohesion or confusion? Towards a typology for organizational learning research.’ International Journal of Management Reviews, 8 (4), pp. 233-252, EBSCOhost Business Source Premier

Hedberg, B. and Wolff, R. (2003) ‘Organizing, Learning, and Strategizing: From Construction to Discovery’. In: Dierkes, M., Berthoin Antal, A., Child, J. & Nonaka, I., eds. (2003) Handbook of organizational learning and knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.535-556

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization, London: Random House