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Reflections on learning organisations


There’s quite a buzz around learning organisations again at present. The launch of the new ‘Learning Company Toolkit’ and the annual Learning Company Conference inevitably stimulate a reappraisal and fresh thinking around the subject. The concept of learning organisations has been evolving since the seminal work of Peter Senge in the US and the formative writings of Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell in the UK. In essence, their thinking is directed at the need for whole organisations to engage their staff in learning in order to continually transform the company, its processes and products/services. Learning is regarded as a central process, rather than an objective or result. Fundamentally, there is no magic route to becoming a learning organisation, more an unlimited series of actions which can help (or hinder) the company learning process.

A brief visit to this year’s conference provided a glimpse of several current themes. ‘Learning’ is also a policy buzz word for government in its endeavours to promote an enterprise economy; but their definition of learning is greatly restricted. In official-speak, learning is equated with performance improvement as an aim and instruction as a method; it lays responsibility with the employer (despite the rhetoric about lifelong learning); and it envisages learning as an instrument of essentially economic reform. Whilst companies are driven by financial considerations, learning is a far broader concept and the learning organisation is certainly striving for a broader social, cultural and economic vision of the future.

There remains a considerable bi-polar approach to learning organisations with academic models and research on the one hand, and practical application on the other. Of course, theory and practice are inter-dependent but there is a chicken-and-egg situation here. There are plenty of case studies of how groups are striving to become learning organisations / communities / companies / networks but how much value do these case studies have in pointing the way for others? As one presenter succinctly put it: "Models are best understood after the event." You have to live the experience first before you can make sense of it in terms of the theory afterwards. This is the essence of learning after all. Doing it from books (or conferences, or case studies) is in the abstract.

All of which brings into question the publication of Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell’s new ringbound ‘Learning Company Toolkit’, available from Peter Honey Publications, priced £195. This is the manual which many practitioners have been crying out for, and a product with will find a ready (and deserved) market. At first sight, it’s an impressive and detailed work combining facilitators’ notes, guidelines for use, individual or group activities, and support materials. Here is a substantial and practical product for organisational and learning development managers wanting to achieve transformational change. But it’s still up to the individuals inside the organisation to work within their context and parameters to make it happen. There are guidelines and models, but to misquote others: "You need to do it your way."

Your way relates to the structures and dynamics within your workplace. I was fascinated to note how Power within organisations is becoming a central theme for learning company development. I have advocated for some years that trainers need to raise self-awareness of their use (and abuse) of power in their role. One presentation explored participative democracy as a goal within learning organisations and of how this challenged not just the way things were done but the deeper level structures and embedded values of the organisation. There are clearly links to be explored with the emerging (or re-discovered?) ideas around emotional intelligence within staff groups, and the new management approaches which recognise and expose some of the sub-conscious relationhiops and networks which operate within any group. These are too often ignored, undiscussed, or treated as ‘transparent elephants’ occupying the workspace but never acknowledged.

Several delegates highlighted the importance of trust and respect as criteria for building learning organisations. Like power, trust is a complex and frequently assumed condition. Trust is a modelling process. Leaders expect their staff to trust them, but do they reciprocate with trust for their staff? Another chicken-and-egg question for the group to grapple with. There is certainly no automatic respect in many organisations, and hence, perhaps, the struggle to get beyond the simplistic base line in building a learning-centred team.

Finally, I noticed an interesting debate about whether optimum learning occurred within groups or between groups. We devote much attention to knowledge management and transfer within groups and networks, but it is the interface points – or more rewardingly, the in-between gaps – which perhaps offer the greatest opportunity for learning. Partnership, networking and collaboration have become more buzz words, but to what extent have we promoted learning strategies that encourage open and creative dialogue in the gap between our established positions and marketplaces. In the technology world, it’s fascinating to watch what happens when development code is openly revealed in the Linux community; or when government urges open scientific disclosure of the human genome project. Are we ready to let go of our private preserves in order to engage in open learning?

Such thoughts bring us back to the exploration of power, trust and democracy within learning and with any other form of collaborative project. Certainly there are no easy quite-fix solutions or off-the-shelf kits to empower companies in this field. Perhaps that’s a sign that learning companies are starting to come of age.

The Learning Company Project can be contacted at email: [email protected]
Peter Senge’s work can be overviewed at

Tim Pickles
Managing Director, TrainingZONE
17 March 2000


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