ORGANISATIONAL learning (OL) is the process of identification and correction of errors in organisations, in which learning takes place through individuals who act as organisational agents (Agyris, C. 1977).
The four integral elements linked to OL are knowledge acquisition, information distribution, information interpretation and organisational memory (Huber, G. 1991).
This week we provide an overview of OL from the perspective of Dr Goran Carstedt (based on Carstedt’s address in China, 2002), a former senior executive at Volvo and IKEA.
Carstedt believes that we need to start OL on the right premise. As such, he raises two basic questions related to learning and change.
1) What if people do not mind changing but mind being changed, that people learn and change optimally when it comes from within them?
2) What is the objective for learning, knowledge and change?
If the above premise were true, then achieving successful OL would depend on the ability to generate the necessary energy that delivers desired results. Which brings us to the next question: how do organisations generate such energy and what motivation mechanisms can create that energy?
Energy arises from a deeper understanding of the context we live and work in. Our borderless, digital and increasingly brutal world today is full of uncertainty as even the rules of the game are unclear to us. We are undergoing a somewhat uncomfortable transitional period during which something is disintegrating while something else experiences birth pangs.
Carstedt says, it is crucial to know how to interpret and create meaning from all these changes, a process that involves framing and reframing the world we live in.
Personal transformation versus organisational transformation
Despite the unpredictable, hostile environment, Carstedt believes that we are still in charge of our own destiny. Thus, creating the future is less about predictions but more about the type of future we wish to create for ourselves.
Carstedt submits two different mental models that impact on organisational change. Firstly, that there is no organisational transformation – only personal transformation; and secondly, that organisational transformation is a consequence, not a strategy.
The main implication of his mental models is that organisations need to move from a world of tangible, strategic assets to a knowledge society where strategic assets constitute knowledge, trust, information and relationships; from a world of teaching to a world of learning; from capital growth to people growth; from where we conquered nature to being a partner with nature.
From a national perspective, the focus in some countries is on how to move from national competition to global competition.
Conservation of the past
Carstedt opines that energy can be tapped by conserving some things from the past. Unfortunately, many leaders today use the future as a threat to get people to change.
Consequently, people mistakenly think that what they know from yesterday no longer has relevance for tomorrow.
Causing such fear in people does not create new energy. Instead we should discern what needs to be conserved from yesterday, as envisaging the future begins by honouring the past.
Though some may argue that there is nothing new without letting go of the old, we now know from biological science research that new life emerges from what is conserved.
Meaningful shared purpose
Carstedt also stipulates that the process of co-creating shared mental models requires a “letting loose” of people within the organisation. However, there lies the possibility that people may exploit such freedom and things get out of control. Hence, he stresses the importance of having a centre to hold matters together – a centre that is not so much about plans and dictates but more about purpose and principles.
This process helps organisations and people see what their purpose is, as knowing one’s purpose is important in energising people collectively in any organisational effort.
In determining one’s purpose, it is important to come up with something truly meaningful.
Establishing a more meaningful purpose requires setting it up against an even bigger picture, for example, enabling customers and employees to grow in knowledge, to increase their income, to have fun together and to help the society grow social capital.
In short, instead of asking “What is good for our company?” Carstedt dares organisations to ask “What is our company good for?”
In addition, co-creating shared mental models is not an administrative or technical process but results in the creation of a future that people are passionate about. It is this passion that creates energy and trust within organisations.
Moreover, to sustain the energy for learning, leaders should allow people to make mistakes, as there can be no innovation or development without mistakes. This was one of the most challenging issues in IKEA, to quote its founder’s words: “Only while sleeping we make no mistakes. The fear of making mistakes is the root of bureaucracy and the enemy of all evolution.”
Carstedt reminds leaders that it is their responsibility to build and nurture self-confidence for learning.
Rather than merely proclaiming oneself as the best, self-confidence requires humility, and knowing where improvement is needed.
In building organisational self-confidence, the quality of a product or company is more about the presence of value than the absence of defects. Eliminating the defects is inadequate if we are not able to see the true value of what we have.
Finally, what are we learning for? It would be misguided, Carstedt warns, for an organisation to undertake OL simply to become a learning organisation.
People want to learn only if learning is meaningful to them. The true motivation for learning should be to create a better product, to be part of a great team, to be respected by colleagues and peers.
Carstedt recommends learning from customers, co-workers and suppliers rather than imitating competitors.
Ultimately, learning and learning processes are merely the enablers that help us achieve effective organisational change.
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