NALL Working Paper #25-2001
MODELS OF ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING:
PARADOXES AND BEST PRACTICES IN THE POST INDUSTRIAL WORKPLACE
(Draft: March 2001 - A version of this paper will be presented and published
in the proceedings
of the Global Human Resource Management Conference in Barcelona Spain,
and at the Organization Development World Conference in Vienna, Austria in
Marilyn E. Laiken, Ph.D.1
Associate Professor, Adult Education
Workplace Learning and Change specialization
Department of Adult Education, Community Development & Counselling
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto
252 Bloor St. West, Toronto
Ontario, M5S 1V6, Canada
Phone: (416) 923-6641, ext. 2349 Fax: (416) 530-4317
|the research network for New Approaches to Lifelong
||Le Réseau de recherche sur les nouvelles approches de l'éducation
In the light of current examples of re-engineering, restructuring, mergers
and acquisitions, some organizations across sectors provide a context for
individuals and teams to negotiate effectively the kind change which has become
endemic in today's workplace. A focus on informal organizational learning
contributes to employees’ collective ability to move beyond simply coping with
stress to engaging in creative action, for the benefit of both the individual
members and the organization as a whole.
A three-year research project was conducted between 1998-2001, to locate and
study Canadian organizations which are using such organizational learning
approaches to embed on-going learning within the actual work processes - whether
at an individual, team or strategic level. One of the challenges which
organizations face in proceeding with such transformative experiments is their
lack of knowledge about current examples of successful projects. This research
intended to be a voice for Canadian models of organizational learning which have
benefited the organization and its clients or customers, as well as its
employees or volunteers, whose lives are dramatically affected by these new
organizational forms. Our hope was that, by providing visibility to such
"models" of organizational learning, the research would not only
reinforce best practices already in existence, but also demonstrate the
potential of such practices across work sectors, organizational size, and widely
diverse employee populations.
The study initially identified forty-two organizations, which either
self-reported or appeared in the literature as examples of those attempting to
become, or demonstrating features of, a learning organization. Of these, each of
the ten organizations which agreed to participate in the research had
administered, to a cross-section of 10 randomly selected employees, The Learning
Organization 5 Stage Diagnostic Survey (Woolner et al., 1995). The results of
this survey provided researchers with five organizations which self-identified
at mature stages of development as a learning organization in the areas of
individual, team and strategic learning.2 Of the five, four of these
organizations – a medium-sized hospital, a large retail chain, a small
not-for-profit government funded organization, and a large electronics
manufacturer volunteered for more in-depth study through individual interviews,
focus groups and on-site observation.
Organizational Learning in its Historical Context
Since the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, formal
organizations have been the primary site of work and workplace learning for most
of the industrialized world. This sounds like a neutral statement of fact until
one considers the implications. Consistent misinterpretations and misuses of the
concepts of Scientific Management (Taylor, 1947; Gantt, 1960), Bureaucracy
(Weber, 1947) and Administrative Theory (Fayol, 1949) have left a legacy of
organizational forms which are tenaciously hierarchical and inflexible,
unresponsive to turbulent environments and notoriously inhospitable to human
creativity and learning. Gareth Morgan, in his 1986 treatise, Images of
Organization, refers to organizations as "psychic prisons" and
"instruments of domination" - and indeed, that names the lived
experience of a majority of workers in twenty-first century workplaces across
sectors and throughout the world.
Unionization has attempted, with some success, to respond the plight of the
workforce, however the essential structure and impact of hierarchical
organizational design has remained largely untouched. Alternatives in the
form of co-operatives and collectives have provided more equitable models, but
despite their efficacy in many cases, they have not, nor are they likely to,
become the norm for organizational design. One possible response is to desert
formal organizations for virtual workplaces and entrepreneurial ventures.
Although that seems to be working for increasing numbers of people, the on-going
need for collective coordinated effort and resource allocation, the lack of
security, the imperative of unaccustomed self-direction, and financial
constraints make this an unrealistic option for most. What, then, is the answer
for the millions of workers who continue to live out their lives in "quiet
desperation", in organizations which essentially have continued to be
physically, psychologically and emotionally inhumane?
Since the advent of the Behavioural School of management thought in the 1930s
- 60s, through the growth of the field of Organizational Development through the
1970s - 80s, to the current exploration of organizational learning, attempts
have been made to address this issue. As a result, many organizations have begun
to respond more consciously and conscientiously to the "human side of
enterprise" (McGregor, 1960). In the last two decades, Socio-technical
Systems Design, Quality of Work Life and Business Process Reengineering
approaches all represent attempts to address the systemic/structural concerns
outlined here (Boyette and Conn, 1992; Hodgetts, Luthans & Lee, 1994;
Offerman and Gowing, 1993). However, it is most recently, largely in
response to the ideas of Peter Senge and his colleagues at MIT (1990, 1999),
that organizations are beginning to show some promise of systematically
incorporating a learning agenda into their change processes.
The notion of learning within organizational settings is not new. Since the
Industrial Revolution, training of employees in the technical skills needed for
their job has been a key component of organizational functioning. Individual
learning and skill enhancement continues today, both to meet job requirements as
well as to help employees develop their career potential. These learning
opportunities appear in a variety of forms, including designed classroom
training sessions, computer-mediated distance learning or audio
teleconferencing; and the individualized use of interactive multi-media.
Additionally, team learning opportunities provide the members of a work team
with skills which are specifically relevant to their needs, while organizational
learning focuses on the strategic, systemic issues which underlie an
organization's ability to transform itself in the face of a turbulent,
constantly changing and globally competitive environment.
Margaret Wheatley (1992) says: "I believe that we have only just begun
the process of discovering and inventing the new organizational forms that will
inhabit the twenty-first century" (p. 5). Clearly, learning is considered
by many to be the common element in ensuring the successful functioning of such
Learning in the past has mainly been associated with teaching in its various
iterations. This usually implies a subject-matter expert who designs a training
session, creates a computer program, or writes a technical manual. Learning is
removed from the immediate work environment on which it is expected to have an
impact, while the facilitators of such learning experiences concern themselves
with how to ensure effective "transfer" of skills and understanding
back to the work milieu. The results of such efforts have been disappointing.
Despite highly successful experiences within a classroom setting, specific
outcomes have been difficult to assess, and links between such non-formal
learning opportunities and their actual impact on the job almost impossible to
ascertain with any confidence (Laiken, 1992). Additionally, the cost has been
prohibitive, and the measurable outcome almost negligible.
In response, a cadre of academics and practitioners have begun to explore the
impact of embedding learning within the actual work processes - whether they be
at an individual, team or organizational level. The ultimate goal of these
efforts is organizational transformation, the prerequisite of which is on-going
individual and team learning (Richter & McKenna, 1995; Alleyne and Hoffman,
1992; Pedlar, Burgoyne & Boydell, 1991). John Seely Brown says:
Maybe our problems are that our theories of learning and epistemological
distinctions are broken and that we keep learning from happening. We tend to
confuse learning with education and training, and we fail to leverage the
inherent learning in action and in conversation. Correctly designed, the
workplace will become a seat of both individual and organizational learning,
mediated by communities of practice. (1992, p.99)
The intention of our research was to examine organizations that have been
successful, to some extent, in enacting John Seely Brown’s vision of
workplaces as “communities of practice”, in which learning at all levels
plays a major role.
The Paradoxes of Organizational Learning: Lessons from the “Models”
Predictably, our study found that no organization is a paragon of
organizational learning. In fact, what became abundantly clear was that this
phenomenon is much less an outcome than an on-going process of managing
paradoxes. Each of the research sites provided both examples of dilemmas that
challenged them continuously, and examples of creative responses to these
challenges with which they were experimenting, with varying degrees of success.
These paradoxes include the tensions inherent in: action versus reflection,
and the need to achieve the task by attending to the process; the need for
structured leadership as well as freedom and autonomy; the challenge of
translating values into action; the use of conflict and confrontation to enable
collaboration; and the balancing of individual and organizational learning
needs. Each of the research sites presented a unique context in which to examine
these issues, while at the same time providing common, thematic approaches to
creating working environments which contribute both to individual health and
organizational sustainability. Following are several of the key dilemmas
uncovered by our research and a description of how these were responded to
within our “model” learning organizations.
Action Versus Reflection: The Value of the Journey in an Outcome-oriented
As global competition increases in intensity, the pressure to produce is also
intensified. Whether the product is defined as services or goods, the general
tendency in the workplace is to view time spent on specific task completion as
the only legitimate form of work. Meetings are often experienced as time “away
from the real work”, and therefore as time wasted. Social interactions,
whether they are informal hallway conversations, or more formal meetings
specifically designed for the purpose of reflective thinking, amplify this
concern. Statements such as the following were typical of our research sites:
Oh, they look bored at the meeting, and they don’t make notes, and they
think, “well didn’t we already discuss this”? So people try to speed up
the tempo, you know at the meetings, and it’s a good thing, because there’s
work to do. But on the other hand, it’s also a forum where you can think –
we need to meet, because there will be issues – you know there are – that we
should get a little deeper into..
As indicated by the ambivalence in this statement, workers realize that such
reflective time is an absolutely essential component of learning from their
experience ( Lewin, 1951; Kolb, 1984), and thus increasing their productive
capacity and well as their individual knowledge and skill. Research on
reflective practice (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Argyris, 1990) has indicated
that unexamined experience simply repeats itself; while a conscious examination
of the learning to be derived from direct experience results in new approaches
that often avoid the mistakes of the past. The paradoxical outcome is, in fact,
a case of slowing down in order to speed up. Our own research indicates that
decision-making is improved, work efficiency increased, and overall productivity
enhanced, if workers are encouraged to collaboratively or individually
intersperse periods of reflection with direct action in their working lives.
However, apart from the lack of value attributed to reflective activities,
there are several other deterrents to incorporating reflective practice
organizationally. When personality and work-style differences (Myers, 1980;
Kolb, 1984) surface in a meeting, the pressure to move to action tends to
reinforce a more convergent, closure oriented style, as opposed to one which
continues to expand on possibilities. Although this is useful when a decision
finally needs to be made, it is less helpful when the intention is to reflect on
practice for the purpose of learning. Additionally, when one considers the fact
that the skills involved in reflection are not as highly valued, and therefore
not taught or practiced as much in the action-oriented workplace, it is not
surprising that these skills are generally under-developed among organizational
members, regardless of personal style differences. In a work team, reflective
practice ideally would balance a task or content orientation with periods of
reflection on the team’s process, or discussion about how the team is
accomplishing the task. Although the need for this balance is sometimes, though
rarely, recognized, the implementation is fraught with difficulties:
But it does take work, though. I mean, you think about a team – it
doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes its course – and the problem is,
people get so caught up with doing the other work that they have to do that they
don’t take the time to build their team, and so the teamwork doesn’t get
In the Learning Organization…
In the learning organization, the central context for knowledge enhancement
and skill development is shifting from the non-formal environment of classroom
training, to the more informal learning environment of the workplace itself.
Here, the teachers are colleagues and managers who are engaged with each other
in “action learning” (Revans,1982), or extracting the learning from the
immediate work challenges. Although some tasks clearly require training prior to
engagement, much of the on-going learning occurs in the moment, as workers
proceed through an individual cycle of action-reflection-action. This may take
place in individual interactions on the job or during breaks, or it might be
incorporated into meetings specifically designed for this purpose. As a recent
article on “Trends in Workplace learning” notes:
… most of what people know is learned on the job just by talking to
other people, milling around the coffee pot, trying out new things, and doing
their work. Formal training, though essential, cannot serve as a substitute for
these powerful, informal means of learning. (Bassi, Cheney & Lewis, 1999,
What makes the learning organization unique is its conscious intention to
legitimize and create space for such informal learning. This is accomplished
through a variety of approaches:
a. by helping to establish supportive, mentoring relationships in which the
mentor acts as a coach, or peer partners act as coaches for one another. The
activities may involve job shadowing, help in reflecting on problems or
mistakes to extract learning, and the provision of resources or guidance;
b. by encouraging “communities of practice” (Wenger, 1996, 1999) which
enable informal dialogue on work-related issues of concern. The expected
outcome of these groups is not a decision toward action, although that might
be a by-product of the discussions. Rather, it is an on-going or time-limited
opportunity to learn together through open interaction. The members learn the
dialogic skills of “advocacy” and “inquiry” (Elinor and Gerard, 1998;
Isaacs, 1993; Brenegan, 2000) within a forum which, although situated in the
workplace, is removed temporarily from the necessity for task completion.
An example is provided by one of our research participants who explains:
… and in our template of what we look at in a grant evaluation, one of
the questions will be, what has Wealthshare learned? That’s one of the
questions we ask – and everybody reflects on that. It can be “what have I
learned as a program manager working with this project?” or “what has
Wealthshare learned?” And Wealthshare may have learned never to fund this kind
of project again, or only to look at it a certain way..
c. by providing skill development, either through action learning or classroom
training, in the process-oriented and facilitative skills necessary to support
reflective practice. These include the ability to help a team debrief its work
and extract learning related to its functioning; the ability to use dialogic
approaches in informal group explorations, as previously described; the
ability to individually reflect on one’s experience in order to reach
conclusions which can then be tested in action; and the interpersonal skills
required to check assumptions, explore differing world views and learn from
others through genuine, open interaction (Argyris, 1990; Senge, 1990).
Structured Leadership Versus Freedom And Autonomy: “Waiting for Godot”
d. by developing a shared set of values which reinforce and make public the
organization’s commitment to creating an environment for learning, as
outlined in the three preceding points.
Across our research sites we found among our interviewees a shared desire for
freedom and autonomy. Workers are clear that the more room they feel to give
rein to their individual creativity, the more likely they are to be satisfied
and productive in their jobs. However, at the same time as they desire freedom,
they expect leadership. They search for the boundaries of organizational
expectations within which to exercise their creative potential, and feel lost
and chaotic when such structure is not in place, as illustrated in the following
And you’ve hired people here that are very independent thinkers, and it
wouldn’t hurt to put some structure in place that labeled out where free
thinking is a “go”, and where expectations are, so that you have an idea of
what is expected of you, versus where you have leeway…
Similarly, work teams often require directive leadership initially, in order
to become self-directed eventually. Effective work groups do not suddenly
appear, fully developed and highly motivated. They need careful nurturing by a
team leader who is enabling rather than controlling, empowering rather than
overpowering, and facilitative rather than coercive. The dilemma for would-be
team leaders, then, is to provide very strong leadership towards eventual team
In the context of the organization as a whole, the dilemma of responsibility
versus authority is an issue for both individuals and teams. As teams become
increasingly self managing, and able to assume responsibility, they also require
the authority to make implementation decisions. However, in many organizations,
employees are expected to take responsibility for decisions, but are not granted
accountability for the outcomes. When the outcome of and accountability for
decisions made by a team fall on the shoulders of a manager, there is little
learning that results for either.
Finally, the myth of the “hero leader” (Senge et al, 1999) or, as it is
named here, “waiting for Godot”, plays a large part in disempowering all
organizational members. The dilemma lies in the fact that visionary leadership
is essential, if an organization is to remain aligned and focused in its
efforts. However, the tendency for workers to look to the leader(s) for all
solutions to the organization’s problems exerts unrealistic pressure on those
in a leadership role. If, as was the case in one of our research sites, there is
no leader in place temporarily, the temptation is strong to expect no forward
movement until “Godot” appears:
Well, you know, we’re without leadership at the moment. I’m optimistic
that you get somebody new and energetic and eager to mend some of these things,
and it can be resolved.
In the Learning Organization…
The learning organizations that we examined have very strong leadership, as
opposed to management. At the top of the organization, this translates into a
strategic, visionary focus on the part of leaders who are cognizant of trends in
their industry, the needs of their customer or client populations, and the
context in which their organization is functioning. Through carefully structured
processes, individuals and teams are enrolled in the organizational vision, and
are asked to interpret it locally at the team, department or division levels.
This shared interpretation then provides the context within which autonomous
decisions are made and personal creativity flourishes:
I think it worked well because there was a clear focus and a clear
objective to achieve, and also a really small group – just four of us, and
yeah, we had some authority to make recommendations, and design the whole thing.
In this setting, the key challenge for the manager is to share the leadership
role with all employees. Shared leadership skills, which involve every member in
playing leadership roles, are consciously nurtured - on the job, during team
meetings, in coaching sessions with a supervisor or peer, and as a result of
reflecting on experience. The leader/manager is active in modeling leadership
behaviours, and then helping employees to learn these through calculated risks
and careful experimentation. A climate of continuous learning and “no blame”
allows workers to make provisional attempts, receive feedback from supervisors
and colleagues, make changes, and try again. Teams which are not only
responsible, but also accountable for their decisions, engage as well in this
experiential learning cycle of action – reflection – learning/change – new
In the learning organization, “hero leaders” are not rewarded. Rather
than being encouraged as experts who make unilateral decisions, leaders are
encouraged to enlist widespread involvement, ensuring that individuals and teams
affected by decisions play a key role in helping to make them. Thus,
participation in decision-making at all levels is built into the fabric of the
organization, providing room for individual voice within the parameters provided
by visionary leadership:
Work groups were staff-driven, grass roots – meaning it was complete
participation. People could just sign up and say “yeah – I’m so concerned
about decision-making processes here, I want to be on that work-group. And so we
figured out some parameters, and enabled staff to find their voice through these
Espoused Theory Versus Theory in Use: Values into Action
Organizational leaders and members may well value learning for its own sake,
and may even believe that a learning climate, with room for reflective practice,
will contribute to improved productivity. Additionally, they may recognize the
importance of visionary leadership, and have gone as far as creating a shared
vision among all employees.
However, there is often a gap between what is genuinely valued and what
actually occurs in practice. This is to be expected, as a “vision” is just
that – it is not the reality, but the goal to which energies are being
directed. However, the dilemma often faced by organizational members is that the
outcome orientation discussed earlier precludes a careful examination of the
gaps between values and action. Also, our typically conflict adverse
organizational cultures (Laiken, 1994, 1997) mitigate against open confrontation
when the gaps become obvious. The result is cynicism among workers, expressed in
hallway complaints about leaders and others “not walking the talk”:
I think we have a shared agreement, in terms of the idea that, well, our
vision is what it’s always been – so that, that’s in the program
guidelines, it’s our vision and mission. But in terms of how that’s actually
carried out, it’s different….
We say were family-friendly – but we’re doing this off-site training
where there’s evening meetings – how are we going to incorporate that?
In the Learning Organization…
In the learning organization, work-related beliefs and values are clearly
articulated as outcomes of the visioning process. Although not everyone will
agree, and one of the beliefs may reflect a valuing of difference, there will be
some common values to which everyone attempts to adhere. For instance, in one of
our research sites, there was an effort to reach agreement on supervisory
approaches in relation to supporting staff autonomy. An interviewee said:
We’re going to have a supervisory training workshop next week, with all of
our people in staff positions. We’re starting to lay the groundwork for what
we see as important, and then developing a collective vision about how we
supervise staff, how we support staff’s autonomy. Then we’ll develop some
standards coming out of that, and those become performance issues.
Once the values are clear, the learning organization allocates time to
examining the gaps between the vision and the reality, and these are made
discussible. This may occur during staff or team meetings, in a retreat setting,
or daily, as people engage in their work.
Whatever the context, the culture of the organization enables and even
rewards staff at any level who have the courage to confront gaps which they are
experiencing, with a constructive problem-solving orientation.
Those in a leadership role, in particular, are expected to model this
behaviour, and to invite feedback on and take ownership for their own lapses and
successes as they strive to put theory into practice. Although there are
commonly acknowledged difficulties in confronting one’s manager for not
“walking the talk”, these are offset if the organizational culture
legitimizes and even rewards both the confronter for their courage, and the
confrontee for their openness and willingness to make their behaviour an
opportunity for learning. This is well demonstrated by an anecdote from one of
our research sites:
There were a number of times when people made a courageous step towards
calling our CEO on some stuff. That was really helpful for the whole rest of the
staff, when they took that step – you know, basically a “time out” –
like, “I don’t think you’re respecting my opportunity to speak in this
arena”. People, including the CEO, acknowledged the courageousness of that
Conflict/Confrontation to Enable Collaboration
One of the concerns repeatedly expressed by our research participants, in
their attempts to close the gap between theory and practice, is the potential
for conflict in this endeavor. Previous research on conflict in the workplace (Laiken,
1994) has indicated that organizations tend to be conflict-adverse. Employees
fear raising issues, particularly with managers, because of possible
repercussions - ranging in their imagination from subtle retaliation to losing
one’s job. Additionally, lack of skill across the organization in constructive
confrontation leads employees to believe that problems, even if surfaced, are
unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved. This is exacerbated by the fact that
organizations have traditionally developed a culture of blame versus problem
solving, thus providing few examples of successful conflict management. As one
There’s that level of frustration with differences – either with their
fellow coordinators in their area, or with their Program Managers, you know,
that they feel they can’t address it in that way and be open with each other.
I mean, I don’t think they’re afraid of saying it – but I think they feel
that it’s not going to get resolved, anyway.
In the Learning Organization…
Organizations that are intent on learning from experience prohibit, both
culturally and procedurally, the use of threat, punishment or blame. Instead,
mistakes or problems are viewed as opportunities for learning, and issues of
concern are routinely surfaced, with a view to improving future performance in
We’re laid back when it comes to mistakes that happen – we recognize it
for what it is, it’s a small thing, no problem, no blame. We recognize it for
what it is and we always say, this is the phrase that always comes back –
“next time we’ll do it better”.
These organizations recognize the fact that, despite their positive
intentions, skills in confronting conflict directly are not commonplace among
employees. They therefore provide specific training in the interpersonal skills
of: active listening; giving and receiving feedback; engaging in dialogue versus
debate, which involves both advocacy and inquiry; problem-solving issues which
are resolvable; and holding differences when the problem represents a polarity
to manage (Johnson, 1992).
On the job, opportunities to reflect and address issues directly are designed
into the work systems and processes. For instance, team meetings include a
period of reflection on how the team has operated, in order to surface
members’ suggestions for improving its functioning. Day-to-day coaching by
managers and peers provides opportunities for workers to reflect on their task
outcomes and learn from experience, and feedback is encouraged as part of this
I would speak to the person who wrote it, like in a situation, there was a
memo going out to the Board, and the person who had written it, she had made a
typo which changed the meaning completely. So I just called her, I said, “You
know I just read this, I think this is what it should read ..” , and she said,
“Thank-you ever so much – good thing you found it”. So, I mean, people are
not embarrassed by making mistakes … it happens to everybody.
Finally, the use of multi-rater feedback is commonplace as a source of
information for developmental purposes, and this is built into the performance
In the learning organizations we researched, the entire community supports,
through ad hoc meetings as well as structured opportunities, the direct and
honest confrontation of problems which may be inhibiting individual, team or
organizational effectiveness, and decisions are constantly informed by the
discussions which ensue from these meetings:
Yeah – the whole issue of the central team meeting we discussed among
ourselves and the Program Manager, that we needed to confront the issue. So we
organized a meeting with the Vice-President, and the Area Manager present, to
confront the issue. Yeah, and it made it happen – it’s after that point that
we dissolved the Central Team meeting.
Individual Versus Group Learning Needs
All of the organizations in our study supported individual learning in a
variety of ways. These ranged from in-house classroom training to
computer-mediated individual learning, and included support for attendance at
courses, conferences and classes in university programs. In unionized contexts,
this support was usually provided in collaboration with the labour organization,
with many learning opportunities provided by the union itself. Individual
learning also occurred on the job through one-on-one coaching and mentoring, or
in groups, as peers worked with each other to provide technical and
interpersonal skills training, as illustrated in the following example:
We did a collective analysis of the applications – I think to provide
different views, different ways of looking at an application. It just came out
of the group. I think it was mentioned that they wanted to develop a systematic
way of doing this, but I think it has not really been looked at yet.
However, imbedded in the foregoing quote is also a dilemma for these
organizations, in that most of them struggled with a way to integrate the
individual learning systemically. Unless this occurs, individuals who leave the
organization take their knowledge with them, and even those who remain are not
encouraged to share their learning with others in systematic ways. This results
in having to “reinvent the wheel” each time a problem arises anew, with
limited capacity to build on previous attempts to address the issue.
An additional contributor to this problem is resistance to having learning
formalized, or as expressed by one of our interviewees – “written in
stone” – which is seen as a potential inhibitor of creativity and
flexibility. Thus, although learning spontaneously in the moment is valued, the
challenge for the learning organization is to find some way to capture this
learning for future reference.
In the Learning Organization…
The organizations we researched were beginning to come to grips with this
dilemma- often as a result of frustration caused by lack of information or
historical context for decisions, in workplaces where personnel are constantly
We have really had to root and dig just for the methodology on how certain
things were done. So what we’re doing in response to that is creating an
orientation manual, so that would not be so difficult to find in subsequent
years, but more importantly so that information is there to learn from as we go
through the evaluation this year, to see where this program is indeed going.
In addition, inter-organizational learning is valued as an opportunity to
study “best practices”, share problems and solutions, and generally support
individual and organizational development. One organization we researched
actually defined one of its roles as that of “knowledge broker” – helping
to bridge the learning from one organization to another within the context of
… we have thought through how to gather thematic information about
communities -. about how people are struggling with important issues in their
communities. What is transferable “best practice” from one place to another.
And that’s the knowledge creation, in a way, and it’s at a macro level. And
also, the sharing can be micro - being a “knowledge broker” in that sense,
using our resources to create the kind of documents that could really help –
little “how-to’s”, for example.
In each of these cases, past experience is exploited for its learning
potential, with caution about using it as a barrier to innovation (as in:
“we’ve always done it this way in the past, therefore, why change it?”).
This dilemma surfaces the on-going debate among adult educators about
informal learning in the workplace (Livingstone, 1999), raising the concern that
“systematizing” such learning disempowers the individual learner in the
interests of achieving a corporate agenda (Church, 2000). In our research sites,
the effort was continuously focused on maintaining a balance between the two.
Individual and organizational learning were not viewed as mutually exclusive,
but rather as additive in their power to enhance both the experience of the
worker, as well as the effectiveness of the organization. Maintaining this
balance is proving to be one of the most demanding, but also one of the most
rewarding of the various challenges encountered by the organizations in our
Indeed, managing all of the paradoxes identified here seems to be the key
learning project of the twenty-first century learning organization.
Transformative learning – that which truly changes the way in which a person
views the world (Cranton, 1994), appears to be more about the journey than the
outcome. “Being there” is not the point - as human organizations, like other
growing organisms, are constantly in a state of flux. It is managing that state,
in a way that enhances the worker’s individual experience and consequently,
the organization’s viability, that differentiates our “model”
organizations from others. In this respect, the four organizations examined in
our research have a great deal to contribute to the world of workplace learning
and change, as they courageously struggle with the dilemmas outlined in this
1.Although the current paper is sole authored, I wish to gratefully
acknowledge, in alphabetical order, the research team, most of whose members
have been involved in this project since its inception. They are: Karen Edge,
Stephen Friedman, Jan McColl and Karima West. I would also like to express my
appreciation to members of the ten organizations who generously contributed
their time to this research through the completion of interviews and
2. Woolner et al (1995) define a “stage 5” organization as one in
which business strategies are based on a shared collective vision; structures
and functions are flexible and responsive to organizational needs; there is
direct information sharing and a constant questioning of assumptions and testing
of reality; and work and learning are fully integrated.
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