NALL Working Paper #29-2001
FROM INFORMAL TO ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING IN THE
©Marilyn Laiken (Principal Investigator),
*A version of this working paper will appear as a chapter in a
soon-to-be-released Group 5 book.
|the research network for
New Approaches to Lifelong Learning
||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 Canadian organizations in the
public, private and not-for-profit sectors provide a environment for
individuals and teams to negotiate effectively the kind of organizational
change which has become endemic in today’s workplace. A focus on informal
learning through basic social processes contributes to employees’ collective
ability to move beyond simply coping with stress to engaging in creative
A three-year research project, conducted between 1998 and
2001, located and studied, in-depth, four such organizations which were using
organizational learning approaches to embed continuous learning within the
actual work processes. While each of the cases presents a unique context, they
together provide valuable thematic lessons in how to create working
environments which contribute both to individual health and to organizational
FROM INFORMAL TO ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING
IN THE POST-INDUSTRIAL WORKPLACE
Since Peter Senge et al (1990, 1994, 1999) popularized Chris Argyris’ and
Donald Schon’s work on organizational learning (1978, 1990) over a decade ago,
the concept has pervaded the lexicon of workplace learning and change. However,
despite legions of books, articles, films, courses, conferences and complete
professional and academic programs on the subject, the concept of organizational
learning remains difficult to define, and even more difficult to implement in
practice. One of the challenges facing organizations attempting to integrate
organizational learning principles is their lack of specific examples of how
these relatively complex notions translate into daily workplace experience.
A three-year research project was conducted between 1998-2001, to locate and
study Canadian organizations using organizational learning approaches to embed
on-going learning within the actual work processes - whether at an individual,
team or strategic level. This research intended to be a voice for such
organizations, where efforts to create a learning environment have benefited
their clients or customers, employees and 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 current best practices, 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, ten
organizations agreed to participate in the research, and administered, to a
cross-section of ten randomly selected employees, The Learning Organization 5
Stage Diagnostic Survey (Woolner et al, 1995, appendix A). The results of this
survey provided the research team with five organizations which self-identified
at mature stages of development as a learning organization in the areas of
individual, team and strategic learning (appendix B).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.
All four of the organizations represented in this chapter must be viewed in
the context of the current turbulent workplace environment caused by
globalization, restructuring, reengineering, mergers and acquisitions. Within
this milieu of upheaval and transition, which has become endemic in the modern
workplace, our team of researchers was particularly interested in
discovering what role informal learning might play in contributing to
employees’ ability to move beyond simply coping with stress to engaging in
creative action – individually, and organizationally. We were also interested
in how these organizations might be embedding such informal learning in their
very structure and culture, so that its benefits would be sustainable, despite
future changes in leadership. Finally, we were concerned about what kind of
leadership would be required to support and legitimize informal learning
approaches, and help make them part of organizational “memory”, while
simultaneously respecting the integrity of employee learning as valuable in its
own right. This chapter will explore each of these issues in turn.
The Case Examples3
Wealthshare is a non-unionized, not-for-profit grant-making
organization which was established in 1982 as an arm’s length agency of the
Ontario Government. Its purpose is to disburse a portion of the proceeds of
gaming to charitable organizations across the province, in order to help build
healthy, sustainable and caring communities as a strategic contribution to
Ontario civil society. Wealthshare’s Mission, Vision and Values states:
We encourage collaborative and imaginative, holistic approaches to
increased community well-being which
recognize the important and interdependent role that arts, culture,
recreation, sports and social services play, and the underlying value of a
sustainable economy and environment. (organizational documentation, p. 1)
During the year in which our research was conducted with Wealthshare (January to
December, 1999), the organization had changed dramatically. The budget was
increased from 12 million to 100 million dollars; the staff numbers had grown
from twelve to eighty; the well-respected CEO had been terminated by the
incoming Board of Directors, and had not yet been replaced; the structure of the
organization was decentralized, and now included regional offices in various
areas of the Province; and the entire head office physical plant had been
Urban Religious Hospital (URH), as the name implies, is a religiously
affiliated hospital operating within a Canadian urban centre. It has a strong
community focus and prides itself on its work with its community neighbours, in
particular, the poor and the homeless. Until ten years ago, URH was suffering
from what seemed to be an irreversible debt crisis. However, over the course of
the last decade, URH has succeeded in its quest to become a profitable provider
of ‘excellent quality patient care.’
The last decade has been one of significant upheaval within the Canadian
health care system. Within that system, hospitals have experienced the most
dramatic change, and have often been faced with unprecedented funding cuts and
budget shortfalls. Urban Religious Hospital provides an example of one that has
risen to the challenges, maintained its focus on its values, and continued to
thrive despite the tumultuous climate.
Homewares is a home furnishings retailer with more than 800 stores in
the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom and Japan. Worldwide,
this non-unionized, publicly traded, 39-year-old company employs roughly 10,000
employees and is one of North America’s leading specialty home fashions
retailers. Its mission includes a strong customer focus which staff try to enact
by ensuring that the shopping experience is enjoyable, and provides the customer
with a varied selection of unique home furnishings and accessories.
Homewares also has articulated its commitment to employee learning and to
taking a socially conscious approach to business. Its philanthropic endeavors
include an international, national, and local focus through fund-raising and
community outreach. Homewares’ partnering relationships with organizations
like the United Way and UNICEF have resulted in contributions of more than $17
million to hundreds of worthy causes across the globe. With respect to learning,
this organization states that having fun at work in combination with training
opportunities and a “team learning” environment best describe the intended
experience for employees, whether at the store, distribution centre, or home
ThermoDial is a leading supplier of building control solutions,
including building automation systems for heating, ventilation and air
conditioning, comprehensive services for mechanical equipment and building
automation, design-build engineering services, integrated security,
surveillance, fire and alarm systems, and technical services to assess and
improve energy efficiency. Customers include builders of homes, schools,
hospitals, office buildings, museums, airports, shopping centres and other
Over the past decade, the CEO of a Canadian ThermoDial manufacturing plant
has incorporated innovative management practices and learning strategies into
the workplace, in an effort to streamline and update systems and procedures and
improve quality of work life for all staff. As part of a large, diversified,
multinational organization, this plant employs 300 people, 200 of whom are
unionized, and is a ThermoDial Centre of Excellence for production of valves and
actuators that are exported around the world.
Basic Social Processes as an Avenue for Informal Learning
The case examples previewed represent organizations that view learning, and
in particular the kind of informal learning which happens naturally as part of
daily work, as critical to both their effectiveness in achieving their goals,
and in providing a stimulating, challenging, developmental environment for all
of their employees. This concern, supported by the literature in organizational
learning and redesign (Trist, 1981; Emery, 1980; Senge, 1990, 1999) values the
joint optimization of both the social and technical systems – or the
achievement of organizational goals through the enhancement of the workplace as
a continuous learning environment (Laiken, 1987, 1997).
The more typical site of learning, in the form of individual professional
development (often represented by one-off training events), is valued to varying
degrees in all of our cases organizations. However, the most sustainable
benefits, in terms of both individual and organizational needs, tend to result
from “action” or “situated” learning (Revans, 1982; Lave & Wenger,
1991) which is informal, and accrues directly from work-related activities. This
is the learning that takes place in the interstices of organizational life –
in the coffee shop or during a car pool, in a meeting, or on the shop floor
during a production process. It is characterized by relationship and
interpersonal interaction through basic social processes such as:
- formal and informal problem-solving in groups or teams;
- making mistakes, reflecting on the experience, and applying the
learning in practice;
- confronting the gaps between organizational vision and the
- dealing directly with conflict or difference in the workplace;
- participating in organizational decision-making; filling a
- learning technical skills from peers through cross-training on
Brown & Duguid describe this type of workplace learning as a process which
occurs through “webs of participation” (1991, 1992). Wenger and Lave (1998),
and Wenger (1996, 1999) have characterized these informal learning webs as
“communities of practice”, while Boland and Tenkasi (1995) refer to them as
“communities of knowing”. Rather than representing organizational
learning as that which occurs within formal systems, for instance through
databases or classroom training, their approach addresses learning which occurs
through participation at work outside of formally-designed professional
development opportunities. Organizations that encourage, or at least do not
prevent these emergent communities, recognize that knowledge transfer and more
integrated learning is best facilitated by authentic social interaction.
Individual informal learning
Although individual informal learning through social interaction can be
supported and encouraged anywhere, it appears to be more difficult to achieve
through strict adherence to traditional formal hierarchies (Lave & Wenger,
1991). ThermoDial’s Canadian plant has experienced a dramatic change in the
last decade from a traditional assembly line structure to one of relatively
independently operating work teams, each responsible for a complete production
cycle. Where once staff would spend their entire day blindly performing one
specific operation on a product (e.g. connecting a wire to a screw, or putting
two parts together) before passing the parts on to the next worker, now teams of
five to ten individuals rotate all relevant jobs. For their particular
line, each team member must be able to download order and supplies information
from the computer system, perform all assembly tasks, inspect the product and
make adjustments when errors are found, and prepare finished goods for shipping
in a “just-in-time” manufacturing environment.
As might be expected, the roles of staff and management have evolved
throughout this transition. Staff are more psychologically engaged, and feel
responsible both for their own success and for contributing to the overall
success of the company. Apart from enhancing job satisfaction, this results in
financial gain for all involved, through reward for skills and knowledge
accrued. Commitment is promoted by delegating responsibility as well as
authority directly to the front-line staff. In the process, learning, through
self-direction and through interaction with others, becomes an integral part of
accomplishing the task:
… We used to have people working… overtime and every day doing a
repair. Why? Because we didn’t care. Somebody else was going to
correct our garbage. Now we care because the [reject] is going to come back to
me. I don’t want that, so I’m trying to do my job right the very
first time. (Line Staff)
I do new things all the time in my job, so I almost have to learn new
things just to keep up with the growing technology. So I usually know
what I need before they do, so I’ll approach them that I need this, and
usually they supply it somehow. (Engineer)
I feel far more comfortable to ask questions now. If you have a
disagreement with something, you know that your opinion is going to be valued.
And in my relationship with my manager, that I can ask him anything.
Absolutely anything, and I would disagree with anything. We trust the
people we work with, and we trust their opinions as well. (Production
Management’s role is to support the employees’ potential to succeed by
looking for ways to incorporate new skills and knowledge into the work.
Their role is best envisioned by what Block (1993) terms “stewardship” and
Kofman and Senge (1993) call “servant leadership”. Managers view their staff
as their priority customers, and tailor their support and the environment,
whenever possible, to accommodate their employees’ strengths and needs, in
order to enable the most effective achievement of organizational goals.
… when it comes to actually doing the job and learning the computer
skills… they’re side by side with their co-workers, they’re not with me.
I’m here for them, and they choose who they’re comfortable with… I
don’t designate someone on the line to be, okay, you’re going to train
these people, I don’t do that. My personal belief is that people need
to be able to go to whoever they’re comfortable with, because if they’re
uncomfortable they’ll never learn. I think I had seven people who were
trained on the new Oracle system. Of those seven people, there are four
that are constantly on their feet showing people the new system. (Production
At Wealthshare, although the formal structure is more traditionally
hierarchical, there is, as at ThermoDial, a strong valuing of individual and
team autonomy, and an unequivocal respect for learning. Also, as in the first
case, the context for informal learning here usually results from a work-related
need, and ranges from formalized meetings such as a staff retreat, to more
informal hallway conversations, or small self-appointed teams working on a
particular issue of importance to all members. Respondents repeatedly offer
examples of their learning in this context, noting that even during a formal
orientation/training session, it is the informal learning through social
interaction which people experience as particularly significant:
It was mostly just the discussions among people being trained together –
and we were sort of sorting out the issues on our own. (Staff)
Oh yeah – like in the early stages we did a collective analysis of the
application – to provide different views, different ways of looking at an
application – it just came out of the group. That’s how I learned to do
those things. (Staff)
So no one really knows, so no one is really able to give you any
concrete answers. So there’s on-going discussion – there are chat lines,
and so on – all sorts of stuff about how you interpret things – we teach
each other all the time. (Staff)
Team environments, which are increasingly becoming the norm organizationally
(Boyett & Conn, 1992; Lawler, Mohrman & Ledford, 1992; Katzenbach &
Smith, 1993) provide another site for informal learning through social
interaction on the job. Although Wealthshare is committed organizationally to
team learning, its success with teams has been mixed. Some of the problems
encountered are directly related to the lack of systemic stability in a
dramatically changing organization. However, many of the issues are similar to
those experienced in more stable organizations (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993)
such as our other two research sites (Homewares and URH), including: teams not
feeling that they have enough autonomy to make decisions which directly affect
them, or being unclear about decision-making boundaries; lack of effective team
facilitation; a lack of willingness to raise conflictual issues openly for fear
of hurting feelings, and therefore not attending to setting potentially helpful
group norms; and focusing only on task, without ever attending to the group’s
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, and it’s a good thing, because there is work to do .. but
it’s also a forum where you can get a little deeper into some issues …
The teams that seem to most effectively provide a context for individual and
group informal learning in all of our sites have a number of common
characteristics. They meet regularly; the meetings, although task-focused,
include time for reflection on their process; they attend to individual as well
as group needs; and are usually facilitated by someone (not necessarily the
manager) who has some skill in team leadership, and is focused on sharing these
skills with every member. These teams support individual professional
development to help members learn needed skills, name problems as they arise and
deal directly with them, and often act as an on-going community of practice by
providing a forum for dialogue, in addition to problem-solving regarding
work-related issues. Most importantly, the team members function
interdependently, and are collectively accountable for achieving mutually
agreed-upon team goals.
Homewares, conversely, although its intention is to function as a team-based
organization, teaches us about teams as a context for learning through a
negative example. Overall, our data from this site suggest that while the
organization does not discourage teams, efforts to formally support the use of
teams is not explicit. One respondent says, “there’s nothing formal, nothing
developed thus far for Homewares in that regard". Additionally, only one
explicit effort to become team oriented was mentioned in the interviews, which
consisted of mangers attending a retreat where they experienced team building
exercises with strangers. While this is indeed an effort to teach some team
skills, it does not meet the conditions outlined by Wenger and Lave (1998) and
other theorists (Revans, 1982; Brown & Duguid, 1991) for truly integrated
learning, in that it did not take place in the context in which it was to be
practiced, and was not supported by the organization, beyond the initial
The paradox raised by the Homewares case is that, in order for more informal
learning within a team to take place effectively, the organization must provide
a context of formal support (to be discussed later in this chapter under the
heading of “organizational culture”). It must make conscious efforts to
define what it means by the term “team”, rather than simply labelling all
working groups as teams (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). Further, team learning,
however informal, must be accompanied by explicit efforts to define the
processes and norms for how a team is expected to operate, as well as supported
by more formal training in the skills needed for effective team leadership and
membership (Laiken, 1993, 1998).
Learning Through Dealing with Conflict; Making and Reflecting on
At Wealthshare, the most challenging area for the teams was also designated
responsible for more individual and group learning outcomes than any other
identified. This is the realm of making mistakes, reflecting on the experience,
and applying the learning in practice, and includes risk-taking and conflict
Sources of conflict at Wealthshare seem typical of most organizations. The
most common include differences in status, assumptions which go unclarified,
feeling silenced in a discussion, lack of clarity regarding roles, goals,
expectations of others, lack of trust, perceived workload inequities, etc. (Laiken,
1994). However, what seems somewhat unique at Wealthshare, and helps designate
it as a “learning organization”, is the cultural norm which supports
confronting conflicts openly, and viewing them as opportunities for learning.
Nonetheless, here, as in other aspects of functioning, there are individual
differences - with some people more willing to be direct in dealing with
conflict than are others.
Confronting conflict seems to be more risky, as might be expected, when the
person being confronted is one’s manager, as opposed to one’s peer in the
organizational hierarchy. However, at Wealthshare, there is a surprising lack of
fear in this respect – even new hires seem prepared to call a manager on
his/her behaviour – especially when the latter is contravening an
organizational norm. This kind of confrontation is not only condoned, but
encouraged actively, as part of Wealthshare’s cultural values:
… a number of times, people made a courageous step by calling our CEO on
some stuff, and in a way 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 then acknowledged the courageousness of that step. (Manager)
The underlying belief is that, if people either recognize mistakes on their own,
or learn about them through feedback from others, and most importantly, see this
as an opportunity to learn and improve in the future, both the individual and
the organization will benefit. The most critical principle here seems to be an
explicit culture of “no blame” – where employees are supported in viewing
mistakes simply as an opportunity for learning (Gephart et al, 1996; Kofman
& Senge, 1993). It appears from our research that organizations intent on
enhancing learning from experience prohibit, both culturally and procedurally,
the use of threat, punishment or blame.
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… and we always
say .. this is the phrase that always comes back - “next time we’ll do it
better”. (Staff, Wealthshare)
Shared Leadership in Support of Informal Learning
… everybody’s included in all the good things about working in a
team environment… and if you screw it up, we’ll fix it tomorrow. So
there’s no punishment, there’s no downside to making a mistake, either.
(Production Supervisor, ThermoDial).
In three of our four cases, an increase in individual and team autonomy was
an outgrowth of major organizational transition. URH was suffering from an
unprecedented debt crisis due to large funding cuts and budget shortfalls,
resulting in major restructuring of its systems and processes. ThermoDial’s
transition to its new approach required additional skills training for all
staff, for many of whom English was a second language. It also required a leap
of faith to appreciate that a flattened hierarchy and distributed responsibility
would be an improvement on the old system, and not simply ‘more work for the
same pay”. Finally, the new approach was introduced at a time of downsizing,
where most supervisory roles were eliminated. The remaining unionized
employees realized that their traditional seniority program of advancement from
assembly to set-up to inspection roles would be irrelevant in a setting where
all staff would now be required to rotate diverse jobs as part of self-managed
At Wealthshare, although the changes were largely positive, and the
atmosphere generally expectant and charged with the excitement of a growing
enterprise, the transition was also a difficult one. New systems and procedures
were evolving, but were not yet fully in place; staff roles were shifting,
resulting in concerns about loss of the kind of autonomy that had become the
norm in the smaller organization; and the decentralized structure resulted in
central and regional differences which had not yet been reconciled. At a time
when strong leadership would have been welcomed, there was no Executive
Director, but only an over-worked senior management team struggling valiantly to
respond to the varying complex demands of an essentially new organization.
Whether it was explicitly designed to be a feature of the organization, as at
ThermoDial, or was the result of an unanticipated leadership vacuum, as at
Wealthshare, the opportunity for more distributed, participative leadership
among all employees presented itself as a key enhancer of informal learning in
In our research sites, those on the “front lines” of the organization
offered concrete examples of how they were invited to use their skill, knowledge
and creativity in their daily work. A critical aspect of such autonomy is the
strong sense that employees have of being trusted to act professionally and
responsibly. At URH a staff member says:
We follow up with patients. I have my own business cards that I can give to
patients so that they can contact me. All the nurses in the clinic have them
too. Everyone has a direct link to me as a person. It makes everything more
At ThermoDial, employees say they have gained in both direct and indirect ways
from acquiring the new skills associated with increased responsibilities in
their jobs, including more confidence in their own judgment and in their
potential to learn and contribute.
This has been the biggest learning experience of my life...people are no
longer a great mystery. (Production Supervisor)
It’s good for ThermoDial; it’s good for me first… with the
computer courses… [now] I’m not afraid of the computer. When you
know how to operate a computer, it’s much easier to learn new stuff.
So every day we’re learning. Right now we’re trained for Oracle, the
new program that we have here. It was not a big deal because we have so
much knowledge of the computer. You know what I mean? It’s much
easier. Like learning, I mean for me, I’m learning every day.
And I have a mind, especially when it comes to computers, I know that. (Line
In all cases, the opportunity to participate in organizational decision-making
through distributed leadership was viewed by research participants as a major
contributor to their learning, development and increased self-confidence on the
job. Important enablers in this process include accessibility of information,
and a sense among employees that they are being trusted to make decisions by
using that information responsibly.
At ThermoDial respondents praise the efficiency of information sharing
throughout the plant, particularly between management and staff. Line
staff obtain an understanding of customer needs through both formal and informal
interaction with sales and marketing, internal postings, and information
sessions with management. Being kept informed is important to front line
workers, who want to comprehend their contribution to the organization as a
… because we have the documents, we have the figures and we have
the instruction how to do everything, if we see something wrong we can stop
the line right away… It might be a short time until I see the engineer or
something… Because the way we work, we’re flexible. (Line Staff)
… we have enough experience that, frankly, I could go for a week and
never speak to any of them, the world will function just fine. I know
the products well enough and have been here long enough, and have such
confidence in people doing their job that they don’t need me. (Production
Although some newer employees continued to feel vulnerable and in need of
direction, all chose Wealthshare as a workplace in which they could expect
personal autonomy and self-direction to be valued. The transitional leadership
vacuum provided an invitation to fully exercise this autonomy, and most teams
and individual employees accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. Workers
participated in interviewing and selecting new hires - which many appreciated as
a key informal learning opportunity; recommendations regarding a wide variety of
operating issues were proposed by individuals and teams, and implemented;
employees found themselves defining their own roles, within organizational
parameters, particularly in newly designated jobs, such as Area Manager; and
individuals were offered much room for flexibility through job arrangements such
as home working.
Like mainly, you have a free handle on how to develop your local grant
review team. For example, what I did in my region is, I involved them a lot in
site visits, as a way of educating them. In our first meeting, we didn’t
have applications to review, so I invited the Social Planning Council to
provide a context. In a way, yeah, I see myself as having the authority or
freedom to do things … (Manager).
It’s very open, there’s a lot of opportunity to participate
generally. There is a strong value in respecting everyone’s voice. Lots of
discussion – changes are not made without striking working groups. It’s a
very consultative, participative organization. (Staff)
Workers at Homewares also attribute much of their important informal learning
directly to the amount of autonomy they experience in their role. A staff person
notes that her manager views her desire to take initiative as an opportunity for
her to learn some new aspect of the store management. She says: “…many of
the operational decisions in the store are up to my own discretion”.
Other Homewares staff gain a sense of autonomy through the freedom they
experience to display items in the store using their own creativity, by the
receptivity with which their suggestions regarding visual display are met, and
through the encouragement to find creative ways to provide excellent service.
One employee comments that associates are given "turf" in the form of
sole responsibility for one area of the store, where they are invited to use
their initiative to create displays, etc.
Opportunities for informal learning through increased autonomy clearly
benefit individual employees in our research sites. However, of equal
importance, they appear to also result in improved group cohesiveness as well as
greater quality in services and products for the organization as a whole.
At ThermoDial, both management and staff indicate that their team approach has
improved quality because of a shared responsibility for team output and a
commitment to quality by every member of the organization. With the sense
of ownership for the final product delegated right to the front line, staff are
more conscientious about their work.
To me you are a liar if you send out a bad product, just to get the work
done. You know something is bad, you don’t do it. (Production
You don’t have anybody to correct your mistakes, you’re doing it, so
you’re more careful doing it. (Line Staff)
Additionally, shifting ownership to the front lines results in greater work
group cohesiveness. Most employees pull together and choose to step in to
“get the job done”, out of a sense of duty to the organization and its
customers, and with resulting pride of accomplishment.
… as far as the team work, it’s good as far as getting the stuff out…
being in a smaller group, so if a problem arises, like say we’re using the
wrong something or other, it’ll be caught more than it would have the way we
used to work with two people here, four people on this job… we’ve all been
trained now to visually look at the things instead of just doing what you need
to do… so it’s all, it’s a lot better for the company because they
don’t have as many rejects returned. Because we find all the stuff.
It’s wonderful for that and the amount we get out now… it’s
unbelievable. (Line Staff)
Integrating the Learning Organizationally
Current research (Stamps, 1998; Ahmed et al, 1999; Bartlett, 1998; Goh, 1998)
supports our most important finding from this study, which is the notion that
organizational climate and culture is critical in creating an environment that
enables informal learning and shared leadership in the workplace to thrive.
Additionally, managing the paradox of “formalizing the informal” by
embedding it in the structure, systems and processes of the organization,
ensures that its benefits are largely sustainable.
Three sets of activities were identified as key factors in ensuring an
organizational climate conducive to learning: creating a values-based shared
vision of both the task-related goals and the internal functioning of the
organization; examining and revising systems, procedures and processes, so that
they clearly reflect the vision and values in action; and continuously
evaluating progress towards achieving the vision, so that the gap between the
vision and the current reality is progressively decreased.
Creating A Values-based Shared Vision
URH has developed a set of institutional values that embody its commitment to
‘excellence in patient care’ and service to its unique urban community. All
interviewees discussed the central role of the mission and values within the
hospital, making statements such as: “The mission and values guide the
hospital in what we want to do in a larger health care frame”.
Information about the mission, vision and values is transmitted formally through
orientation and professional development activities, informally through hallway
conversations and team discussions, and through the day-to-day work in the
hospital. URH, as an organization, has demonstrated its commitment to the
mission and vision/values by creating a position entitled “Director of Mission
and Values” (DMV), whose role it is to keep the conversation about this
important aspect of the organizational culture alive. All research participants
mentioned the centrality of the role of the DMV and the mission and values
statements during the orientation program for new employees. One person notes:
“There was an open discussion of the mission and values, the history of URH,
the importance of caring for the disadvantaged and the commitment to the
At ThermoDial, the entire workplace structure reflects the organization’s
values-based commitment to employee participation and distributed leadership,
while at Wealthshare, there exists a strong belief system which originated in
the smaller organization. This vision supports learning and development among
all employees, and includes community members as well. There is a deeply-held
belief about the benefit of helping clients reach their own solutions to issues
of concern, as well as a set of values regarding Wealthshare as a nurturing
workplace for its employees.
All of our case sites noted that the orientation process for new employees
was an initial location for introducing them to the organization’s vision and
values. At Homewares, although there is no formal orientation program for
non-managers, sales associates are offered a self-directed learning opportunity
through video-tapes and workbooks, which introduces them to their role in the
organization. However, the critical factor in whether or not such exposure is
taken seriously by workers appears to be the degree to which the rhetoric is
actually enacted in practice within the organization.
Reflecting the Vision in Practice
Most modern organizations have recognized the importance of developing a
shared vision to help align the work of disparate units or individuals. However,
few have as yet managed to integrate this vision within their systems and work
processes, so that it is reflected in every aspect of organizational life (Senge,
1998; McKenna, 1992).
Our research sites offer several examples of having achieved this goal
– from distributed leadership increasing worker autonomy at ThermoDial, to
encouraging staff to build links with the community at URH. Apart from assigning
the formal role of Director of Mission and Values to a senior manager, thus
ensuring a “champion” for enacting the vision at URH, the hospital has
reflected its beliefs through its awards and recognition program for all
employees. The rewards have served to create an awareness of the values
supported by the organization, as well as acknowledging employee achievement and
effort in this regard. Interviewees explain:
In 1990 there was nothing in the way of staff recognition or values
recognition. Now there are plenty of awards. .. “Most valuable player”
award is nominated by peers for going above and beyond the call of duty. There
are also pictures and names of recognized people.
Values in Action nominations are more complex and there are awards for
individuals, teams and projects. We have a set URH Day. Everyone is honoured,
and that is September 29. Everyone is given a memento… There is a Values in
Action Award that recognizes the 5 values. Each year, one team is recognized
around each value.
Finally, values play a significant role in the decision-making process at URH.
Staff repeatedly note how teams and leaders reflect their commitment to
excellence and to the community as a framework for planning. For example:
“There are strong mission and values. We have worked to keep it alive. We talk
about it a lot.” Another participant explains, “The values are the heart of
the organization. They influence decision making at the leadership level
…There is recognition of the values in the leadership. It is evident in their
ThermoDial’s line staff praise the efficiency of information sharing
throughout the plant, which enables them to obtain an understanding of customer
needs through formal and informal interaction with sales and marketing, internal
postings, and information sessions with management. They also appreciate the
value in action that supports the inclusion of every worker in creative
problem-solving and organizational decision-making. One staff member says:
Before… I felt like a dummy. Nobody was asking me for ideas,
talking. They were telling you what to do and that was it. Even
though you knew better how to improve things on your job and everything.
And it’s not because they were bad, because that was the system. But
now, if you have an idea, just say it, say your idea and somebody will reward
you for that, if it works… And you do, believe me, there are a lot of
[opportunities] to use your brain. (Line Staff)
At Homewares, the extent to which practice reflects beliefs varies according to
the style of leadership in any particular store. Lacking here is an
organizational vision to which all locations have made a commitment, and as a
result there is a large variation in the extent to which the vision is
consistently embedded in day-to-day working life.
In contrast, at Wealthshare the general feeling among interviewees is that
the values are clearly espoused throughout the organization, but there is some
tension in enacting them in reality – partly due to the turbulence, and
structural changes which are not yet firmly rooted. However, although, like at
Homewares, some supervisory styles are seen as not consistent with espoused
values, for the most part, there is a feeling that Wealthshare is positioning
itself to implement its values in action. Much of the learning identified takes
place by people becoming aware of the gap between the espoused values and the
values in use (Argyris & Schon, 1978), and making honest attempts to close
that gap. There is a recognition that aligned action requires congruence between
personal and organizational values, and staff are learning to be more aware when
these are not congruent …
Everybody in our organization used to report to one person, and so there
were times when we did some spectacular things in communities, we had
tremendous autonomy in our jobs, and then, at an internal level, there would
be some blaming about something that didn’t match the kind of autonomy we
were feeling in our external roles.
Making space for this kind of reflection and discussion of the gaps between the
vision and the reality is viewed by most of the research participants as one of
the key activities in sustaining organizational learning, as well as in
providing opportunities for informal learning at Wealthshare. Once identified, a
problem is never ignored – it is seen as an opportunity for learning, and time
is set aside to deal with it.
In September we had a Staff retreat. And I would say we had a variety of
challenges facing the organization, because we were about to be in this huge
transition, but it was like being in a hurry-up-and-wait mode. We’d hired
talented staff who couldn’t do the job they’d been hired for because some
of the approvals weren’t in place. So we had disgruntled people, in a way,
and we weren’t leveraging their potential as well as we might have. And so
during the Staff retreat, we wanted to look at the future, but had to address
some of those realities. And out of the retreat we did develop a series of
working groups that were staff-driven, grass-roots. We figured out some
parameters, and enabled staff to find their voice through these work groups.
Continuously Evaluating Progress
Making discussible the gaps between theory and practice, and conscientiously
acting on the issues identified seems to be the most significant feature
separating our case examples from other, less learning-oriented organizations.
This type of reflective activity sets the stage for continuous individual, team
and organizational learning.
URH takes a more structured approach to evaluating progress than do the other
organizations in our study. Over the years, the hospital has developed a culture
that is deeply rooted in reflection and analysis of organizational health in
order to improve its performance. As one employee noted, “there is an
underlying thirst for knowledge”, and another said, “We are measuring things
constantly. There are lots of indicators”.
For example, URH has turned its diagnostic sensibilities upon itself and has
committed to learning more about the experiences of its employees. In addition
to generating a better understanding of how individual employees view their work
and the hospital, the organization also conducted a study of its own
Additionally, URH is working to better understand its clients’ experiences
through a continual assessment of patient satisfaction, patient outcomes and
waiting time. Finally, the hospital has established a community advisory
committee to address specific inner city program needs. A critically important
aspect of this activity is the fact that these data are fed back to the
employees directly involved with the clients in question. This places
responsibility for problem-solving and continuous learning squarely on the
shoulders of those who are in a position to take immediate action for
There is a patients’ complaints process. There is a designated person who
deals with this as the Patient Satisfaction Coordinator. She is the “survey
queen” and reports back to staff.
Summary and Conclusions
Probably the most significant implication from this study is the notion that
organizations which seem to experience sustained success in achieving their
goals, whether these be profit or service-oriented, are those that allocate a
high priority to a learning agenda at the individual, team and systemic levels.
The case examples presented here offer concrete approaches to insuring learning
in each of these domains.
For individuals, action learning on the job is enhanced by legitimized
opportunities to view mistakes or problems as an opportunity for learning
through reflection and subsequent application of new insights. For both
individuals and teams, framing conflict and difference as a source of
creativity, and being encouraged to directly confront issues within an
atmosphere of “no blame”, provides the safety workers require to engage in
such potentially risky ventures. Leadership modeling appears to be particularly
significant in this area.
Teams thrive as a learning context when they meet regularly (either
face-to-face or virtually); are helped, through skilled facilitation, to:
balance task and process; incorporate individual needs into shared team goals
which require members’ interdependence; clarify roles and expectations; and
are aided in all of this by organizational support such as opportunities for
skill development. Team learning occurs in teams that are differentiated from
natural working groups, such as a unit or department, by the fact that they are
meeting to work on specific goals for which they are mutually accountable.
Systemically, shared or distributed leadership enables continuous informal
learning through autonomy on the job and opportunities to participate in
organizational decision-making. The outcomes for individuals include increased
technical and interpersonal skill, as well as enhanced self-confidence and
creativity. The critical enablers appear to be management trust in workers to
act responsibly; continuous and unrestricted access to information related to
the job; and working within a “whole job” concept which allows employees to
pursue a complete project from beginning to end.
Additionally, what we have termed “formalizing the informal” seems to be
essential in order to embed the learning organizationally. Organizational
culture and climate are key in creating an environment for informal learning to
thrive. Three sets of activities were identified as core in this enterprise:
creating a value-based shared vision; examining and revising systems, procedures
and processes to clearly reflect the vision/values in action; and continuously
evaluating progress towards achieving the vision within the context of day-to
day working life.
In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that none of the organizations
represented in this study would identify themselves as a fully developed
“learning organization”. What became abundantly clear as we listened to
workers’ stories, is that there is no end point to the processes that were
being examined, for either the individuals or the organizations involved. This
is truly an example of lifelong learning writ large. It seems not to be a
question of who has done it, but a question of who is doing it – with the
journey circumscribed by a continuous cycle of understanding, implementing,
reflecting and sustaining. Kofman and Senge say: “The best constructs for
explaining and organizing the world will imitate life itself. They will be in a
continual state of becoming” (1993, p.15). Or, as eloquently described by one
of our research participants …
For me, organizational learning incorporates some of the other levels of
learning – it is how the organization is accessing information, knowledge
resources – and interpreting them in a way that moves them forward
continually – enabling the organization to achieve best practices, to
reflect on what it’s doing … So it’s macro – but it also requires
individual and team and other types of learning for it to actually work …
and, for an organization to do that, it needs to have in place a vision and
values that link that back to reality. It’s one thing for one or two people
to hold those kinds of values – if the organization itself doesn’t serve
these issues through its mission, vision and values, and then practices
underneath that – policies and practices that are supported – then it
1.The research team included a fifth member, Jan McColl, who did not
participate in the writing of this chapter, but who was fully involved in every
other phase of the project.
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.
3.The four organizations which comprise this research are identified with
pseudonyms for purposes of confidentiality. However, all four are currently
operating organizations in Southern Ontario, representing the private,
health-care and not-for-profit sectors, and ranging in size form 80 to
10,000 employees, both unionized and non-unionized. The respondents represent a
mix of gender, age, experience and roles within the organizations. We gratefully
acknowledge their participation in this study, and the support of their
organizations in all aspects of the research process.
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