In a complex and dynamic environment organization units are challenged to produce new solutions where no specific rules or orders can be preset anymore. This self-organization requires an indirect leadership of the change processes. By increasing its learning ability, the company can increase its competitive advantage in several ways. It gives rise to more and more innovative ideas, it renews itself, and the ability to learn is one of the intangible resources that can hardly be copied.
The main questions are:
How can learning be created not only on an individual but an organizational level so that something substantial remains if employees leave the company?
How can deep learning be created that results in a change of self-concept and an increase of the learning ability of the company and by that in a permanent change of behaviors?
Over the last 30 years a consensus was achieved on what defines organizational learning or which approaches are useful to make deep learning on an organizational level happen. Generally accepted elements are:
- the levels of learning that can be distinguished by the deepness of learning they facilitate,
- the idea that collective learning happens by exchanging mental models as a social construction of a shared reality.
Only double loop learning – questioning and reconstructing the theories in use – and deutero learning – questioning and reconstructing the learning processes in the organization – can create deep learning and deep change including a change of self-concept and an increase in the learning ability of the organization.
Further generally accepted elements are:
- the idea that every company has a knowledge base, and
- defining organizational learning as a change or enlargement of the same.
Taking the knowledge base for a target figure and naming activities to change it have made the concept of organizational learning easier to grasp and put into action. The mental models are now part of the knowledge base. The organizational culture is seen as one of several ways to store organizational memory, next to databases and organizational rules. How can mental models be shared? The knowledge spiral offers a model to facilitate the transition of knowledge from the individual to the organizational level and back. Tacit knowledge shall be made explicit and shared, explicit (and tacit) knowledge shall be internalized. The group is an essential link between the individual and the organization.
But how exactly does individual knowledge become part of the organizational knowledge base? Most theories do not explain this transition between the individual and the organization, and therefore the learning processes in organizational learning are still mostly a black box. (Social) constructive theory enlightens this transition to some part: interactions and communication make knowledge and reality objective – legitimized and institutionalized – and subjective – internalized and socialized.
All relevant theories conclude that interaction and communication processes are the key to organizational learning. But until today group processes are not explicitly seen as organizational learning processes or the group as a carrier of organizational learning. From the consensus it can be recommended for organization design in practice:
- to manage the knowledge base of the company (Knowledge Management),
- to manage the organizational culture, the social construction of a shared reality (Corporate Culture),
- to manage the processes of interaction and communication, particularly by building workgroups in changing constellations.
Here is my seminar paper of 2006 on the subject from my specialization on organizational behavior and leadership: