Organizational Learning

To thrive and prosper in turbulent conditions, organizations have to learn.  They have to be good at reflection.  They must understand and protect what they do well.  They must be committed to continuous improvement. 

Sounds straightforward enough, but we all know that wanting to learn is a lot easier to say than to do.  And, the more complex the system that has to learn, the more challenging it is to do so. 

“Repeating the same behavior over and over again even though it leads to lousy outcomes” is a functional definition of insanity.  Though this might be true, even the most cursory study of history demonstrates that all sorts of human systems from families to multinational enterprises are guilty of making this error.  We build gas guzzlers in the face of declining carbon reserves and increasing prices.  Racism and sexism are denounced in every quarter and yet hostile work environments for women and people of difference are documented every day on a worldwide basis. NASA disregards safety lessons learned from the Challenger, and the Columbia disintegrates on re-entry into the atmosphere. [commentary on NASA’s culture of denial]

Learning that leads to change is very tough.  Our defenses at the personal, group and organizational against negative feedback and our denial of the need to address problems are very well-developed.  In fact, research by Chris Argryis and many others demonstrates that anything we do well—including those things that may not be that helpful to us or our organizations—is highly skillful.  The more automatic something is, the harder it is to notice it and to “unlearn” it!

Notwithstanding all of the difficulties with learning, many organizations are, obviously, doing a good job of it.  Look at all of the compelling new products being created (e.g., the hybrid car, the iPod), the development of services people must have (e.g., data mining) , and the codification of knowledge that makes what was once very difficult completely routine (e.g., ISO standards).

Art of the Future approaches the organizational learning challenge with several educational strategies:
  1. Collaboration skills and collaborative approaches to conflict management increase learning at the interpersonal and group level.  Using highly interactive experiences and stimulating information, these training programs will give you insight into how you think and act in organizational contexts and how to “get out of your own box” of untested assumptions and habits of behavior.  [see  Eliciting the Best: A Collaborative Approach to Conflict and  Managing Blink: A Workshop on Our Mindsets and Mental Models ]
  2. Organizational diagnosis using interviews, focus groups and ethnography generates a graphic, “whole systems map” of the learning dynamics of client organizations.  Through conversations with players involved with your organization—both people employed by it and others interacting with it—we build a description of how things currently work and how they might work in ways that can dramatically enhance learning.  [see  Mind Maps and Causal Models: Using Graphical Representations of Field Research Data and Educating the Human System; Organizational Diagnosis ]
  3. Understand whole system dynamics through fast-paced simulations.  The Organization Workshop™ is an experiential program that can immerse up to 150 participants at a time into a compelling “game” that gives immediate and visceral insight into how it usually goes in organizations.  Human systems “gunk” stands in the way of organizational learning; this program provides insight into where the gunk comes from and what to do about it.  [see The Organization Workshop]  Merging Cultures™ is another high energy simulation that focuses on the learning challenges faced by any organization that is going through merger and/or acquisition activities of any sort.  Merging Cultures is also highly relevant to reorganization efforts that will have units playing new roles in relationship to each other and to workplace diversity initiatives.  [see Merging Cultures: The Power of Difference] 
  4. Building scenarios and using strategic planning to stimulate organization learning.  To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “The future is a powerful device for focusing the organizational mind.”  Art of the Future’s scenario planning and strategic planning activities can help an entire organization tune in to its learning challenges.  With the future in mind, organizational actors turn their attention away from energy-draining petty squabbles of the current day toward truly important matters coming over the horizon.  [see Scenario Workshops]
  5. Seeing and taking advantage of leadership opportunities through executive coaching.  Art of the Future can help leaders dig deep into their hopes for their organizations and themselves through collaborative coaching methods.  We do not tell you what you should do.  Instead, we are “co-inquirers” skilled at helping you explore the nuances of the situation and your own thoughts about it.  [see Executive  Coaching]   Skilled leadership = organizational learning.

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