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Issue 'Learning organisation' an entity or a metaphor?
Outline [MKe:] I wonder what your view is: whether the learning organisation (LO) is an entity in itself, a goal, whether one can measure it, whether one is actually in a LO or not. I tend to take two views I think a LO has particularly well thought-through strategies for learning for individuals and the organisation itself; at the same time it is just a metaphor, it is a metaphor for change that is actually a constructive approach. I tend to prefer the latter, because it gets me out of rabbit holes, and at the same time it could be much more useful for promoting development and learning as opposed to downsizing in a tayloristic approach. 
    The other thing I would like to explore with you is whether you think the reality of your own situation. If I speak to the heads of organisations they would probably universally say that they are creating developmental pathways for their staff, that their organisations are forward-looking. The reality on the ground is different because they are frequently bypassed in terms of the decision-setting for the long-term view.
Debate [BC:] When I heard the term LO for the first time many years ago I thought it was a terrible term, also in the way it was presented. It was the idea of an organisation you could define as a LO. Now you have developed the term by introducing and merging many kinds of learning theories. Now I can feel it is helpful. In the first generation of the concept I thought it was just nothing, and it gave the idea of a very harmonic enterprise which neglected any kind of differences and interests and power games and things like that, but now we have some new elements in discussing what learning is about. 

[NB:] I'd like to think that the term LO did refer to an actual type of structure that was real and not just a metaphor. The problem I've got really is that I have been studying a company c which is committed to organisational learning. The problem which I get first of all is that the company changes very quickly from month to month, it is never the same company in two successive months. In their history the company has been a very successful LO, and then not long ago their profits sank to virtually zero. I think if you are a LO you have got to constantly be in a state of change, there is no way in which you set up a ruling about the LO and then sit back and say it will continue, it is a very unstable structure. And the other thing is, if we look at what is happening in this company, they are quite an extreme case of a LO, they don't quite match up the literature; there are all kinds of contradictions. For instance, they introduced self-managing teams, but at the same time that created internal barriers; there is no way in which reality seems to match up to the definition of a LO in the text books which is very neat and consistent. In reality you are always dealing with change and contradictions, and that seems to me the reality, and I have some difficulty matching the theory to the practice.

[LM:] Maybe we are not talking about theory, maybe we are talking about prescription. There is an awful lot of that early literature with simply prescription and not with explanation. What you are suggesting is that there are explanations of how organisations start to function rather than simply statements about how they ought to be. We've got to get away from prescriptive work and use research, for instance about the shift and what that has done to organisations. 

[MKe:] I think that is probably what we are trying to do, providing explanations of perspectives and views, as opposed to this prescriptive writing.

[JG:] Some people find the LO a somewhat elusive concept. You (NB) were suggesting that the company concerned did exhibit characteristics of a LO. Could you go into these a bit further?

[NB:] They have made an explicit statement that the whole organisation and people at all levels will be constantly engaged in learning. Everybody has a copy of the site plan which is what they work to. They state that we will learn from our mistakes, and we will share information with each other: So when something goes wrong they share it with their colleagues, that does definitely happen. There is full sharing of information, even the loneliest process operator gets complete access to all the management discussion. Obviously there are some secrets about technical processes they are developing which can't be shared because they are competitive advantage, but everything else is shared.
    Universities don't have this idea that everybody is learning at every level about the process of being a university, because you have to accept that a university is operating in a certain way. You just fit into that, you have a contract to do research in your subject and not in other subjects, and it's not open to negotiation. Whereas in that company there is much more open negotiation even among process operators as to who would do what. The other thing is, what happened to universities recently is they strengthened bureaucracy, in the competitive situation so far they have become much more bureaucratic institutions, they don't share information down from the top. The previous university I worked with used to give information out from a need-to-know basis, we didn't have access to everything that was going on in the organisation, which is very different from the model of that company. I am not saying one is better that the other, I am just commenting that there are big differences there. 

[GA:] My problem with the LO is that it ignores class. It is essentially a management consultant idea that people harmoniously share together, and your lonely process operator has the same interest as the managing director who has five million pounds of share options. I think to some extent it is an American management theory introduced to overcome this small and unfortunate class conflict which happens in Europe and even happens in America. If Mike (MKe) redefines it as an overall idea in which we can have different ideas about learning I am quite happy with that. But if you take it as a model for an organisation that would certainly serve the earlier idea of a LO it actually ignores social conflict and reduces the organisation to a mythology of management consultant writing. But within the corpus of work we call the LO there are lots of theoretical studies and projects, so there is a lot of useful stuff there which we can all probably support. So it depends which way you look at it.

[BC:] I agree with that very much, we should take these theoretical bits, as you (MKe) showed in your overheads, some of them explicitly address the conflict of interest and that's a new step (cf Kelleher et al. 2000).

[MiC:] I am trying to think of the LO as a metaphor. If you took it as a sort of bag and you put things in it, as characteristics of a LO, you reach a point where it really is one. Maybe the components of a LO are not sufficient, you can take away some things and it still remains one; you can't really conceptualise the whole thing.

[MKe:] For me it's a conceptual framework. The model may have been elusive, a vision that doesn't exist, but it is something more, you can study it, it is a type of an organisation, it often is a positive model. But there is another reason why it has captured the imagination; we were looking for something that is at lest different from the style of an organisation which we have experienced in the past. The other issue is, if we are looking for this bag full of components then the bag itself is an elusive concept, because the bag doesn't exist. Peter Cressey and I explored the conundrum of the LO (Cressey et al. 2001); our explanation for that is that we are all carrying with us rites about how knowledge is developed and epistemological routes in which we say that some of the problems we are looking for are reality. We are looking for demonstrable, tangible constructs; others are happy with the less tangible, that's probably what we call humanistic concepts.

[KK:] The problem in the background is who may learn. In the management concept the organisation will learn and share information, the enterprise wants to have access to the knowledge of the employees, simply to be more competitive, to have greater productivity, to be more flexible and to be more adaptable to a changing environment. But what happens with the individual, is on a second plate; they don't really talk about the learning of the individual; what they find important is to obtain and keep the knowledge of their employees, also in case they may leave the firm or get fired. This is the clue, I believe.

[CC:] The whole discourse around the LO is now being replaced, certainly in management literature, by knowledge management. A large number of authors who talked about the LO in fact mean knowledge management which is a much more honest position to take for an organisation.

[KK:] On the other hand CEDEFOP has also promoted the concept of the LO as an organisation which opens spaces of learning for individuals. I believe this is a good objective, but this hasn't got anything to do with the management concept, it is totally different. We have two kinds of strategies about the concept of the LO, we must divide and not confuse these concepts.

[MKe:] I wonder whether there is a polarity, I wonder whether one can achieve organisational learning really without creating structures and processes for individual learning, I wonder whether people can learn on behalf of an organisation unless the organisation creates space for those individuals to learn and to prosper from learning. I am not convinced of the polarity, I am convinced these are two sides of a continuum, these are kind of parts of what Mike (MiC) called the bag. It's as complex as all organisational theory is. There is a trade-off with tensions and compromises that have to be made, and potentially a dialectic between the desire to ensure the organisation survives and prospers and the creation of more human working experiences. The compromise is always there. My aspirations would be that organisations would take a strategic choice to apply some of those concepts rather than their strategic choice which is to ignore them and go on as they were; so this is the issue for me.

[CC:] The other issue is the changing nature of the organisation. What I am hearing, certainly within some industries and some organisations, they talk about networks of production. You can't really put a boundary around an organisation, because the human resource management function may be outsourced to another agency, you've got call centres who do that sort of business. The question is how a network of production can be seen to pick up any notion of a LO. It's possible, but it seems to me to be a whole different way of looking at what an organisation actually is, and what sort of different employment relationships exist.

[BC:] Still if you then take the individual perspective then you as an individual are at a certain place, and this may be combined with giving good conditions for learning, making learning possible for the individual, making a good learning space in that area; so the issue is to give good frames for learning.

[GA:] Picking up on what Bruno (BC) says, this is a case for legislation, it is an entitlement of people. I don't care whether some organisations are going to be opposed to that. If we consider this as a social entitlement or we consider it as an economic imperative to boost learning within it, then the atmosphere for that is not going to be to challenge grants for this or that; the point is that this is to entitle and to empower the individual to access learning spaces, not actually to legislate on the company side but to empower the individuals too. That is essentially what has been done in France very successfully, giving workers a right to get time for learning. Coming back to the discussion about the LO I think we could conclude that LO theory came and went in interesting ways, and probably for the future development we could do with a better title, because I think the past title is now actually hindering the development of a series of interesting debates.

[NB:] I think it helps to look at what is happening in the context of the business situation and the business process. A lot of organisations have pursued becoming a LO as part of an overall business strategy to improve their competitiveness. The key part of that is downsizing. In that company they have to have 2000 employees, they run this as bureaucratic factory, they engage in organisational learning, and when they have been threatened with one of the periodic crises they can either go out of business or they could cut their cost, and the way they cut their cost is getting rid of staff, so they moved from 2000 employees to 850, and the 850 do the same work as the 2000 used to do. But for that to happen they've got to learn all the time, so they are constantly swapping jobs, learning another kind of job. So learning comes in as a device for coping with a much smaller staff structure.
 There is evidence for this in the classic literature. Various people who introduced this concept in the United States said things like we didn't originally do it with learning in mind, we just tried to cope with the problem we had, and then we realised that people had to learn all the time, and it's a sort of reaction to that. So you could argue that the LO stresses learning because this is the only way to deal with the downsizing problem.
    In that particular company they have outsourced most of their operational activities to contractors or to subsidiary companies. This is where the question of what is the organisation comes in. Actually it sums up to many different companies. So when you go to one of these, it has got a different name and the employees there work on a minimum wage, and they do not participate in the learning that the core employees all get, so they do not get any of the advanced organisational learning or training as the 850 get, who are on very high wages. Also on the company site there used to be employees who did the building maintenance; all that has been outsourced to contractors, so they still work on the site but they are not technically employees of the company, and they have much lower wages. This is how the company has improved its competitiveness: the same work has been done with people on lower wages, while the benefit goes to the 850 people. 
    I think that these 850 are involved in genuine learning, they grow as individuals, but the question is what happens to the rest. That is a question you have got to ask about the whole workforce. As far as the 850 are concerned they are not really being exploited, they are participating in a knowledge-creating activity. If they wanted a degree the company would pay for them to do a degree in the company time and so forth. So that is very good, but the ethical question is: if you extend this model to the whole economy then the bulk of the workforce are getting very poor learning opportunities and very low wages, and this is why it is working. You may say this is ok, this is what happens in a capitalist economy, but maybe it is not equitable policy. As far as lifelong learning is concerned if you are one of those people trapped in the outsourced companies they get very little opportunity for any kind of learning whatsoever because their companies are operating on a basis of minimal costs, and everything is cut to the bare bone, they have no training budget. 
    So the question for me is a major policy issue: should this be the way the economy is going? Actually it is a European industrial policy to go in this direction. We know the European policies are creating a massive polarisation of the labour market. this is where I think we ought to be asking the question: do we want that Europe of the future where a small number of people got very good jobs in LOs and large numbers of people are excluded from that?

[LM:] And you then find the gender and the race take care...

[GA:] I think Nick put a nail in the coffin of the assumption that organisations would benefit from learning, that they would introduce this because they think if they provide learning opportunities for all employees they are going to get richer they won't. That is junk. We can also see that deregulation is creating increasing turmoil, and politically this will become a big issue. We only need to look at World Com, this is the tip of the iceberg, there will be many more like that, because companies are being allowed to do what they want, which affects all areas of their operation. 
    I think the challenge for educationalists is: can we reconnect? My reaction is to say: empower the individual. This is the only realistic option in the present circumstances, because I can't see any way of working  with companies in the present state they are in. But can we reconnect educational learning to organisational theory and redevelop some concepts about learning or is that hopeless at the moment?. The way deregulated capitalism is operating makes it fairly impossible to come up with any meaningful ideas of learning which interact with the organisational forms that companies are taking.

[MKe:] We need to think what we as educational researchers can do to explain organisational phenomena. I think the concept of the LO is one explanation, it has moved on in 25 years and we must study it in the next few as well.

Reference Cressey et al. 2001. Cressey, Peter; Kelleher, Michael. The conundrum of the learning organisation - instrumental and emancipatory theories of learning? In () Nyhan, Barry et al. Organisational innovation and learning: European perspectives on the learning organisation. CEDEFOP (forthcoming).
Kelleher et al 2000, Kelleher, Michael; Cressey Peter. The active roles of learning and scoial dialogue for organisational change. CEDEFOP, Vocational Training, No. 21 September December, p 41 - 48
Event CEDRA: Stirling July 02
Descriptors D-LO  EP09          V19
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO