Are "Teams" a meaningful unit of learning? LO13363

Stever Robbins (
Wed, 23 Apr 1997 09:28:09 -0400


Please forgive me if this topic has been discussed before. I only
recently started following the list again.

I'm becoming involved in a consultancy which specializes in helping teams
learn. In getting my bearings, I'm wondering what it means for a team to

I understand what it means for an organism to learn. The organism can do
something afterwards that it couldn't do before. All the major subsystems
of the organism may be involved in carrying out the learning, but there's
a central locus where much of the critical learning resides. Most learned
things can still be done if missing a finger or a limb or a kidney, but a
brain is always necessary. (Though components certainly learn, in the
form of muscle development, callouses on fingers, more fine-grained
control, etc.)

Organizations have learned when they can do something new (e.g. a new
product, or new rate of innovation) they couldn't do before. Structurally,
they seem similar to individuals. Whether that's inherent, or whether
we've set them up this way on purpose, there's always a locus of control
at the top. Even in so-called "learning organizations," projects that
self-directed teams come up with must be approved by upper management,
etc. When the layoffs come, it's still this upper locus of control which
sticks around, and it's the "fingers" that get laid off.

While individual learning is certainly necessary in a learning
organization, the upper management will completely make or break the
learning. Similar to a brain, it has to be there (often called "buy-in")
in order for a learning organization to work at all.

Teams don't seem to reflect this structure. The teams I've seen and read
about which could be called "learning teams" really aren't changing their
output very much. Most of them are changing how quickly they achieve it,
or how well they work together. Possibly, they stop bickering quite so
much. And most team building activities I've seen involve team
coordination or things like "trust." But they hand-wave the questions on
my mind:

What does it mean for a team to have learned something?
Where is the locus of that learning? (If it's in "the relationships
between the team members," then which relationships are we
talking about, and how do relationships store the learning?)
If I had a "learning" team in front of me, side-by-side with a
non-learning team, how would I tell them apart?

Any ideas?

- Stever
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Stever Robbins <>

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