Okay, what is a LO? LO22756

John Gunkler (jgunkler@sprintmail.com)
Tue, 28 Sep 1999 11:51:35 -0500

As I read Gavin Ritz's recent list of things that a LO cannot do
(Behavioral Competencies for LO LO22741), I realized [again -- for the
95th time] how far apart we all are in our personal definitions of
"learning organization." The most startling realization, for me, in
Gavin's list was the he (I apologize, Gavin, if I'm wrong) sees a LO as
being some kind of sub-group within a larger organization, something like
a "learning department." Is that how others see LO's?

Perhaps it is time, once again, to initiate a dialogue about what we see
learning organizations to be. I'll start, just to see if anyone else
wants to do this.

A "learning organization" is, fundamentally, an organization that learns.
That doesn't seem to say much, does it? But yet it does rule out the "LO
is a department" kind of thinking, doesn't it? Because it does not say
that a LO is an organization with a special department -- although it may
have one -- but, rather, that the organization accomplishes something that
we label "learning."

The first problem we have is in defining "learning." I don't want to get
hung up here. Let me suggest that we might be able to agree about one
important feature of "learning" and leave the haggling about details for
some other time.

The one important feature has been described in similar terms for more
than 60 years by psychologists researching learning. For example, E.R.
Guthrie wrote in 1935: "The ability to learn, that is, to respond
differently to a situation because of past response to the situation ...."

A somewhat more recent (1971) textbook, by Melvin Manis, declares that
"the term 'learning,' as it is used here, ... is typically defined as a
relatively permanent behavioral change that results from practice."

Jean Piaget, although pursuing a somewhat different purpose in his
research with young children, makes a distinction between "learning in the
narrow sense" and "development." As described in a commentary by Ginsburg
and Opper, "[Learning in the narrow sense]involves the mere acquisition of
specific responses to particular situations. Such learning is
superficial: it is unstable, impermanent, and unlikely to generalize."
On the other hand, "development ... results in genuine learning." That
is, to the point of this discussion, for Piaget's "genuine learning" (as
described in John Flavell's (1963) classic work on Piaget) "behavior
change from less to more advanced functioning is the primary datum."

The Dance of Change book explicitly makes this connection between
"learning" and "change." At one point Senge writes about "learning
capabilities" (p. 45) that they "enable people to consistently enhance
their capacity to produce results that are truly important to them. In
other words, learning capabilities enable us to learn."

There is one more thing to sort out. Why do we need to include terms such
as "because of past response" and "relatively permanent" and
"consistently?" "Performance" is the term used to describe what we have
been calling "response to a situation." As Hilgard put it (back in 1948),
"Learning always must remain an inference from performance ...." That is,
we look at how something responds ("performs") now and compare it with how
it has performed in the past -- and if we see a "relatively permanent"
change in that response we infer that learning has occurred. "Relatively
permanent" means that we are distinguishing genuine learning from other
"momentary" causes of difference in performance -- things such as (in the
case of an individual) fatigue, motivation, and differences in the context
(the world in which the performance is occurring.)

Let's put this all together. What we mean by "learning" is an inference
that the subject being discussed is now capable of responding differently
to its world than it was in the past, as a result of its past experiences.

Okay, now the fun part. What does it mean to say that an organization

I, for one, do NOT mean only that individuals within the organization
learn. I mean that the organization . [Yes, yes -- of course, the
organization is composed of people, and it is people who actually do
things that create the collective "organizational" response. Let's not
get hung up on this. However, I am saying that I believe there are
"emergent" features of the collective organizational response that are not
seen in individuals' responses within the organization. I'm interested in
these emergent features when I'm talking about learning organizations.]

So, while I'm happy to see organizations that are trying to become places
where individuals can learn (more easily, "better," etc.), that is not
enough (for me) to call them "learning organizations." For me an
organization becomes a learning organization when its (collective)
performance capabilities change as a result of its past experiences.

You're not a learning organization if all you do is hire a bunch of people
with new or improved capabilities. Nor are you a learning organization if
all you do is foster individual learning that does not materially affect
the behavior of the organization as a whole.

However (my final thought for now), I would like to add one requirement:
I would like to see a definition of what constitutes a "learning
organization" to include not just the fact that organizational learning
occurs: I think learning organizations must also be in the process of
improving their capability of learning (changing) in the future.

So, for me (for now), what is takes to be a learning organization
includes: (1) the organization learns (responds differently in the
future, as an organization, as a result of its experience in the past);
and (2) the organization learns how to learn.

There -- that is enough for a start. I'll watch the responses, and our
collective learning, with much interest.

John W. Gunkler


"John Gunkler" <jgunkler@sprintmail.com>

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