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06 August 2000

The Organization That Learns

The Learning Organization has become very popular concept in the early 1990s. There were many organizations trying to implement this concept. Some are successfully implementing it, but some are not being able to do so. Many studies have and are being done to evaluate the experiences that those organizations have in implementing the concept.

This concept is considered as one of the important concepts that colored the 1990s' world of management. This is a concept that challenges the organizations to enhance their productivity significantly through a radical change of their organizational culture within the world of uncertainty.

The article from Fortune Magazine written by Walter Kiechel III, on March 1990 is one of the milestones of the long journey of the learning organization concept. We can clearly see how this concept has been developed and discussed in the early 1990s. The writer obviously described some experiences on how the concept of the learning organization has been put into practice from some organization and discussed the problem occurred and sometimes gave some practical solutions.

The writer begins his article with the main problem that organization faced at that period of time. The 1980s was the period of "restructuring" where over half of the FORTUNE 500 has tried to restructure themselves. And the shock came in the early 1990s when surprisingly those restructuring process just seems to go on and on, without any tendency to stop. Is there something wrong?

The intellectuals then come with the thought that involves a paradigm shift called the learning organization. The concept offered to build organization that accommodates radical change around them and also a solution to increase their capacity in facing the change.

The article describes perfectly some thoughts on the ideal form of a learning organization. The first is that an organization that learns is the place where most of employees are empowered, and with their important roles, the organization will have the so-called corporate loyalty. The second, the learning organization will become coping with, and capitalizing on, uncertainty. The model of organization that "will treat the unexpected as an opportunity to learn, not as a mistake." The third, that in such organization, people thoughts are not far from the ideas of continuous improvement because it is believed as the way to increase the efficiency if it is done constantly.

The critical points, which should be taken care of seriously in implementing the learning organization, are explained with a wide example taken from some major companies in the US.

Sue Miller, a consultant, explained that in order to maximize the individual learning, the organization must design the job that help the holder to develop him or herself to reach the further stage of development, rather than to get a suitable person in a rigidly defined job.

The writer than stressed an idea on how important the middle managers are in an organization. These managers play a major role in maintaining the learning process in the entire organization. In the future, managers will have the responsibility more to be a coach rather than to be a boss. Paul Banas, corporate employee development maestro at Ford said, "Middle managers have a wealth of information that needs to be spread throughout the organization." These managers are expected to accelerate the creation of information from above and below their positions.

The learning organization will not work, unless people feel free and safe in expressing their ideas about things that they have learned. And at Honda, where the writer claimed as one of the successful enabler of the learning organization, its way of life is characterized with closeness, communication and frankness at all levels. These aspects then are the very basic foundation of the organization that learns.

Many challenges appear from this article in achieving the real learning organization. The important one is the involvement of cultural change of an organization. A vast change is needed, from the traditional way of thinking where working is considered as a different part of learning to a new form of working and learning as an integral part.

The idea of empowering more to middle managers also regard as a very tough work to accomplish. Since the traditional habits are not in favor of developing them seriously, the priority in competence development is usually for the workers at the lowest level, since the skill is considered as most needed at that level. Again, this effort will not be simple, because it involves the change of habits.

Yet, the learning organization is not an impossible dream. Some organization has proved that this concept is applicable to be done, and it also proven to be able to increase the effectiveness of the organization, which Honda has experienced. A little extra effort is required to execute this concept.

Buffalo, August 6, 2000

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