What Do We Understand by Organizational Learning?

Foerster and Porksen (1998) perceives organizations as nontrivial machines: Social systems do not work according to a linear stimulus-response pattern. Managers, researchers and counselors as well as organizations cannot see what they do not see (Luhmann, 2004; Wimmer, 2004) and therefore cannot claim true perceptions. Every system operates on the precondition of operative closeness (Maturana & Varela, 1984) carrying out intrinsically driven—for example, value and experience-based dynamics. Additionally, individuals and organizations have to select perceptions and competencies related to their specific type of business and cannot include the complexity of knowledge and processes within their own organizational structure. This automatically leads to the necessary structural phenomenon of the "blind spot" of all participants involved. Because social systems are complex and because all concerned participants have "blind spots" there is a fundamental assumption that the success of an intervention in a social system is rather unlikely (Simon, 2004, 2007; Willke, 2004). Instead of fighting against defensive routines managers are invited to learn by surveying their own "blind spots." This allows them to gain insights into benefits of so called "resistance phenomena."

We agree with the above-mentioned authors that "resistance" cannot be seen as an attribute of the client, but it refers to the observers' (counselors', managers') inability to perceive specific resources and understand the underlying background of clients' behavior (Schmidt, 2004). Overcoming this lack of perception and information resulting from the observer's blind spot allows managers and counselors to intervene in a new way, which addresses an energetic transformation process by supporting multilevel learning instead of fighting "defensive routines."

Thus, we want to confirm the outline of Willke (2004) that—related to this phenomenon of "blind spots"—organizations learn more efficiently and effectively compared to their competitors if (1) they learn how to reduce their blind spots and, therefore, (2) make clear and transparent decisions about goals of the learning process.

What Do We Understand by Management Learning?

Observing organizations as social systems we can distinguish between several subsystems, for example, "management," "experts," "functional units," and so forth. The term "management system" focuses on "management" as a specific social system characterized by its elements (first, second, third level, professional groups within management, etc.) as well as by the specific relations among these elements.

These relations are influenced by certain norms of behavior and communication: acceptable behavior and communication is promoted, while unacceptable behavior and communication is discouraged. In most cases, the main task of corporate management is to view trends within markets and to require quick changes within organizations in response to external pressures (e.g., customer demands, government regulations, etc.). The Swarovski case illustrates the tasks of corporate management related to the escalated competition between its single business units. For example, middle management has to set up the business structures and procedures, while determining what resources (budget, personnel, etc.) it will use to reach the overall strategic objectives of the business units (and the entire organization). In order to be able to reach strategic targets and to earn the "management by objectives" variable salary, they often fight against requirements of the first management level. Additionally, middle management is responsible for determining which resources and staff (and their skillsets) will be utilized for certain projects. Middle management is often stuck in the precarious position of making sure the lowest level of employees are satisfied with their work, while also productive enough in their work to satisfy the demands of higher levels of management. The Swarovski case shows that the first level of management could only win by operating with intense, internal competition, whereas middle management and specialists could only succeed through information and cooperation beyond just competition. Most of the communication patterns noted above are not meta-reflected and thereby lead to (1) charges between managers on a personal level, and (2) prejudices between managerial levels hindering mutual appreciation.

By "management learning" we understand the reflection on and transformation of communication patterns between the first, second, and third levels of management. This allows for the success of all managerial levels concerned as well as the implementation of a general strategic framework. Changes between management levels initiate transformation between different professional groups within the management system or managers representing different subsidiaries within an enterprise: strategic management and marketing or marketing and finance can step behind their functional targets in search for solutions supporting the successful work of the company. Communication patterns between levels and professional groups within a management system can implement bridges or tight borders between organizational sub systems, thus, enhancing or hindering innovation processes.

What Do We Understand by Network System Learning?

Observing network organizations as complex social systems we commonly identify different subsystems (e.g., coordinator, steering group, internal INNOnetwork, customer-network, external/internal R&D-net-work) within context-tailored network structures. System-learning focuses on the change of subsystems and the transformation of single network subsystems and the communication patterns between subsystems. This alters the rules of the game according to changed network environments (Footnote (1); Clyde Mitchell, 1969).

Many enterprises claim to "live" a culture open to innovation. Observing participants and their actions within their innovation system, most of them organize an innovation process along a top-down project management path (Stage Gate Model, Cooper, 2007) inviting different people to view different steps (e.g. to different workshops). Similar to hierarchy, external participants often remain excluded and only selected key persons are allowed to get in touch with external key persons to survey changes in mind and the activities of suppliers or competitors. Top-down (project) management often hinders the bottom-up emergence of novel inventions.

Furthermore, the boundaries between organizations actually promote the avoidance of mutual learning on an inter-organizational basis.

System learning is based on a conscious conceptualization and continuous review and adaption of (1) the mix of participants involved, (b) the network roles and rules of cooperation, and the (3) identification of key values related to operating network systems. This allows for the definition of decision criteria aimed at the selection of partners, issues and working methodologies.

Thus, the implementation of a specific combination of external and internal subsystems—following cooperative rules of network structures— allows for an increase or a reduction of diversity. And this can hinder or foster the innovation process.

What Do We Understand by Individual Leadership Learning?

By observing managers within organizations we perceive that managers have the power to stabilize or change any predominant communication pattern. Changing one's leadership effectiveness can result from both individual learning processes and searching for new answers to older problems within organizations. However, new modes of thinking and individual behaviors are often rejected because they do not fit into the existing roles and routines of enterprises. An individual never can change roles alone but needs the cooperation of a critical number of like-minded people in order to be able to implement new behavior (transformed leadership roles) on individual and organizational levels. If organizations do not demand that roles and routines change, all individual attempts to change will likely fail.

Innovation management is in need of: (1) more managers who are able to have enough freedom to be self-reflective in their managerial roles so as to help them identify hierarchical failures, (2) while at the same time creating more innovative structures that address these failures. On the other hand, a lack of a critical number of like-minded people hinders innovation initiatives in gaining momentum within an organization.

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