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The Learning Organisation: Fashionable Fad or Path to Progress

International Journal of Applied Management (ISSN: 1742-2590) Volume 1 Issue 3

Dr Treasa Hayes
DCU Business School, Dublin

Introduction

Increasing competition, globalisation of industry and environmental turbulence are constant concerns in the current literature relating to organisation theory and management. Organisations are now awash with information as more information has been produced within the last 30 years than in the last 5,000 (Bird 1996). Cumulatively all of these forces merge to form an incessant demand for change. Mayo (1996:20) captures the present operational climate of organisations rather well:

“The storms have come from east and west: storms of technological change, global market forces, cost competition, regulation and deregulation. They have wiped out whole staging points, and many roads have come to an abrupt end.”

Therefore gone forever are the days when ‘it was fashionable to make organisations as predictable as possible’ (Handy 1994:172) Given the prevailing challenging context in which organisations ‘face a tougher world’ (Handy 1989:70), there is a constant quest for new insights which will enable them to respond positively to ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ which constantly assail them. There has never been any shortage of prescriptions for achieving organisational success. Recent nostrums include ‘Excellence’ characteristics; ‘Total Quality Management’; ‘Competitive Advantage Through IT’; ‘Empowerment’; ‘Benchmarking’; ‘Corporate Culture Change’; ‘Downsizing’ and ‘Business Process Engineering’. All of these approaches share a common underlying acceptance of the need for change in organisations, in response to new demands arising from the environment. But if an organisation is to renew itself, what precisely does that entail?

Many contributors to the debate now suggest a greater emphasis on people in organisations as ‘companies realise that in order to remain competitive they must utilise their human resources more efficiently’ (Morgan A. 1996:24). In the introduction to his book Imaginization (Morgan 1993), Garreth Morgan reminds us that ‘an organisation has no presence beyond that of the people who bring it to life’. This concurs with Egan’s (1988:46) view that ‘people make things happen in companies and institutions’ while Handy (1994:152) counsels that ‘we must make people our assets’. Fisher & Torbert (1995) and Harvey-Jones (1994) stress that unless people in an organisation are transformed, the impact of change is limited. Referring specifically to organisations such as Intel and 3M which have been able to renew themselves, Bartlett & Ghoshal (1995:11) observe that the most vital requirement in this process is to rejuvenate people:

“After the ‘slash-and-burn organisational restructuring of the past decade, one thing is becoming increasingly clear to managers: if a company is ... to develop the ability of continuous self-renewal, it’s real battle lies ... in changing individual organisation members’ behaviours and actions.”

Therefore it seems that if organisations are to respond successfully to rapidly changing circumstances, this process is dependent on the people in the organisation to forge the new path to progress.

It is suggested by scholars that one way of facilitating this process is to create a learning organisation (L/O) where ‘people are continually learning how to learn together ‘ (Senge 1993:3). In fact McKergon (1994:16) reports that ‘learning, both by individuals and in organisations, is proving to be one of the key business topics of the 1990s’. One cogent reason for this focus on learning is that it is seen as a means of gaining competitive advantage. As Mayo (1995:14) reports ‘the pace of change needed in today’s world makes flexibility and rapid effective learning key competitive advantages’, a view endorsed by Black & Synan (1996) and Goleman (1996). This working paper explores the concept of the ‘learning organisation’ (referred to hereafter as L/O), examining its contours and its potential in enabling organisations to meet the challenges of the demanding milieu in which they now operate.

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