Why a Learning Org? Replies #1 LO13

Richard Karash (rkarash@world.std.com)
Sun, 5 Feb 1995 00:11:37 -0500 (EST)

Thank you to all who have replied so far! I can see that the composite
will be very interesting. I have reproduced the replies to date in this
long message (below).

If you have more to add, please email to learning-org@world.std.com and I
will summarize as I have with these.


My original querry was:
Date: Sun, 29 Jan 1995 22:21:48 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Why a Learning Organization??

Why a Learning Org?? Why bother... It *does* take effort. Why do we want
learning organizations? On a personal level, why do you want to build
learning organizations? Why do you want your own organization to be more
of a learning organization?

My own personal answers are 1) it's a way for our organizations to have
higher performance *and* be more personally satisfying to the people, and
2) it's part of a very deep human drive to improve. But, what are your

I am working with a group to create a collage of responses, and we hope
to capture the widest range of views. I will collect responses and post a
combined response here. My colleagues in the group are soliciting
responses from others, including the MIT Organizational Learning Center.

Our aim is to link together the various consitituencies interested in the
learning organization by finding people who can serve as the connecting
links. Are you the connecting link to some other group? If so, please
solicit their responses too.

Please send all responses to learning-org@world.std.com with the title
"Why a Learning Organization?"; I will collect them and post a combined
response. We intend to use all answers without attribution to
individuals, and I will assume it will be OK to use answers to this query
in our assemblage which may be circulated outside this list.

Richard Karash ("Rick") | (o) 508-879-8301 | Mac * Flying
Innovation Associates, Inc. | (fax) 508-626-2205 | Systems Thinking
3 Speen St, Framingham MA 01701 | rkarash@world.std.com | Std. Disclaimer


We asked Art Kleiner (who orchestrated the writing of Fifth Discipline
Fieldbook) if he knew of any writing or researching of our question "Why
Learning Organizations?" Learned that Fieldbook had originally a lengthy
section on the same question, framed with the title "Why Bother?"
Graciously Art has faxed the original text (Thanks Art!)

Organizing ideas of the "Why Bother?" section were to have been:

-Because we want superior performance and competitive advantage
-For customer relations
-To avoid decline
-To improve quality
-To understand risks and diversity more deeply
-For innovation
-For our personal and spiritual well being
-To increase our ability to manage change
-For understanding
-For energized committed work force
-To expand boundaries
-To engage in community
-For independence and liberty
-For awareness of the critical nature of interdependence
-Because the times demand it


The BIG Q: Why a Learning Org?? Why bother... It *does* take effort.

I'm engaged in two projects based on turbo-charging the information
executives get from IS systems. Both are focused at least in part on
using the i from WWW and the Internet for strategic planning purposes.
However, getting the i is only part of what the executive needs. The
missing ingredient is what to do with it (it being the i for information).

At the executive level, and this comes from 16 interviews so far at the
mid--level VP to Senior Executive VP's and COO's, it has become a question
of, "Ok, we know what information we think we need, but how do we get it?"
Executive Information Systems are the answer to that q. This is followed
by "Ok, we got the information now what do we do with it?" This is not
yet answered by a system so is covered piece by piece in analysis,
individual and team guesswork. Then comes a disturbing q by thoughtful
executives, "Are we sure this is ALL the information we need?" If one's
not careful paralysis sets in--this is not new to executive management.

The world has become more competitive, I can't verify with a citation, but
if you doubt this then I pity you. Hyper competition is extant in more
industries. Trade barriers both structural and cultural are waning.
Given this, executives are faced with overload as demonstrated by the
three questions above. A good example of dealing with this information
load can be found in Thurman Rodgers work at Cypress Semiconductor. An
elaborate goal setting system for every employee that is easily accessible
by all executives with certain automated features to remind one of goals
past due. His book is "No Excuses Management". It contains demonstration
software and I recomend it highly.

The learning organization is one response to this, and i suspect, without
trying to be melodramatic, soon to be a question of survival for many
firms. The executives simply are not capable of knowing the same % of the
firm's secrets and knowledge as they were 5 or 10 years before, but they
have greater access to the information of the firm than ever before. I
suspect an indicator of this is the mean age of executives in affected
industries getting younger.

What this means is the new skill being developed by executives is not only
accessing the information, but also in synthesizing it into understanding
and actions. Multiply this out to several levels of the corporation
because of flattening organizational hierarchies accomplished over the
last decade and you've got a prescription for executive headaches induced
by stress.

A solution, maybe not the best, is to push the organization's learning
about itself, and I'll use the zen metaphor for learning (the full tea cup) to
stress that it is unending, just like it was 20-30-100-300 years
ago, but the pace of unlearning has increased--that is the tea is
poured faster, sometimes faster than one can drink.

Sorry for the length, as always, had I had more time.......


IMHO, the entire concept, as well as most other approaches to
organizational change, is about GAINING COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE. But, the
basic difference is that the learning org. concept is based on the
"resource-oriented" school of thought in strategy, i.e. that the question

[NOTE: IMHO = In my humble opinion...]


Because we need a different way of viewing the process of conducting
activity in a business environment and of achieving change within that
environment. Our existing views and ways of understanding are not keeping
up with the realities of that environment nor with our own belief system
which defines that environment.


My answers:
- Its more fun to go to work in learning organizations.
- Learning organizations give people hope that things can be
- Learning orgs provide a playground for creative ideas
- Learning orgs provide a safe place to take risks with new ideas and
behaviors *and* the challenge needed to stretch beyond perceived limits
_ In learning organizations everyone's opinions are valued and amount that
people can contribute is not determined by position in the organization


Because it's 'in touch' with a fundamental part of our humanity - to learn,
to improve our environment, to be active actors, not passive recipients.


A company ceo from The Executive Committee once define a team as a place
"where I go to have my answers questioned"...seems LO's provide the same


-- embrace and implement the vision of sustainable communities
and organizations.

I think another driver towards organizational learning is change. It's
been said a lot but the greatest constant of modern time is change. With
regards to the organizations we are in, change consistently challenges
traditional institutional practices and beliefs. Most important, most of
the changes we now struggle to comprehend arise as consequences, intended
or unintended, of created in some way by the folks from the orgnanizations

What is required then, given this constant state of change are fundamental
new ways of thinking and acting. The most compelling of which is Systems
Thinking, or "the ability to see the world as a complex system." This
kind of thinking inspires people to say things like:in "you can't just do
one thing" and "everything is connected to everything else."

Another one for the list:

-- develop the practice of life-long learning

The question is: how do we continually learn, if change is a constant?

That leads to barriers to learning, what stops us from learning? :

Defensive routines
Dynamic complexity of systems
Inadequate and imbiguous outcome feedback
Misperceptions of the feedback
Poor interpersonal and organizational inquiry skills

If we could collectively see and to some extent overcome these barriers,
the environment, our families, our communinities and our organizations
would all dramatically improve -- another reason for pursuing
organizationa learning,


Great question.

I can't help but answer rhetorically.

Why not have a learning organization?

Its not up to anyone to answer but those who want it. Otherwise, in my
opinion, its someone else's organization. I may be wrong here, but the
only way that there isn't a tradeoff between higher performance and
individual satisfaction is when individuals decide that they will do
what they love, be driven by THEIR drives to learn, and collectively
create a higher performing, by traditional as well as their own
measures, organization.


One of the most compelling answers I've ever heard came from client. He
was able to answer quickly and clearly, "to be free."

It reminded me of the "I want to live on a green planet!" story. He had a
rich representation in his mind of what "freedom" meant (and what its lack


I choose to contribute to human evolution, to stretch the fabric of our soul.
Not knowing how, I choose to learn with others, to start where I am.

Where I am becomes a learning organization the moment I preceive it to be one,
as I share insights with others. It is born with the discovery that together
we can contribute to evolution, that not knowing how to stretch- together- we
can each learn how.


Summary: Because it is our heritage and our promise to do so and when it
works it is transformative. (And when it doesn't work it is a bummer!)

My reasons for supporting a learning organization are similar to yours,
Rick, but I would change the term "improve" to the terms "learn, play,
and achieve mastery". I think that the work by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
on intrisic reward (see _Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience_ for
a good laypersons summary) has much to contribute to understanding that
deep human drive. My years spent as a pre-school teacher were invaluable
to my observation and understanding of that drive in action. To that I
would throw in some intimations of Teilhard de Chardin's notion of
"complexification" (at personal, organizational, community, and cosmic
levels) for the "big picture" of systems at work, and a bit of
the "new science" concepts (a la Margaret Wheatley and others) and the
ancient eastern traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and especially Taoism
(the Tao Te Ching is an essential example). I figure if all of these
various sources can be in some sort of resonance, we are probably on to
something good!


Because it is only natural, i.e. in keeping with human nature.


The old way is for senior managers to do all the thinking
while everyone else "wields the screwdrivers". The old
way works, but doesn't tap the greater energy available
when the team is fully engaged. Tapping into this energy
can result in improved products and services for customers,
and an improved work environment.

The learning organization approach is a new way that promises
to tap into this energy.

Any approach that increases joy in work and the quality of
products and services raises the overall quality of life.


I'm only interested in learning organizations insofar as they:

(1) provide people with more satisfying lives, so they are happier,
do more interesting things with their lives, and are more fun to
have lunch with; and

(2) promote systems thinking enough so we have a snowball's chance in
hell of restoring enough sanity to our motives so we don't fall into
any of the "Limits to Growth" scenarios during my lifetime. (Or
hopefully many centuries to come, though knowing the collapse may
well come while I'm around lends a bit more urgency.)


systems thinking and organizational learning is nothing new. We just have
to remember what we already know.


1. Because it offers me theory-based avenues that support me in
contributing to reducing the fragmentation in the world

2. Because the L.O. approach flows out of and speaks to the deepest human
values that I attempt to embody in my life, values such as wholeness, the
interconnectedness of all beings and things, collective endeavour and

3. Because it channels and supports and enhances the basic (and my) human
passion to learn

4. Because it provides a rational explanation of the necessity for caring
about each other.

5. Because it offers a way to cut through some of the dead ends that have
cropped up in more "technical " approaches to organistion development, a
way that calls upon soul qualities to support,inspire and illuminate the

6. Because it provides an invitation and a rationale for building


Because I believe that there is a new level of efficiency and effectiveness
to be gained in organizations that master the intricacies of the LO. I
think it is the next level of evolution for organizations and I'd like to
help my company and mankind to get there.

--(End Replies Collection #1)-------------------