Re: Bottom-up approaches LO139

Mariann Jelinek (
Thu, 16 Feb 1995 22:19:55 -0500

Michael McMaster wrote in LO75:
>I've noticed in a few communication in this conversation that care has
>been taken to distinguish organisational learning from "the learning
>organisation". I think this is useful distinction.


>The final inquiry I find most interesting is to explore the distinctions
>between organisational learning and individual learning. Most efforts
>seem to be exploring organisational learning as the sum of individual
>learning. The view of organisations as complex adaptive systems suggests
>that learning can take place at a level far beyond the sum of the

This was a problem I struggled with in writing my dissertation,
'way back in 1979. What I came to was the idea that one could usefully
speak of "organizational learning" if and only if the learning (which had
to initially be an individual phenomenon, although individualS could assist
one another and learn together), were accessible to others not originally
part of the party. That is, is I learn something, and then my learning is
somehow captured and made accessible to others in the organization, who use
this learning, then we've got organization learning. (Published in M.
Jelinek, INSTITUTIONALIZING INNOVATION, 1979 (!) - ye gods, that makes me
feel old!)
Back then I was fascinated by an organization that seemed to quite
effectively marshall the learning resources of its people, succeeding in a
number of important innovations. Subsequently, that organization, TI, Texas
Instruments, was both praised and blamed, experiencing both successes and
serious failures. The system's methods were both "bureaucratic"
(procedures, rules and templates for addressing innovation efforts) and
"cultural" (norms and beliefs and attitudes that supported learning). The
system succeeded when the culture continued to support investigation and
the procedures rewarded candor; it fell into difficulties when procedures
were perverted to "punish those who didn't succeed" (thus increasing the
risk level and driving innovation out) and the culture became cynical.
TI wasn't the only high technology firm that had such experiences;
indeed, the "best" of the high techs, those that continue to develop new
and better ideas and products, those that succeed against the competition,
are those that continue to keep the faithin the value of learning. More
specifically, those that continue to reward and cherish the truth-tellers
and information sharers, seem to prosper; those that reward the bearers of
good news only, and suppress information sharing, seem to fail. A key
issue: maintaining organizations' penchant for learning (creating the
learning organization, as opposed to creating organization learning) means
addressing the entropy, expediency and discomfort that encourage
replicating the past while shutting down learning and thus the future.
It's old news that innovation and learning are "unnatural acts" and
thus illegitimate in many organizations because the underlying philosophy
for the past century has been hierarchical, rooted in assumptions of
control (of "those below" by "those above"), permanence (according to the
rules, the records and so on), and stability. The new inquiry, it seems to
me, is how to build an organization that encourages on-going inquiry (but
yet somehow brings people together in coordinated activity). The dynamic
tension between stability and control, and between making use of the past
and calling past insights into question, are at the heart of the matter.


Mariann Jelinek
Richard C. Kraemer Professor of Business
Graduate School of Business,
College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23185

Tel. (804) 221-2882 FAX: (804) 229-6135