The Critical Dimensions of Organizational Learning

The most gratifying response to one-on-one coaching is the
enhanced potential for success. It should come as no surprise that
what’s true for individuals is definitely not true for organizations. 

In a long-term coaching and mentoring relationship with a senior
client it’s readily possible to figure out the disruptions and the
political changes new competencies may bring. At the same you’re able to
help the executive make the necessary adaptations required by new
skills. But that’s a very different story when it comes to
organizations. 

Bike learningMy
checkered history of working with volunteers and non-profits before
going into corporate consulting positioned me to be very skeptical about
organizational change. If volunteers don’t like the changes you’re
trying to make, they’re gone, buddy. And you’re left holding the bag.
The political ramifications of working with volunteers and non-profits
often require almost god-like insights. So truthfully, even though some
had suggested that corporate America would be easier to work with, I
kept my skepticism in place.  That was a smart move. 

Organizations require a much more thoughtful and methodical learning
model than individuals. I’ve worked with brainy individuals who, upon
receiving extensive feedback, could talk very quickly about the changes
that implied. They’d run off to try them on and come back three weeks
later telling me what worked and what didn’t. We could easily fine tune
and they’d come back in a few weeks, successful change in place. 

But organizations require a better model. That’s why I’ve found
Crossan, Lane and White’s model of the 4i’s to be a cool way to think
about and plan for organizational learning. Here are its basics: 

Intuiting.  This is that “pre-conscious recognition”
that there are some potentially better patterns or ways of doing
things. Pre-conscious recognition is a nagging or gnawing that something
is not working as well as it should, or it should work better than
this, or we’re not getting the best possible results. It usually starts
out with frustration, and eventually some individuals develop novel
insights and language to talk about that nagging. 

Interpreting. Organizational learning often looks to
be more sequential than individual learning. I suspect, though, that
often there are a lot of simultaneous things happening. Don’t get hung
up on sequence.  Anyway, after intuition comes the explaining, through
both words and actions, of the insights of intuition. We explain both to
ourselves and to others in the process of interpreting. I think of it
as “bouncing” ideas or explanations off others to clarify and refine the
interpretations. 

Integrating. This is the first process that occurs
at the group level. As Crossan puts it, it is “the process of developing
shared understanding among individuals and of taking coordinated action
through mutual adjustment.” You’ll find the group going through a great
deal of sorting, analyzing, discarding and adding before they begin to
integrate the needed actions. 

Institutionalizing. This is where the learning that
has occurred both among individuals and groups is transferred into
organizational institutions and on to the members of the organization.
Over the years two of my clients—very different organizations—showed
themselves to be masters of institutionalizing. They were the 3M
Corporation and American Express Financial Planners (now Ameriprise).
Once 3M research and development has gained significant new learning,
they formalize it and make it available throughout the company. Of
course, often those ideas are kept under wrap and key as intellectual
property. But the information is networked throughout the needs of the
corporation. Someone always knows who has the learning or where to go
for it. In very different fashion, Amex used extensive training to
institutionalize learning. They were so effective at institutionalizing
learning, that competitors were inevitably attempting to steal their
employees. These two organizations represent vastly different kinds of
institutionalizing processes. Yet both were very successful. 

What I haven’t alluded to in this blog is the very relevant issue of
the politics of organizational learning. That’s an issue that can’t be
omitted–one I’ll get to at a later date. 

Photo by Sean Dreilinger, Flickr.com

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