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What is organizational learning?
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By steve
Oct. 15, 2013 12:01 a.m.

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers

Our discussion thus far has focused on individual learning with an organizational context. How, though, does an organization learn new skills?

An organization is, in a very real sense, not an actual physical entity. It is a conceptual construct held together by bonds of common purpose and culture. As we already know, culture is in the minds of the people who make up that culture. Learning, as we already discussed, is a change in behavior. Organizations achieve lasting, permanent behavior change when the lessons being taught are incorporated into the culture and organizational narrative of the organization: in other words, when people not only learn the lessons being taught, but also view those lessons as part of being successful in the organization. Culture is the residue of success, after all, so when we enable people to learn new skills, give them opportunities to exercise those skills, and demonstrate that those skills, or other lessons learned, are routes to success, we start to encode that information in the culture. The more visible those successes, and the more they are publicized, the faster they will be encoded.

People can exercise their skills publically or privately. They can be successful in their own little corner of the world, or their successes can be shown to others. If we want the organization to learn, that is, to change large scale behaviors, we have to show the successes. If the goal is to spread a particular methodology, then the information the organization disseminates needs to explicitly connect the new methology with success. If the goal is to teach flexible problem solving, then what gets publicized needs to be the exploration, experimentation, and loss cutting behaviors that enable flexilibility.

A key part of organizational learning is moving from people using their skills individually to using them together. Remember that the point of an organization is that it is a community with a purpose: to accomplish that purpose requires that people learn to work together smoothly. In other words, we want to create the high performance teams we discussed earlier. Just as an individual baseball player’s ability to hit, throw, or field are important parts of the game of baseball, it is the ability of the team to coordinate those behaviors and support one another that makes or breaks a team.

Organizational learning is thus the act of spreading success throughout the relevant portions of the business. This is an aspect of organizational growth and change. It is usually a gradual process, although we will look at ways of speeding it up. First, though, we need to understand the role of accreditation in cementing learning and status and in defining something as a success.

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