The Learning Organization: A Diverse Community of Knowledge Workers

Maureen S. Bogdanowicz

Kapi`olani Community College/University of Hawai`I

Elaine K. Bailey

University of Hawai`i at Manoa

Abstract:The Learning Organization and Organizational Learning have emerged as metaphors and models for successful and competitive organizations. Because the new economy is driven by knowledge, intellectual capital figures prominently in a firm's value. Knowledge workers learn from and contribute to the intellectual capital of Learning Organizations.

In the global economy of the millennium, mental adaptability, flexibility, and dexterity are the stock in trade of the life-long learner. Decades ago, Malcolm Knowles (1973) identified the adult learner, the self-motivated life-long learner. More recently, however, Business Management and Human Resource Development (HRD) have drawn on concepts in adult learning to posit the Learning Organization and Organizational Learning as metaphors for the adaptation and growth required by corporations if they are to compete in the global market (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Senge, 1990). Models of human learning have been drawn on to develop a model of organizational learning (Postman, 1976; Kolb, 1984; Bandura, 1986; Schein, 1993). Like the adult learner, the organization draws on experience, transforms information into knowledge, and puts knowledge to constructive use.

The information age of the 1990s has evolved into the knowledge age of the millennium. Knowledge has displaced traditional assets of land, labour, and capital as the principal source of industrial value (Havens & Knapp, 1999). Especially in high-tech industries, knowledge supercedes tangible assets as a necessity for a corporation to sustain a competitive advantage. Intellectual Capital, "the sum of everything everybody in a company knows that gives it a competitive edge" (Stewart, 1999, p. xix), is an elusive, intangible, but critical asset.

Knowledge and Learning

Learning is an innately human activity. Growth in knowledge, one result of learning, is a function of maturing and developing. For adults, experience plays a significant role in knowledge acquisition: Kolb asserts, "Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created by the transformation of experience" (1984, p. 38). Kolb's theory of experiential learning informs much of the literature on staff development and training. Humans bring to an organization their prior education, experience, knowledge, and skills, and as they interact within the organization, they draw on new experience to further develop their skills and knowledge, thus adding to their human capital to the value of the organization. In order to learn, they require neither organizational assets nor organizational capital, yet they can, and do, learn from their experiences in the organization. Conversely, the organization depends on individuals to draw on experience and continuously grow and learn.

Organizational Learning

Nevis et. al. (1995) differentiate between personal knowledge, possessed by an individual by virtue of education or experience, and collective knowledge, identified as organizational memory or a publicly documented body of knowledge. Much like an adult learner, a Learning Organization is said to accumulate experiences, drawing on feedback about past decisions to incrementally adjust its reactions to similar problems (Pennings et. al, 1994). Further, organizational learning is defined as "an organization's capacity to take effective action" (Kim, 1993). However, an organization cannot develop, learn, grow, or take action independently of its human capital. If the organization is to add to its intellectual capital, it must capture tacit knowledge of the individual and make it explicit in the organizational structure (Lynn, 2000). In this way, it manages knowledge; however, in order to learn, it must apply knowledge. Organizational learning links cognition and action (Crossen, Lane & White, 1999).

Until a human puts knowledge to use, it is an unvalued asset. Until a human shares knowledge within the firm, it is the individual's human capital, not the organization's. The knowledge possessed by employees represents a key source of sustainable competitive advantage for organizations (Elsdon & Iyer, 1999). Knowledge is an asset, but it is a slippery asset to value, manage, and measure. Lew Platt, former CEO of Hewlett Packard has acknowledged the dilemma: "If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as profitable" (Fryer, 1999). Intellectual capital is collective knowledge. Who collects it and who disseminates it? Successful and competitive organizations are rich in knowledge, but whose knowledge is it and who is responsible for managing it?

Organizational knowledge has been codified, stored, and managed - it is explicit, systematic, and easily communicated in the form of hard data and codified procedures (Inkpen, 1996). This contrasts with personal, internalized, tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1967). Tacit knowledge involves intangible factors imbedded in personal beliefs, experiences, and values. Internalized, tacit knowledge is not easily communicated or even readily acknowledged by those who possess it. Organizations draw on individuals' tacit knowledge when they develop and implement explicit knowledge. Nonaka (1994) writes of the spiral of knowledge creation, whereby individuals, then groups, then organizations as a whole, convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.

Attitudes toward knowledge and learning

The new millennium highlights a new reality: the knowledge worker is the critical contributor to organizational success. Individuals bring knowledge with them to the workplace, knowledge they have acquired through education, training, and experience, and, if they leave the workplace, they take with them additional knowledge acquired there. Their leaving behind any personal knowledge depends on whether or not the organization has transformed it into organizational knowledge, whether or not the organization has learned.

A recent Canadian study notes a link between human capital and value creation in North American firms. In particular, a collegial, flexible workplace is identified as a major factor in recruiting, nurturing, and retaining valuable human capital (Watson Wyatt Worldwide, 2000).

Successful learning organizations are those which minimize "barriers of distance and the product silos that usually exist in larger companies" (Hickins, 1999). Ideally, learning organizations are communities of learners, all working toward common goals. The community includes a wide range of stakeholders: owners (or stockholders), partners, vendors, and clients as well as the readily identified staff. Stewart (1998) notes that The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce has been a leader in acknowledging clients and customers as critical components of a learning organization's intellectual capital, thus extending the community of the Learning Organization.

Knowledge, human capital, and intellectual capital are valuable only when they are put into action. Learning and knowledge are reflected in performance. Industries identify best practices, and these are public knowledge, while firm-specific practices are valuable private intellectual capital (Matusik & Hill, 1998). Indeed, the concept of "performance gaps" has replaced "knowledge gaps" in the Learning Organization (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2000). There are fewer "right answers" in the global cyber-economy. Because knowledge often becomes obsolete, learning must be continuous. The old image of the learning curve no longer suffices: a curve up which learners struggle until they get over the hump and thenceforth "know" their jobs. Just as there is no "right answer" anymore, so too there is no "right way" of doing things. The new economy has moved from a "teaching by telling" to a "learning by doing" mindset (Schank, 1997).

The Learning Organization depends on life-long learners to contribute to the firm's intellectual capital and build and retain a sustainable competitive advantage. Especially in the industrialized world, growth in human capital per worker has grown in two areas: capital deepening -- individual workers have improved their performance of particular skills; and capital widening -- individual workers have increased their ability to acquire a variety of skills (Lindbeck & Snower, 2000). Again, knowledge is reflected in performance. Performance on the job is reflected in continuous learning. Generation X's attitude toward training and supervision highlights an emphasis on performance: "Tell me what to do, give me the information, and then let me create" (Tulgan, 1996). Performance support (How can I help you perform?) is preferred to training (What can I teach you?). If new practices are created and shared, then individual human capital becomes part of the intellectual capital of the learning organization.

Indeed, the learning organization must be communal. However, harsh realities of the new economy have resulted in employment practices which discourage individuals' contributing their personal human capital to the organizational knowledge pool. For many, knowledge may represent a personal, not corporate competitive advantage, a personal, not corporate, edge. How can learning organizations prosper if individuals value knowledge, but generally for personal, not corporate reasons? Corporate acquisitions, mergers, reorganizations, downsizing, rightsizing, and restructuring have affected attitudes of staff. In the new economy, employment has become intermittent and contingent; a permanent employee is an oxymoron (Greco, 1998). Consequently, individuals may view knowledge as a source of power, as leverage, or as a guarantee of continued employment. In these respects, knowledge has value for them.

The GenX Worker

Generation X has joined the workforce of the new economy. Unlike the Baby Boomers who preceded them, Generation Xers cannot and do not seek life-long employment, but they do crave life-long learning. They seek employability over employment: they value career self-reliance (Elsdon & Iyer, 1999). Over the last decade and into the millennium, attitudes toward employment and employability have altered.

The new reality is one of intermittency. This intermittency separates high- and low-demand staff, especially those newly entering or those with short tenure in the workplace. Some workers are itinerant by choice: they are in demand because their human capital is valued and valuable to employers, and they choose to change employers frequently. Others are short-term, temporary, or part-time by circumstance. They are looked upon as expenses, not as investments because their human capital is not valued by employers, and employers do not retain them in times of low growth or negative growth. A recent study (Simpson, 2000) makes econometric estimates of the long-term effects of intermittent work activity on lifetime earnings. Young workers and women are the most affected by the "great slump" of the 1990s with its declining employment rate and continuing unemployment. However, not all young workers are affected negatively by changes to the economy.

Generation Xers with high human capital, technical skills, education, learning, and experience are valuable to organizations, and they are in demand: "Never have so few been wanted by so many" (Zemke, 2000). Those most in demand, the new "gold-collar workers" are educated, smart, creative, computer literate, and equipped with portable skills (Munk, 1998). Indeed, they are free agents, and thus are perceived by life-long employees of an earlier generation as being disloyal, arrogant, unfocused, unwilling to pay dues, and not amenable to deferred gratification (Tulgan, 1996). In fact, Generation Xers are preparing for careers, not for tenure in a specific organization, and, since they cannot hope for career-long support from the organization, they are increasingly career-self-reliant. The "technologically savvy, fickle, ultramobile Generation X workforce" (Harari, 1998) value self-advancement over corporate advancement. They view their human capital as personal, not corporate, assets.

Since, on average, Generation Xers change jobs frequently, on average every 18 months (Kronenberg, 1997), a new reality has emerged with regard to firm- and industry-specific and knowledge. While long-term Baby Boomer employees may be proficient in firm-specific private knowledge, the mobile Generation Xers bring with them knowledge from a number of firms and both wide and deep human capital, but they are likely to take information from the organization with them when they leave. In fact, the challenge to knowledge management is to increase the company's intellectual capital despite the "industry-jumping, extremely mobile employee" (Vollmer & Phillips, 2000).

The Learning Organization suggests a "Come, learn with us, and stay" culture, which in reality is often a "Come, learn, and go" or even a "Come, share what you know, and we'll let you go" situation. The community of the learning organization is not stable. As the community changes, the organization must learn and grow and adapt. For individuals, the new economy implies intermittency of work: free agency for those in demand, and involuntary unemployment or under-employment for others. The Learning Organization of the millennium cannot be merely a site of contingent or intermittent employment for adult learners who place a personal, not a corporate, value on their individual human capital; it must be a diverse community of knowledge workers.


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