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HR Facilitates the Learning Organization Concept

November 1, 1994
Laura Gilbert becomes passionate when she talks about her company as a learning organization: A place she defines as having a proactive, creative approach to the unknown, encouraging individuals to express their feelings, and using intelligence and imagination instead of just skills and authority to find new ways to be competitive and manage work. Because she's aware of fancy rhetoric around the topic, she's adamant that being a learning organization isn't a trend but a way people think about learning, relate to each other and connect to their organization.

As human resources manager at Minnesota Educational Computing Corp. (MECC), she and her colleagues have been thinking about learning-and learning new ways to think-since 1991. Undaunted by the magnitude of the changes they hope will evolve, Gilbert and colleagues try to make the concepts of the learning organization a reality in their company. In the book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge explains why: "As the world becomes more interconnected, and business be-comes more complex and dynamic,... organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people's commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization."

These organizations create corporate structures where "people expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people continually are learning how to learn together."

MECC's approach to developing a vision statement illustrates this philosophy. In fall 1993, management came together at the company's annual retreat. But instead of the CEO developing a mission statement and delivering it unilaterally to be received by everyone passively, senior managers got together and talked about what they wanted the company to look like at the turn-of-the-century. They then imagined themselves in the year 1998 and wrote an article fashioned for The Wall Street Journal. The story illustrated how the company's "phenomenal success" in 1998 drew its beginnings from the strong foundation it laid in 1993, spelling out the company's goals and mission.

Because the learning-organization notion involves everyone and the entire system, the managers returned to MECC's staff of 180 and said, "Here's the latest to hit the press about MECC. What's your department going to do to help us attain that vision? Why does your department exist and how do you fit in?"

Each department brainstormed answers to the questions. But, they didn't leave the answers in notebooks collecting grit on someone's highest shelf. Instead, every department wrote their visions on huge sheets of paper and taped them on the walls throughout the building. Some were written in script and calligraphy; some had artwork and illustrations; some were orderly with numbers and stats; some were colored and some were plain. Many departments took their messages and posted them in other areas of the company.

The enthusiasm was palpable, and even after a month, nobody wanted to take their messages off the wall. In fact, some of the ideas went directly into marketing campaigns and product development. "This kind of exercise can't help but affect the sense of connectedness, the sense of working as a whole system and the value that each provides towards a common goal," Gilbert says.

Exploring the concepts behind the learning organization.
A prevalent notion of the learning organization is as MECC demonstrates: It's a system in which everything is interrelated; people, production and procedures are part of a whole, each affecting and being affected by the others.

But it's more than that. Senge, who is the director of the Organizational Learning Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, explains: "Really, when you look at what our work is about, it's trying to understand some of the core capabilities that might be necessary within organizations for them to thrive in the kind of world we live in today-a world where you can't predict things very precisely anymore and where you can't count on what worked in the past to work in the future... Ours is a world of increasing interdependency."

According to widely recognized pioneer thinkers such as Senge and Russell L. Ackoff, formerly of the Wharton School and chairman of the board at INTERACT, The Institute for Interactive Management in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, our traditional way of handling complexity prevents us from seeing the larger picture and from acknowledging our own connectedness to it. People have a tendency to break problems down into smaller pieces so that they're more manageable. However, the difficulty with this reductionist type of thinking is that it assumes that the sum of the parts equals the whole. Furthermore, this approach dooms us to solving problems in the same way we've always tried to solve them. And proponents of the learning organization believe that unless we find radically new approaches to solve problems, we're doomed to failure. "The essence of a learning organization is that people are changing, people are developing ways of thinking and ways of interacting that are fundamentally different than the way most people operate most of the time in most organizations," Senge says.

The basic question then becomes, "What would be the core capabilities of organizations to be able to thrive in such a world?" Many organizations start with Senge' ideas about the five disciplines (see "Senge's Five Disciplines for Learning Organizations"). Eventually they ask, "What other ways could we think? What ways could we work together?"

But each organization has to find its own way. Even Senge acknowledges that the five disciplines are a foundation but don't actually tell you where to start. To be able to implement many of these ideas, experts say it's most important to create an environment in which people can learn.

Senge cites three key elements:

  1. You need real commitment and a compelling business argument as to why it's vital to change. (In other words, people need to acknowledge that they're stuck. They need to be willing to direct a lot of energy and commitment toward something different.)
  2. You need to have a domain in which to take action. Even if 10 people agree on a plan, it's pointless if they don't have a place in which they can take action. You didn't learn to walk by sitting around and contemplating it. Learning involves the willingness to experiment. A domain allows you to practice some of the ideas so that learning can become part of an ongoing process. The whole idea of learning laboratories is to create managerial practice fields where people come together and practice as well as devise new products and services. This is much like a sports team or a theater troupe rehearsing. Learning always involves taking action.
  3. You need tools and methods so that you can put the ideas into practice. According to theorists, this element poses a big problem in trying to bring about innovation in the United States because there are very few tools we develop. "It's sobering to realize how long it takes new theories to get translated into practical tools," Senge says. One example of a tool is Toyota's philosophical commitment to quality management. When the company shifted the infrastructure of the factory so that people in the front lines were given methods to gauge quality, tools to conduct experiments and authority to stop the assembly line, the methods were made available to support the commitment and philosophy.

Finally, most theorists and practitioners in this field agree on three components: the change in mindset that's necessary for management to undergo; a creative orientation that encourages individuals to be proactive rather than reactive to situations; and an orientation toward systems thinking.

A learning organization is a philosophy, not a program.
Because it's merely a concept, how do you translate the learning organization into everyday corporate life? How are companies working with the philosophy to implement change? And what role does human resources play in such an organization?

For most HR professionals, the very idea of considering learning as something separate from a training program is asking for a fundamental mindshift. But human resources isn't alone. This mindshift is a cornerstone of the whole idea, and is required by everyone.

For this reason, learning organizations don't just happen. In fact, many of the thinkers, researchers and practitioners say a company never becomes a learning organization because by definition it means always evolving, always being in flux, always learning. In addition, there are a variety of approaches that can be applied; there's a new, basic vocabulary to learn, with phrases such as learning laboratories and dialoguing; and no pat answers. And, it involves breaking down barriers in the ideas and assumptions-or mental models-we already possess, and in the way we talk to each other.

The learning organization is so radical that many human resources people (as well as others) feel uncomfortable with it. They say it's too soft; too amorphous. Some learning-organization advocates even worry that if the human resources staff gets involved in implementing the concept that they may attempt to turn it into a program, nullifying its benefits.

"It's hard for people to think differently about integrating new knowledge," says Susan Schilling, vice president of development and creative director at MECC. "It's a challenge to look differently at your customer, at your distribution and production methods, at the way you think about developing product." But, the organizations that can generate and quickly understand new information and effectively communicate it to the staff are going to have a competitive advantage, she says. "We have to keep raising the bar and improving the quality of our work and the timeliness of our decisions."

Given a chance, the learning-organization concept is powerful. It allows for greater productivity, efficiency and idea generation. "It smells like, looks like, and often feels like soft stuff, but when you cut through that and get to the core, it provides very solid, measurable and definable tools and processes that result in real live business results," says Ron Hutchinson, vice president of customer service for Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Motor Company Inc. Indeed, if you do it right you can save millions of dollars.

Take, for example, Deerborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co. "Because of behavioral changes that we attribute to the learning-organization concept, our team was more effective, which resulted in more upfront problem resolution," says Nick Zeniuk, business planning manager in Ford's Lincoln Continental Car Program.

"As a result, we'll be able to save $50 to $65 million that we would have spent correcting late designs or rebuilding production tools," says Zeniuk.

Business people such as Zeniuk believe in the learning-organization concept not just because it's the latest buzz word, but because they're discovering that its principles can make a difference in their work.

Ford Motor Co. is a place where systemic thinking works.
Ford has been exploring the idea of organizational learning since the late 1980s. It's a place where systems thinking, collaborative learning and action learning come together. "There's a fundamental shift underway in the practice of management, and much of that is contained in the notion of systemic thinking and collaborative learning," says Victor Leo, Ford's liaison officer to MIT's Organizational Learning Center and program manager at Ford's Executive Development Center. "What's coming to the forefront is the ability to connect business functions, such as marketing, finance, product development and various staff-support activities, to see how they're interrelated and interdependent. It's causing a real shift in the way the values of the corporation are espoused and carried out."

The learning-organization philosophy began at a senior executive program in 1988 when management said it wanted to learn about thinking and how to think differently. Leo and his associates researched several of the top resources on systems thinking and collaborative learning. Within two years, 2,000 senior executives had gone through a week-long learning program that exposed them to the concepts, gave them a safe place to dialogue and opened their minds to the ideas. They accepted the concept as reasonable, but questioned how one would translate concepts into the workaday world. "We picked up the gauntlet and focused on moving from the concept to application," Leo says. He and a few other colleagues formed relationships with Senge, Ackoff and others, attended workshops and did a lot of reading. Then they looked for individuals who would begin work on applying the ideas.

Systemic thinking and collaborative learning didn't happen overnight. It required internalization of ideas and transformational change-and that required time. You can't move from machine age, or analytical thinking and individual performance, to a more systemic, collaborative view easily. You need an infrastructure where you can apply the theory, and an arena where you can practice the strategy and move away from fragmentation. In other words, you need to rehearse seeing the world (or the business) as a whole. As Leo puts it: "We constantly remind ourselves that the customer drives the whole vehicle. No one goes out and says, 'I bought this car because it had the best brakes.' " But it isn't easy to shift to that kind of holistic thinking.

Ford found several proponents who were willing to help create an arena for experimentation. One of the leading champions in the company is Zeniuk. He became interested because he believed the company could improve its product-development process. "We were managing in a stressful environment. We weren't able to get people to work effectively together until we entered into a crisis mode. We could produce excellent results, but the methods used weren't compatible with what I call learning."

Zeniuk wanted to enable more effective upfront product development to ensure the launch of a new Lincoln Continental. "When a company's style is crisis management, it tends to focus people's energies around a goal and eliminates distractions. When they're in crisis mode, people begin to understand their interrelationships and interdependencies and are able to produce incredible results. Crisis management does work, but we don't learn anything from the experience. And the future demands learning. If we can't learn, somebody else will pass us by."

Zeniuk began reading about the learning organization. In 1991, he met Peter Senge and, along with colleague Fred Simon, program manager, began working with the Organizational Learning Center. The center acted as a facilitator rather than a consultant, and insisted that Ford discover its own solutions-outsiders couldn't impose them.

Zeniuk and Simon rolled up their sleeves and with a small group (eight senior managers) worked two days at a time offsite every month for approximately eight months. They began to create situations (what they call learning labs) in which they could talk to each other about their current reality. They developed a vision of where they wanted to be and engaged the whole team in developing prescriptions for getting there. "It took us approximately eight months for the bosses to learn how to quit being bosses," says Zeniuk. "Before we could engage a team and incorporate some of the new learning, we had to eliminate the conflict that naturally existed because we thought we already had the answers. We also had to eliminate the inability to listen to each other."

MIT's Organizational Learning Center introduced the group to a slew of techniques for breaking through those communication barriers and dialoguing with each other. The tools help individuals become conscious of their assumptions. These assumptions get in the way of communicating effectively because unconscious thinking colors the way we talk and the way that we see things.

Some of the tools the group used were left-hand/right-hand conversation (the problems that occur with unspoken messages), ladder of inference (a technique that helps to specify our assumptions behind our thinking through common understanding), balancing advocacy inquiry (the dual responsibility between espousing our own position and understanding the other person's position to create a situation both people can support), creative tension (a vision-driven action) and the system archetypes (diagramming techniques that reflect recurring system behavior and develop an understanding of the most effective place to take action). They also began practicing techniques that forced them to face a lack of trust with each other, the inability to make decisions and the bias toward authoritarian management.

They discovered through the tools that these counterproductive behaviors were rooted in mistrust, fear and control. "When we began to realize this, we began to treat each other very differently. We learned to listen to each other. We got to do some serious dialoguing, which means talking to each other and not worrying about winning or losing," says Zeniuk.

After an intense eight months, they finally could ask each other what they thought-and began to feel truly comfortable to say what was really on their minds. Now that there was an effective learning team of bosses, the company designed a two-day learning lab for the rest of the people in the Lincoln Continental Car Program and trained them in groups of 25. Approximately 200 people now have experienced the learning lab, where cross-functional members of a team practiced using some of the tools to solve their day-today issues. According to Zeniuk, they came in with problems they couldn't resolve and walked out with new insight about how to resolve the issues.

One of the techniques the groups used is an aid to thinking systemically called Shifting the Burden. Here's an example of how it works. A group of development engineers were trying to lessen the noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) of a vehicle. They added reinforcements to help cut down the noise, but these added weight that increased forces on the braking system and the tires, which meant that those systems had to be redesigned. Upgrading the braking system increased the cost.

Essentially what happened was that the development engineers created a solution by shifting the burden to another group. "In the past, when one group acted to solve their issue, it usually caused a problem in another group. The resolution of these issues would be by whoever screamed the loudest, had the most clout or went to the boss the fastest." Using this technique to see how people ordinarily handled these situations, they saw that shifting the burden wasn't really helping the problem. They began to look at the systemic interrelationship because everyone wanted the car to be quieter. Everyone agreed they needed to resolve the problem and not add any weight to the car, not add cost and not jeopardize the quality.

Once people realized their goal, they brought together the brake people, the development people and the chassis and suspension people and found they could revise the geometry to resolve the issue. "In other words, they got the perfect solution by thinking systemically instead of fighting among themselves," says Zeniuk. "But, it takes time for us to become effective. It can take several years for us to not only use the tools but to become proficient at them and to get others around us to use them."

Another group within Ford leading learning-organization efforts is the Electronic Fuel Handling division. The reason? "We decided that if we were going to be competitive, we had to learn how to bring things to the customer faster than our competition. We're always trying to do the revolutionary things we need to do and figure we want to use all our energy making the best parts and not fighting over turf or back stabbing," says David Berdish, organizational learning specialist.

Berdish knows that you don't simply give people a copy of Senge's Fifth Discipline and say, "Voila, we're a learning organization. Instead, we have designed a model to look at different issues where we can practice some of the tools." They use a brainstorming technique that "forces us to surface the mental models and learn together as a team. It exhibits personal mastery as well because we have to be open and honest, which is difficult if your boss is there because you might say some things that put yourself at risk," says Berdish. "We find that it isn't always the hard stuff such as machinery breakdowns or bottlenecks in the process that get in the way of our ability to perform and learn. It's usually the soft and squishy stuff. We don't do a very good job relating to each other." So, rather than having traditional business meetings, the group spends a lot of time with people from different departments and functions trying to dialogue (speak openly). The dialogues can get intense.

For example, at one session an engineering manager said he couldn't understand why the machinery always operated on Saturday. He really meant that he felt some of the line operators didn't mind if the machinery broke down during the week because they wanted overtime pay. A union employee-one of the operators-wasn't happy about the inference and said that they wouldn't have so much trouble with the machinery if they stopped using inexperienced engineers and buying inferior material.

"It got very volatile and emotional," Berdish says. "And, we surfaced these feelings and talked and talked and talked about it." Certainly not a traditional business meeting. They realized that although they didn't even know each other, they had a very strong relationship to each other.

After all the fireworks, they were able to work together to design equipment-maintenance specifications. They invited the suppliers and discovered that they were selling the division a lot of spare parts they might not need if the machinery was handled differently.

"All these things wouldn't have surfaced if we had just allowed the tension to exist," Berdish says. As it turned out, the division is saving "a ton of money" on spare parts, and the equipment-maintenance specifications that the three people designed are going to be the prototype for the entire company. And, says Berdish, it was all designed and developed just because three people finally began being honest with each other. They were able to surface the mental models (or assumptions), dialogue around it, and see their connectedness to each other.

Indeed, Berdish is such a passionate believer in the learning-organization concept that he and the Electronic Fuel Handling Division set up a joint venture with a local community college where the faculty works to help Ford, and Ford helps them learn about becoming a learning organization. Berdish's division started in 1992 with two groups that included 38 people. By September 1, 1994, Ford had 20 teams involved (400 people) plus classes at the community college.

Harley-Davidson and Chaparral Steel: Shared vision and commitment produce bottom-line results.
Harley-Davidson Motor Co. has clear objectives when it comes to the learning organization. Hutchinson puts it this way: "For this company to be effective long term, we must have an organization in place that understands what caused prior mistakes and failures-and most importantly what caused successes. Then, we need to know how we can inculcate the successes and inculcate the preventive measures to avoid additional failures."

Lofty goals, but ones shared by many in the organization. In fact, Harley-Davidson employees will tell anyone that the company wants the ability to develop processes and people that will ensure it has the capability for rapid, effective change based on an understanding of the whole business environment in which it operates.

To do that, they realize individuals have to have a shared vision of the values they espouse as a company-ideals such as intellectual curiosity, productivity, participation and flexibility. "We also operate on such values as telling the truth, being fair, keeping promises and respecting the individual," Hutchinson says.

The motorcycle company's story wasn't always so positive. It was on the brink of extinction in the years 1982 and 1983. However, due in part to its shared vision and learning philosophy, the company has had a phenomenal turnaround. During the last three years, it has sold out its model-year products prior to the start of the model year, despite the fact that the company doubled production in the last five years.

Hutchinson began working with such concepts as the learning organization approximately three years ago. A year later, during a major strategic planning process, the management group used some of the systems-thinking tools to discuss issues in ways that they'd never been discussed before. Using tools from the five disciplines and some of the dialogue processes, the managers reached consensus around strategic direction, and rapidly assimilated it into an organizational plan.

Furthermore, creating a shared vision enabled the company to solve a major problem with its assembly facility. Because Harley-Davidson was trying to increase the number of motorcycles it produces, the managers believed they would have to build another assembly plant. Through diagramming techniques and a decision-making process that helped to identify the impact a decision had on people, on capital and on quality-and understanding people's, capital's and quality's relationships to one another-they realized that they didn't need to build another assembly plant. They could use an existing one in a different way.

"That's a succinct example where applying the tools led to a much deeper understanding of the system and a better decision on a very strategic issue about the location of production facilities," Hutchinson says.

Midlothian, Texas-based Chaparral Steel Co. also has seen that learning produces clearly definable, bottom-line benefits. At least 80% of the company's 1,000 employees are in some form of education enhancement at any one time. And the education can range from psychology courses at the university to metallurgy. "When you're looking at a learning organization, you have to take a holistic approach," says Dennis E. Beach, vice president of administration. He says you must ask, "Does it lead to improving the bottom line?"

In Chaparral Steel's case, it does. The company can measure approximately how many employee hours it takes to produce a ton of steel. When the company started, it produced a ton of steel with approximately 2-1/2 to three employee hours. During the company's 20-year lifetime, the employee hours to produce the same tonnage has decreased to approximately 1-1/2. Even more dramatic, the average in the United States is six employee hours.

Many factors go into that productivity-education, participatory management, compensation structure, technology. It's all intertwined. However, a key factor is making a commitment to employees and developing trust between all employees at the company regardless of their positions. Managers must be coaches working toward the same goal.

Chaparral has been able to track its bottom-line benefits closely. For example, the company wasn't able to keep up with the demand for a product that comes off of a specific lathe so management determined that they needed two lathes to perform the same function. A manager approached the machinist who operated the lathe and gave him the authority and responsibility to find an additional one. This included traveling to Japan to see what they were doing, as well as traveling to other installations in the United States. The machinist selected a used lathe that was on sale from another company and saved Chaparral approximately $300,000.

In addition to this kind of trust and shared vision, the company is committed to individual lifelong learning and operates without proposals, memos and the like around these issues. Instead, they communicate by talking to each other. "It just needs to make sense," says Beach.

Of course what makes sense in one company may not make sense in another. Every organization must find its own way. And the route may include other initiatives. For example, Harley-Davidson employed the learning-organization concept while reengineering. Others combine it with TQM efforts. "The fact that these popular theories or models have come to the forefront supports the concept that organizations truly are changing the way they think about the way to do business as we enter the new century," MECC's Gilbert says. "The main concepts of each-concern about quality, willingness to look at how all processes and work gets done, and an openness to learning at all levels of the organization and how they all work together-are critical to success of business in the coming years.

"That isn't to say that all of these models are right for all companies," Gilbert adds. "The essence of each of these is very important. However that doesn't mean that every company ought to go out and hire consultants to implement these ideas. Companies need to think about who they are and what's most important to them now as a priority. Know who you are and where to start. Know what's going to be most important in the organization."

Personnel Journal, November 1994, Vol. 73, No.11, pp. 56-66.