Organized Anarchies: 13 Steps to Building a Learning Organization

This post was originally published in the New England Journal of Higher Education

In many ways, higher education has not changed in the nearly 1,000 years since the first university was founded in Bologna, Italy in 1088. Many courses still have professors or “masters” lecturing in front of students, with exams being reproduction of facts learned in lectures. But in other ways, higher education changes daily. A brief perusal of headlines from the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed demonstrates the changing landscape of colleges and universities. Given this perpetual state of chaos, colleges and universities not only need to withstand and manage change, they need to leverage that environmental change, and sometimes even foster change to better meet the needs of diverse stakeholders. To achieve their goals, colleges and universities need to become “learning organizations.”

Coined by Richard Pascal in the 1980s, the term learning organization was popularized by Peter Senge in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline for organizations that can quickly adapt to shifts in the market and be successful. Senge wrote that learning organizations are “organizations where people continually 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 are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Thinking about organizations as learning organizations is a “systems thinking” approach, which requires consideration regarding how individuals interact with one another and with the structures of the organization. The components of this system must work in concert with each other, similar to the mechanisms of a clock or the organs of a human body, to achieve agreed-upon goals and outcomes.

(NEJHE, when it was known as Connection: New England’s Journal of Higher Education, explored “Learning Organizations” in this piece by James JF Forest, a Tufts University professor, then at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.)

In addition to effectively adapting to change, there are a number of other benefits for learning organizations identified by Capilano University Director of Continuing Studies and Executive Education Karmen Blackwood, which include: increased innovation; nimble response to external pressures; increased pace of change; greater efficiency of resources; improved effectiveness; increased staff satisfaction; supportive team environment; leadership development at all levels of organization; a culture of inquiry, learning and knowledge-sharing.

Given the benefits of learning organizations, the next question is how to create a learning organization. Senge’s Five Disciplines provide the first insights into this question. The Five Disciplines are approaches for achieving a learning organization and can be viewed as steps to transforming organizations. Each is explained below.

The first discipline is personal mastery and is a commitment of employees to individual, self-directed learning so they may do their job well.

Mental models, or assumptions regarding the world and how the organization should work, must be made explicit and tested.

A shared vision created by individuals in the organization represents a collective purpose and goals and provides direction for a learning organization.

While individual learning is critical, team learning that is aligned with the shared vision and goals is vital to organizational success.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the organization needs to be understood as a system where each component part is interconnected and interdependent upon others.

A department of education at a college can serve as an example. Each faculty member in the department has a specialty such as special education, secondary education or higher education. For personal mastery, each faculty member would engage in their professional development to increase their skill and knowledge their unique discipline. Since each faculty member is approaching teaching and advising from the lens of their discipline regarding what may be the most important topic to teach or pedagogy to implement, it is important for everyone to explicitly state assumptions to increase communication. Once these mental models and assumptions are made clear, it will be easier for the group to construct a shared vision for educating and advising students from their own personal vision. Together, as a team, the faculty can engage in professional development that will help them achieve their shared goals. Developing the academic department into a learning organization this way requires the understanding that each component of the department is part of a system. No one person is sufficient to teach students and together leveraging the strengths of each member, the faculty can provide a holistic experience that can prepare students to be educational change leaders.

In addition to the five disciplines, there are additional characteristics that learning organizations demonstrate.

Change and disruption are embraced and celebrated, not resisted, because it is seen as an opportunity for improvement. Conflict between individuals is viewed as normal. It is inevitable that people will see problems differently and also have varied solutions to problems. Rather than being avoided or quashed, conflict is acknowledged and managed effectively, as growth can arise from conflict. There is an organizational commitment to continuous improvement and learning.

Individual and collective learning is ingrained in the fabric of the organization. It is valued, expected, and made time for. Feedback mechanisms are integrated into the programs and services. Assessment is not seen as an “add-on” activity, but rather a part of everyday practice. An example would be a new course-registration process. Rather than waiting for a semester or even a year to ask students, faculty and staff about the new process, data is gathered throughout it. Data regarding the length of time it takes students to register, the number of students who register on time, and even number of calls to the IT helpdesk could be reviewed prior to surveying users.

Data results are value-free. People are not penalized or judged for poor results. Instead, negative assessment results and feedback are regarded as opportunities for improvement. Failure is encouraged and celebrated as a natural step toward success. Individuals are encouraged to learn from failure by failing fast, failing often and failing forward.

A learning organization can be large or small. It can be a one-person office, a 25-person department, a division of offices, or even an entire college or university. Using the Five Disciplines and the additional characteristics of learning organizations as a foundation, specific steps can be identified to build an organization that is constantly learning and improving.

Here are 13 helpful steps …

  1. First, the organization must be viewed as a system of interconnected parts similar to the human body. Each part of the body depends on the others.
  2. Through a process that includes everyone in the organization from custodian to president, a shared vision must be created.
  3. The team has to be developed with the 4C’s: connection, community, cooperation, and collaboration. Team members must build relationships and trust so that they can work together effectively and efficiently.
  4. Intentional spaces and opportunities for inquiry, reflection and learning must be constructed to foster a culture of learning, but also to allow learning to actually occur. These opportunities may include group brainstorming and problem-solving sessions, personal learning and individual reflection time, or reading and discussion groups.
  5. Mental models must be challenged. These unconscious assumptions regarding how the organization should operate and how issues should be addressed must be made explicit without judgment so that ways of collaborating and problem-solving can be implemented.
  6. A shared language must also be created. The organization needs a common vocabulary with a glossary agreed upon by all members so they can communicate effectively and efficiently. Collective learning is difficult if words, terms and concepts are not understood by everyone.
  7. Developmental failure must be encouraged. Failure that leads to learning should be seen an essential step to success. To be most useful, failure must be done quickly and often to reap rewards.
  8. Prototyping is one approach to intentional, developmental failure. This form of pilot testing allows an organization to learn ways to address needs and solve problems without fully scaling up a product or service. This approach also provides the opportunity to understand interoperability and impacts of the new or revised product or service on other units in the organization. An example of prototyping would be an institution that wishes to implement a new educational program for all incoming students regarding alcohol abuse. Before implementing such a program to an entire incoming class, an office for alcohol and other drugs would develop and pilot test the new program with a small group of students. This pilot testing would provide an opportunity to ensure fidelity as well as understand any concomitant issues with resources and relationships with other campus offices.
  9. While closing the loop or making improvements is the most important step in assessment, not much thought is put into this step. For effective implementation of recommendations from assessment, making improvement should be viewed and treated as a change management process. Improvements do not happen easily. This type of change requires resource allocation/reallocation, changes in processes and practices and shifts in priorities.
  10. Collaborative capacity-building must be provided to staff across the organization. This training should be aligned with the shared vision and goals. It may be helpful to task a professional development committee with the development of a curriculum for the unit striving to become a learning organization.
  11. Feedback loops must be integrated within products and services. Assessment cannot be an activity that is completed at the end of a program or service. Feedback must be incorporated into the delivery of that program or service to provide ongoing data.
  12. Knowledge must be generated. Feedback provides data, but aggregated feedback needs to be synthesized into information that can be used by the organization.
  13. Individual and collective learning should be celebrated to reinforce the activity.

In their work A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice, scholars Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen have called college and universities “organized anarchies.” In times of constant change like today, these organized anarchies become even more chaotic with multiple external pressures, multiple priorities and multiple stakeholders who hold multiple interests. Colleges and universities that are learning organizations with individuals and departments working in synchronicity and using data to make improvements toward a shared vision are more likely to be successful in a competitive market and achieve their goals. The product of colleges and universities is learning, and now they must use that product for their own success.

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