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Organisational Learning: A Critical Analysis Essay

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Updated: Apr 17th, 2019

Organizational learning is an important aspect in organizations in the modern days. A lot of of research has been conducted to identify the strengths and weaknesses of organizational learning. It has been the subject of attention and research for some time now (Burnes et al 2003; Marshall et al 2009). Research demonstrates that the concept of organizational learning did not emerge until the 1980s.

However, its principles are firmly grounded on the many perspectives of management. The practices of organizational learning indicate a variety of factors which affect the performance of an organization. Such factors include organizational strategy, culture, structure and design, absorptive capability, problem-solving capacity and staff participation, among others (Wang & Ahmed 2003).

The challenges experienced are: Failing to integrate individual learning into organizational learning, mixed understanding of the drivers/triggers for improvement and learning, and different and opposing standpoints about the current learning climate and capability.

Other challenges are dysfunctional interactions of misaligned organizational cultures and/ or structures, misfit arises from communication failures between various organizational elements, and incapacity to clarify the organizational vision exist to the extent that learning is a critical component of this vision and incapacity for organizations to transfer strategic knowledge.

It is recommended that Wal-Mart should integrate individual learning processes into organizational learning processes, develop a common standard practice regarding the drivers/triggers for organizational improvement and learning and align organizational culture with learning initiatives. The paper exemplifies some dimensions regarding organizational learning, especially its challenges and recommendations for practice.

Extant literature considers organization-learning capacity “…as the organizational and managerial characteristics that facilitate the organizational learning process or allow an organization to learn and thus develop a learning environment” (Burnes et al 2003, p. 456).

In contrast, a ‘learning organization’ has been defined in the literature “…as an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights” (Franco & Almeida 2011, p. 783).

Conceivably, therefore, organizational learning is the precursor to a learning organization as the managerial characteristics and other learning frameworks must first be put in place to allow the organization to continuously acquire knowledge and adjust itself to effectively adapt to internal and external environmental shifts and to uphold sustainability and development (Franco & Almeida 2011).

It is indeed true that many organizations experience difficulty in making organizational learning a reality due to a number of factors that are unique to the organization, discussed as follows:

Many organizations are yet to come up with frameworks and strategies that they could use to integrate individual learning into organizational learning, implying that they have knowledgeable employees who are yet to be transformed to bring competitive advantage for the organization due to disjointed programs and frameworks, as well as lack of collectivity of individual learning within the organization (Wang & Ahmed 2003).

The disjointed programs and frameworks make it exceedingly difficult for organizations to achieve organizational learning due to failure to create long-term plans and activities that build competitive advantages over time and oblige sustained and unwavering management attention, commitment and effort (Franco & Almeida, 2011).

In a way, therefore, management failure and lack of commitment is partly to blame for lack of organizational frameworks and strategies that could be used to integrate individual learning capacities into organizational learning. It should always be remembered that organizations learn because of the development of the capacities that are identical, or corresponding, to those people have and that permit them to learn (Curado, 2006).

Organisational learning revolves around the issue of mixed understanding of the drivers for improvement and learning, whereby it has been found that most organizations do not keep a standard practice for organizational learning initiatives, leading to confusion and unproductiveness (Marshall et al 2009).

The extant literature demonstrates that “…the ability of a workforce of an organization to learn faster than those in other organizations constitutes the only sustainable competitive advantage at the disposal of a learning organization” (Wang & Ahmed 2003, p. 9).

Arguably, a mixed understanding of the drivers for improvement and learning ensures that the capacity of employees to learn faster remains a mirage.

Extant literature has found that many organizations fail to standardize their learning initiatives in spite of the fact that organizational learning occurs at different organizational levels, namely the cognitive level, the behavioral level and the performance improvement level (Curado, 2006).

In the cognitive level, organizational members should be exposed to new ideas and concepts, with the view to expand their knowledge base and start perceiving things in a different way.

In the second level, employees should demonstrate the internalization of new perspectives and concepts that forces them to adjust their behavior. The last level is where measurable performance improvement occurs as a direct consequence of behavior modification and change (Curado, 2006).

Organizations face many challenges in the attempt to start organizational learning processes. Many people and organizations are not willing to change, and this affects the process of organizational learning. In most cases, people want to maintain the status quo, and the need for change is not realized (Marshall et al 2009).

In addition, the opposition to new changes is caused by the management team, who fail to provide employees with a framework to guide the current learning climate towards a new system. The management leaves the employees and other stakeholders to oppose changes at the expense of organizational learning (Gold, Holden, Iles, Stewart, Beardwell, 2010).

These opposing perceptions, according to Hoe (2007), create a fertile breeding ground for employee mistrust and hamper attempts by organizations to acquire, disseminate and use knowledge in response to rapidly shifting market forces.

Franco and Almeida (2011) are of the opinion that organizational learning is difficult to occur in an environment with differing and opposing perceptions among employees since its major objective is to ensure that the organization, not individual employees, becomes an expert in generating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and at altering its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.

In their contribution to the study of organizational learning, Murray and Moses (2005) are of the opinion that different and opposing perceptions about the current learning climate incapacitate the capability for organizations to study the interactions between individual and organizational learning with the view to identifying environmental, organizational and human characteristics that could in the long-term influence the learning potential.

The next issue revolves around the issue of dysfunctional interactions of misaligned organizational cultures or structures that make it difficult for employees to benefit from organizational learning initiatives (Marshall et al 2009).

A misalignment of organizational culture not only ensures that organizations have no capacity to learn new trends and ideas from the market, but also functions to weaken teamwork and motivation, which are key to the learning process (Baldwin-Evans 2007).

The extant literature demonstrates that organizations with weak organizational cultures and misaligned structures are incapable of engaging in systematic problem solving, experimentation of new ideas and concepts, learning from past experiences, learning from others, and transferring knowledge (Curado 2006). These elements are critical for any organizational learning to take place.

Additionally, scholars have cited out misaligned organizational cultures as playing a major role in encouraging individual barriers to organizational learning, consisting of defensive approaches demonstrated by employees to avoid vulnerability, risk-taking behavior in the learning process, embarrassment and incompetent demonstrations (Simons et al 2003).

Similarly, defective and ineffective organizational structures have been blamed for reinforcing defensive organizational routines and barriers that have the capacity to generate misfits in organizational learning, implying that it therefore becomes challenging for the organization to transform the concept into reality (Gray & Williams 2011).

Colorado (2006) adds that organizations often fail to make organizational learning a reality due to some kind of misfit arising from communication failures between three organizational cultures, namely: operational, engineering and executive cultures.

This particular author explicitly suggests that while the operational culture relates to the local culture developed in each organization and grounded in human interaction, the engineering culture relates to the components that design the organizational technology support and the way these components are used in the organization.

The executive culture, on its part, relates to the maintenance of the financial wealth of the organization, particularly with regard to the administration of such wealth, the investors and the capital markets (Curado, 2006).

This view has been reinforced by Simons et al (2003), who argue that the mentioned cultures often collide when organizations undertake concerted efforts to redesign or reinvent themselves, resulting in some failures in organizational learning as it is supposed to be a continuous process.

It has also been demonstrated in the literature that many organizations the world over failing to actualize into learning organizations due to their incapacity to clarify that their visions exist to the extent that learning is a critical component of these visions (Franco & Almeida 2011; Murray & Moses 2005).

The organization’s vision, according to these authors, plays fundamental functions in the development and sustenance of a learning organization, not mentioning that a shared vision is imperative in organizations as it necessitates alignment efforts toward supplying creative energy.

This view has been expanded by Murray and Donegan (2003), who suggest that the alignment of an organization’s vision and mission statement with novel learning initiatives and transfer of knowledge is critical in deciding the competitiveness of a firm in the global business arena.

However, many organizations do not progress the necessary efforts needed to align organizational learning with their visions, leading to a situation whereby learning initiatives are ignored by most individuals as they do not form the core of the organization attempt to establish and maintain competitive advantage (Franco & Haase 2009; Hoyrup 2004).

Lastly, it is a well known fact that organizational learning must involve the transfer of strategic knowledge to managers and employees; however, organizations find it challenging to transfer strategic knowledge due to perceived lack of sensitivity not only to the internalized cultural and institutional limitations on learning and change, but also to defensive mechanisms and avoidance techniques that go a long way to inhibit learning and change (Wong et al 2003).

For example, it is a well known fact that Chinese management personnel initially refuse to pursue a western management style and principles yet they continue to demonstrate a substantial interest in learning these styles and principles.

Equally, international organizations doing business in China, for instance, fail to demonstrate reciprocity in learning by not only failing to recognize the Chinese management style but also refusing to include such learning in planning and implementing their long-term strategies (Wong et al 2003).

These cultural and institutional limitations on learning and change prevent organizations from making organizational learning a reality (Gibb, 2008).

For many years now, Wal-Mart has been struggling to internalize the concept of organizational learning due to its huge workforce (Baldwin-Evans 2007).

Yet, the management of the organization knows too well that competition and environmental uncertainty due to rapid and unforeseen shifts are inescapable characteristics of a global business environment, hence the urgent need to place learning at the epicenter of the organization (Franco & Almeida 2004; Whittington & Dewar 2004). To turn the rhetoric of organizational learning into reality, therefore, Wal-Mart should:

Develop frameworks and strategies that could be used to integrate individual learning processes with organizational learning processes.

The integration of individual learning processes with the organizational learning processes, according to Gray and Williams (2011), will definitely avail a platform through which individuals can continually expand their capacities and nurture skills in an environment where learning is perceived as a holistic approach to further the competitive advantages of the organization.

More importantly, the harmonization of individual goals with those of the organization will generate an adaptive and flexible environment through which individuals can tap the learning capacities available to them with the view to not only enhance organizational performance but also to promote organizational learning (Whittington & Dewar 2004).

Come up with a common standards regarding the drivers for organizational improvement and learning to avoid confusion and duplication of resources.

The development of common standards will not only enable Wal-Mart to adapt to existing realities and change through reciprocal learning, but will also go a long way in removing the cultural and institutional constraints, hence master new learning competencies that will put the organization in a better place to utilize its learning capacities (Franco & Haase 2009).

Additionally, the development of common organizational improvement and learning strategies will enhance the internalization and adoption of organizational learning as a critical component of the organization’s vision (Franco & Almeida 2011; Hoyrup 2004).

Lastly, Wal-Mart should align its organizational culture and structure to meet specific targets for organizational learning. Such an alignment will ensure that the organization benefits from systematic problem solving, experimentation with new ideas, learning from past experiences of employees, learning from others as well as transfer of knowledge from people of diverse cultural background in the organization (Franco & Almeida 2011).

Additionally, alignment will remove the communication, individual and organizational barriers that limit organizational learning.

Reference List

Baldwin-Evans, K 2007, ‘The future of organizational learning’, Industrial & Commercial Training, vol. 39 no. 6, pp. 299-306.

Burnes, B, Cooper, C & West, P 2003, ‘Organisational learning: The new management paradigm?’, Management Decision, vol. 41 no. 5, pp. 452-464.

Curado, C 2006, ‘Organisational learning and organizational design’, The Learning Organization, vol. 13 no. 1, pp. 25-48.

Franco, M & Almeida, J 2011, ‘Organisational learning and leadership styles in healthcare organizations, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, vol. 32 no. 8, pp. 782-806.

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Gibb, S. 2008, Human Resource Development, processes, practices and perspectives, 2nd edit, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan new edition imminent

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Marshall, J, Smith, S & Buxton, S 2009, ‘Learning organizations and organizational learning: What we have learned’, Management Services, vol. 53 no. 2, pp. 36-44.

Murray, P & Donegan, K 2003, ‘Empirical linkages between firm competencies and organizational learning’, The Learning Organization, vol. 10 no. 1, pp. 51-62.

Murray, P & Moses, M 2005, ‘The centrality of teams in the organizational learning process’, Management Decision, vol. 43 no. 9, pp. 1186-1202.

Simons, PRJ, Germans, J & Ruijters, M 2003, ‘Forum for organizational learning: Combining learning at work, organizational learning and training in new ways’, Journal of European Industrial Training, vol. 27 no. 1, pp. 41-48.

Wang, CL & Ahmed, PK 2003, ‘organizational learning: A critical review’, The Learning Organization, vol. 10 no. 1, pp. 8-17.

Whittington, D & Dewar, T 2004, ‘A strategic approach to organizational learning’, Industrial and Commercial Training, vol. 36 no. 7, pp. 265-268.

Wong, YY, Maher, TE, Nicholson, JD & Bai, AF 2003, ‘Organisational learning and the risks of technology transfers in China’, Management Research News, vol. 26 no. 12, pp. 1-11.

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