Building a learning organization
Building learning organizations requires personal transformations or basic shifts in how we think and interact. As W. Edwards Deming says, nothing happens without “personal transformation.” And the only safe space to allow for this transformation is a learning community. But at the heart of any serious effort to alter how we operate lies a concern with three dysfunctions of our culture: fragmentation, competition and reactiveness.
Since our first school days, we learn to break the world apart and disconnect ourselves from it. We memorize isolated facts, read static accounts of history, study abstract theories and acquire ideas unrelated to our life experience and personal aspirations. Economics is separate from psychology, which is separate from biology, which has little connection with art. We eventually become convinced that knowledge is accumulated bits of information and that learning has little to do with our capacity for effective action, our sense of self and how we exist in our world.
Fragmentation results in “walls” that separate different functions into independent and often warring fiefdoms, making our society increasingly ungovernable. We know the problem as the dominance of “special interest groups” and political lobbies. Pointing fingers at each other is now a favorite national sport.
Many organizations are over-dependent on competition, to the extent that it is our only model for change and learning. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with competition. It can be great fun. It can promote invention and daring. The problem is that we have lost the balance between competition and cooperation precisely at a time when we most need to work together.
Many managers and executives tend to see competition among individuals as the ultimate mechanism for change and improvement. We continue to think in terms of war and sports analogies when we interpret management challenges. We need to “beat the competition,” “overcome resistance to our new program,” “squeeze concessions from the labor union,” or “take over this new market.” We have a metaphorical tunnel vision. We rarely think about how the process of developing leaders may be more like parenting than competing, or about how developing a new culture may be more like gardening than a military campaign.
Our overemphasis on competition makes looking good more important than being good. The fear of not looking good is one of the greatest enemies of learning. To learn, we need to acknowledge that there is something we don’t know and to perform activities that we’re not good at. But in most corporations, ignorance is a sign of weakness; temporary incompetence is a character flaw.
In response, many of us have developed defenses that have become second nature-like working out our problems in isolation, always displaying our best face in public and never saying “I don’t know.” The price we pay is enormous. In fact, we become masters of what Chris Argyris calls “skilled competence,” skillful at protecting ourselves from the threat and pain that come with learning, but also remaining competent and blinded to our incompetence.