Eight Steps to Sustainable Organizational Learning: How to Tackle Search and Transfer Barriers

Technology Diffusion and Organizational Learning: The Case of Business Computing
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This theory, the organizational science version of Gould and Eldredge's "punctuated equilibrium" theory, seems to have considerable potential for the field of organizational redesign. The evolution and revolution perspective on organizational change is still in its youth and perhaps should be recognized only as a theory in the making.

Early researchers in the area miller and Friesen, ; Tushman and Romanelli, continue to extend and influence its development Miller, ; Tushman et al. This perspective and body of work seems likely to gain influence in organizational redesign for three reasons: 1 its thrust is relevant to today's changing organizational environments, 2 few executives have the opportunity to acquire the breadth or length of experience necessary to learn its lessons on their own, and 3 early indications are that some of its prescriptive guidelines will not be intuitively obvious. Another theory of organizational change is life-cycle theory Greiner, ; Kimberly et al.

It describes how different features of an organization change more or less in harmony as organizations mature. For example, as organizations mature, they become more internally specialized and consequently need more coordination processes, personnel, and units. Life-cycle theory seems to have received acceptance largely on the basis of case studies Kimberly et al. It seems plausible that combining two ideas—that there are phases within an organization's life cycle and that there should be congruence among the organization's features within each phase—can lead to prescriptive organizational redesign guidelines for improving performance.

We close this section on theories of organizational change by mentioning two related bodies of literature. One is the large literature on organizational development Burke, ; French and Bell, , which focuses primarily on organizational change for improving the quality of working life in organizations; for a review of this literature, see Faucheux et al. The other is the relatively newer and smaller body of literature on organizational learning see Cohen and Sproull, Reviews by Huber and Levitt and March indicate that research on organizational learning has not yet become systematic.

The potential for development of prescriptive guidelines seems high; an early attempt at this is the best-seller by Senge Individual managers can learn from their experience in an organization about the appropriateness of its design by seeing and hearing about defects. In addition to learning about organizational designs and their efficacy by comparing different organizations, managers may learn by observing the defects of changed designs in their own organization. Sometimes individual organizations change to mimic certain features, such as designs, of other organizations that are considered to be leaders Tolbert and Zucker, Changes enable managers to observe before-and-after pairings of design and performance and, hence, to learn.

Of course, a variety of factors limits the validity of such learned relationships.

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Some of these are difficulties associated with all human learning, including cognitive and motivational biases Bazerman, ; Mayer, Others have to do with the problems of verticality in organizational information flows Huber, , such as inadvertent distortions at multiple nodes in a communication network and deliberate distortions by those who seek to gain from such distortions. A manager who observed a large number of design changes might be less prone to learning incorrectly by making comparisons or averaging across instances, but few managers experience a large number of organizational changes that are comparable.

Some of the difficulties associated with firsthand observation of a very limited number of pairings of organizational design and performance are overcome by managers through vicarious learning. Managers talk with other managers in other companies, they talk with consultants who themselves have had many opportunities to observe design-performance pairings, and they read the business press reports of organizational design and performance pairings in individual companies.

Although there is little research on managerial learning through these media, we speculate that managers do learn about alternative ways of organizing this way. We also speculate that due to the absence of useful frameworks about organizational designs and of specific and comparable performance data, what managers learn this way is fairly superficial and of only modest validity.

Some support for these speculations is the research of Burns and Wholey , who found that hospitals adopted matrix structures of organization more to follow a current fashion rather than because the structural form fitted their situation.

enter Perhaps the most obvious way for a manager to extend his or her own experience is to consult an expert, a person who has seen more design alternatives and has been in a position to evaluate them. Individual consultants and consulting firms vary greatly in the extent to which they accumulate and codify their experience, however. Authors and consultants are overlapping categories; many authors are also consultants, and their experience in that role informs their books. And in some cases, their ideas about organizational design are also shaped by specific theoretical models and research.

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Both authors were members of a large consulting firm, McKinsey and Company, and both were experienced consultants. They worked within a schema, the McKinsey 7-S framework, which is more a listing of classes of factors to take into account than a theory of organization. The framework consists of seven factors that in combination are assumed to determine organizational effectiveness.

All seven are drawn as interconnected and all are identified by words beginning with the letter S, hence the copyrighted 7-S label: structure, systems, style, staff, skills, strategy, and shared values. These at least serve to remind consultants of things to look for as they advise managements.

Peters and Waterman went beyond such a priori guides, however, in their search for excellent companies. With funding from McKinsey and from client firms, they set up a research project. They chose 75 ''highly regarded companies" and, for the 62 based in the United States, they did a retrospective performance review for the preceding 20 years and conducted structured interviews with some members of management.

How to Tackle Search and Transfer Barriers

Six measures of growth and financial performance and a judgmental measure of innovativeness were thus added to the initial rating of "high regard. Peters and Waterman warned their readers about the limitations of their work: "We don't pretend to account for the perfidy of the market or the whims of investors. The answer is we don't" Their premonition was justified, as a third of the "excellent" companies performed poorly shortly after publication of their book Business Week , — Doctrine-driven design is an approach that applies codified, normative principles to organizational design.

These principles are derived from the experiences, beliefs, values, and ideologies of an organization's key leaders and are often influenced by societal values. In the long run indeed, sometimes across generations of managers , the beliefs, values, and ideologies that become formalized into design doctrine are the result of multitudes of experiences, and the revision of doctrine in the light of experience is often a very slow process.

It is important to note that the beliefs and values of an organization's leaders are often determined in great part by the larger society, and also to note that society exerts some degree of influence over the. Both of these insights are provided by institutional theory, mentioned earlier.

Why (we think) facilitation works: insights from organizational learning theory

The dictionary defines doctrine as a body of working principles laid down by authority, generally held to be true, and often used as the fundamental basis for instruction and training. In this section we explore the characteristics of doctrine-based organizational design in the context of military doctrine, calling attention to the fact that manifestations of doctrine are found in other organizational domains as well: government, hospitals, fire and emergency departments, power utilities, religious groups, and radical political groups.

Because doctrine-based design is generated, promulgated, and reinforced by authority, it tends to resist criticism, lag relevant events, and eventually become ineffective. Corporate doctrines can resist evidence that demonstrates their obsolescence. An example of the failure of doctrine-based organizational design is the American automotive industry of the s, which persisted in adhering to an outmoded doctrine despite massive loss of market share to foreign manufacturers who had developed radically different doctrines based on such values as quality and reliability.

In contrast, doctrine that is constantly reviewed and updated in response to current conditions can be a sound basis for organizational design. The U.


Army uses doctrine in the design of its units and forces to a great extent, in a way that is important, explicit, and almost beyond question. We note that this use of doctrine in organizational design is atypical in its intensity; most organizations are influenced by doctrine in their design efforts much less intentionally and systematically. To perform different functions, Army units must be adequately equipped and staffed with appropriate numbers of trained personnel and types of equipment.

Decisions on appropriate mixes of these elements are made within the context of a broad force-structuring process initiated by the joint chiefs of staff and the secretary of defense. Design is a top-down process, and unit design provides the building blocks for this activity.

These requirements are translated into tables of organization and equipment.

Organizational Learning for Sustainable Development (English version)

The Army reviews and revises its current unit designs in response to changes in its doctrine, concepts, and new technology, as well as global trends and threats. The goal of a unit designer is to design effective units with the fewest possible resources. The unit design process is part science and part art. Some capabilities required by a unit, such as the number of refueling vehicles needed to achieve specific levels of mobility, can be derived quantitatively.

Others, such as the reconnaissance assets needed to carry out a mission, depend on assumptions and judgments based on experience, values, and ideology. Planning how best to organize to fight a war is an extraordinarily complex process. Hundreds of interactive considerations and contingencies must be taken into account. Here we summarize the part of this process that must go on just to organize a unit U. Army, Step 1: Identify unit design issues. In this step, all of the external conditions that are likely to affect or alter the design of a unit are identified and described. External conditions include threats e.

Internal conditions include new or revised missions, changing funding, technology advances, lessons learned from training and combat, and new or revised doctrine. The product of this step is a requirement to change a unit design in order to bring it up to date and tailor it to internal and external conditions. Step 2: Develop unit design concepts. In this step, a set of design concepts is constructed given the issues, needs, and constraints that were spelled out in Step 1.

The concepts identify the required capabilities for employing forces on the battlefield.


At the beginning of the 3-day course, each team received a request from a company officer to prepare a complete quality plan for their unit, based on the course concepts, within 60 days. Seven roles of the intranet homepage. The U. Library Locations Map Details. Because they draw on past events, they tend to perpetuate previous designs albeit designs that led to satisfactory performance ; they tend not to lead to new organizational forms. The term horizontal organization refers to the organizational form in which coordination is done by direct and prescribed interaction between persons of different units.

They define needs but not particular means for meeting the needs. Once they have been formulated, unit design concepts drive changes in training, doctrine, leader development, and materiel requirements. Given a requirement to design a unit, knowledge of its required capabilities, and the doctrine that will govern the performance of its mission, the unit designer draws on a knowledge base about what makes an organization effective. This knowledge base contains a number of important design principles. Design principles act as a filter to evaluate unit design alternatives. Army doctrine often suggests which principles are most relevant to a particular unit being designed.