posted 10 Oct 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 3Book review
Victor Newman reviews How Organizations Learn – An Integrated Strategy for Building Learning Capability by Anthony J. DiBella & Edwin C. Nevis
How Organizations Learn – An Integrated Strategy for Building Learning
AUTHORS: Anthony J. DiBella & Edwin C. Nevis
PUBLISHER: Jossey Bass Wiley (1998)
The aim of this book as its title states is to help readers understand and increase their organisation’s ability to learn. The authors promise to synthesise the literature of organisational learning identifying new research opportunities to integrate existing practices to create a new foundation framework for what organisations must do to develop learning capability.
DiBella and Nevis’s approach is based on in-depth research among seven American and European companies focused on understanding how and why organisations learn as well as the collaborative development and field-testing of their methodologies in over 25 Fortune 500 companies going back to 1992.
The book is structured into three parts. Part one is the foundation: reviewing the literature and introducing the authors’ framework for understanding how organisations function as learning systems. Part two develops the implications of adopting the framework and introduces the concept of distinctive organisational learning styles linked to the need to recognise existing learning capabilities and identify deficiencies. Part three considers different industrial contexts and types of teams.
Three perspectives about organisations and learning are proposed: normative developmental and capability-based. The ‘normative’ perspective proposes that organisational learning only occurs under a unique set of conditions. This approach dares to presume that learning organisations do not arise accidentally but are constructed from the initiative and strategic choices of key managers. Anyone who has worked with creative entrepreneurs or SMEs would question this apparent consciousness of choice and strategy.
The ‘capability’ perspective implies that learning is innate to all organisations and that there is no single best way for organisations to learn. What is never considered is perhaps the key antithetical thesis: that there is no such thing as organisational learning. What is interesting is the thesis that the learning organisation is an ideal form of organisation perhaps one where its ability to learn from solving problems and generalise its learning is its core technology so that its ostensible products are actually by-products of a learning process. And yet Toyota does not run hospitals nor do consulting companies govern countries.
The ‘developmental’ perspective takes a lifecycle approach to organisational learning to set the genuine learning organisation at the peak of a process of organisational development where learning can be proactive or anticipative but more usually based on interpreting and re-interpreting experience.
The capability perspective in contrast to the developmental approach does not share the view of the learning organisation as an ultimate state of perfection. Rather it takes the view that organisational learning is the product of an ongoing process of learning and cultural development through problem-solving; and the more consciously this process is managed at all levels within an organisation the more likely that new accessible organisational capability is being created through learning.
In summarising the approaches DiBella and Nevis helpfully point out that the three perspectives tend to contradict each other to some extent while offering complementary insights. The normative perspective’s path for action tends to be focused on identifying obstacles to perfection the developmental perspective encourages a focus on learning and re-learning from experience and the power and limitations of context. The capability perspective examines the alignment of overt culture with learning processes.
After some generic reflections on what the authors have learnt about learning a two-part framework of organisational learning capability is introduced consisting of ‘Learning orientations’ and ‘Facilitating factors’. ‘Learning orientations’ considers how learning occurs and what is learnt whilst ‘Facilitating factors’ reviews the enabling structures and obstacles to learning. Later on in the text the learning orientations are decomposed into seven specific dimensions and developed through illustrative case studies. This process is repeated to identify ten facilitating factors to enhance organisational learning. The criteria for learning orientations and facilitating factors are integrated into the ‘Organisational learning profile’ and are subsequently explored and illustrated.
Much too late in the text DiBella and Nevis introduce a discussion on what precisely makes organisational learning organisational. Three essential criteria of organisational learning are proposed: first that new skills attitudes values and behaviours are created or acquired over time; second that what is learnt becomes the property of some identifiable collective unit; and third that the learning remains within the organisation or group even when membership changes.
The authors introduce and develop an organisational learning model directly connecting organisational learning with knowledge creation or acquisition knowledge dissemination and knowledge utilisation or exploitation. This has strong parallels with generic problem solving and knowledge value chain models and is usefully expanded to include specific consulting approaches.
On reflection this book is a celebration of an exhaustive logical and beautifully crafted consulting approach to diagnosing organisational learning that is virtually a technology in its own right. This book is a triumph of the academic consultant mindset and bears all of its strengths and some of its key weaknesses. The dark side of organisation learning is not considered. For instance are the terms ‘organisation’ and ‘learning’ abstractions that deflect us from realising that while individuals may learn and that while the content of their collective learning may be integrated into artefacts and media to form embedded knowledge the organisation as a concept may itself be a convenient myth and that learning only happens within individuals? The other key question is whether organisational learning is the host or the potential parasite. Could an organisation or entrepreneur decide to exploit the authors’ “integrated strategy for building learning capability” technology to cheat organisational lifecycles and live forever?
Organisational learning like culture is an abstract concept and like metaphors abstractions have limits on their usefulness that need to be understood. The learning organisation is an abstraction that can only be stretched so far and no further. Organisational learning will never be a substitute for the ability to generate and deliver new market values. This consulting approach suffers from the authors’ level of consulting intervention within the organisations studied a lack of interest in creativity or the need to understand how creative people and entrepreneurs operate and their lack of interest in systems bureaucracy. The approach involves no lateral thinking interventions or methodologies to reflect on innovation in any way beyond a traditional content-based analysis. Alternative metaphors are not explored noone suggests blowing up the business in order to learn how to rebuild it or the use of scenario learning development exercises like ‘Predator’ that to cut to the problem diagnosis faster. That said this is an elegant model that will prove seductive to all highly educated clients with a penchant for elegant and logical analysis.
Victor Newman is chief learning officer at Pfizer Research University. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org