Different Areas of 

Organizational Learning  

Barry Sugarman


 Org Learning can be used in any and all areas of human activity, of course including all parts of any org. The same principles and processes apply: e.g. making safe space, clarifying purpose, testing mental assumptions...

Each group will bring its own issues and apply some  basic tools of OL in its own way - according to the culture of their org. and adding to that culture over time. In  any org. it seems that three levels each have a distinctive focus. 

      (i) Front-line workers focus on improving / perfecting their craft and raising their customers'  satisfaction.

      (ii) Middle managers focus on improving relations between departments, ensuring that the front-line staff have the resources they need, and working to find and remove obstacles to the strategy.

    (iii) Senior managers have still different priorities, including seeing and sharing the big picture (including growth strategy), allocating resources, and nurturing a (learning) organizational culture.


To take that idea further, this table expands the three the three  areas into five.  Note that some individuals may be involved in more than one of these areas.

OL-1   In the large operational core, "the front lines" or "base" of the organization, usually comprising the majority of its employees, we should find continuous improvement practices, after-action reviews, and data-based methods of process/quality improvement. 


OL-2  Connecting Informally Across Units

happens as workers need collaboration in order to meet their work goals.  In so doing, each may learn from the other and this knowledge can then be shared informally with their colleagues. This diffusion can transfer valuable learning from early innovators to other workers & units.

OL-3  Internal Integration (Formal) is traditionally the job of middle managers, trouble-shooting the  collaboration networks needed to produce and deliver complex outputs (goods and services). Much of this work has shifted to OL-2 as many middle manager jobs have been eliminated in recent years.


OL-4  External relations, scanning the environment for new opportunities and dangers, testing the viability of the org's outputs. Many may be involved,  some full-time, but it can be a part of many jobs.


OL-5  External & Internal Integration of the Whole Organization

Typically this area is the job of CEO and top management team, but others can/should be involved. It includes: setting the overall direction, strategy and priorities, and making sure they are followed!  

Checking that all divisions and units are collaborating with each other. Building the long-term capability of the org. to innovate as needed. Balancing long and short-term perspectives (plus other Both/And challenges) requires a certain mindset and management approach.

(More on this below.) 

The interrelations among these areas can be seen in a less linear, more realistic way in this diagram.

Ambidextrous OL and Management

Situation: A large mature firm is attempting to develop a radically new venture alongside the established "cash cow" business. The managers of both businesses need to ensure that both are using OL of course. They also face a further challenge - to protect the distinct cultures of both, especially the new venture, which can easily be overwhelmed and resocialized by the wealthy, powerful, older business. Then there would no longer be a radical new innovative option in the parent company.


The culture of each of those divisions is bound to be quite different - if only because one is refining ("exploiting") a proven, profitable product while the other is "exploring" - trying to build on a novel idea,  still unproven.


The new venture needs not only shelter from its "big sib" but the benefit of certain "family assets" - where appropriate. Managers who can guide a new venture through these tricky waters have an Ambidextrous set of responsibilities. This is a crucial part of keeping some entrepreneurial capacity alive in a large mature ORG so it can be sufficiently innovative to survive through changing conditions. 

On other pages we shall look beyond Ambidextrous Management to other Dualistic conflicts and a Both/And framework.