The Basic Idea of OL
Effective management in the 21st century is based on "teaming" which includes "organizing for learning" (typical of a "learning organization") rather than just "organizing to execute" (Edmondson, 2013). This view is in accord with a large literature on the importance of Organizational Learning -- a collaborative and adaptive process needed in every area and at every level of every organization.
Organizational Learning occurs when some members see a better way to do something that the org. needs and when that improvement is adopted. First those individuals learned something - maybe by borrowing from another source or by original invention. Then their learning became ORG learning when the change was adopted as "the way we do it here" i.e. a new org. pattern or policy.
Organizational Learning occurs when some members, either acting on behalf of the whole or some part, draw meaning from some data or experience which seems relevant to their organizational role and interests, and they use that understanding to modify patterns of behavior, acting with others (Sugarman, 2010).
Some OL is later changed by newer OL. Some OL turns out to be a mistake. But correcting mistakes (and learning from it) is what OL does. However, most OL cannot be judged good or bad - it is simply about sharing useful information by any means possible.
Different Types of OL
At the grassroots (operational core) of any org. work priorities and OL are different from what applies among upper managers. Those two types of OL will be joined by more.
( SOME features of OL are similar even across these large differences, e.g. attention to data,, listening to many views, clarity of purpose, testing one's mental assumptions ).
I hypothesize that OL looks different and functions differently when it happens in different levels and areas of an organization, defined by different functions. For example, front-line workers should focus on perfecting their craft and raising customer satisfaction but middle manager should focus on improving relations between departments and ensuring that the front-line staff have the learning resources they need. Senior managers have still different priorities, including longterm strategy and overall organizational culture.
See Table 1 and this 5-part list :
OL-1 In the large operational core or "base" of the organization, usually comprising the majority of its employees, we find continuous improvement practices, involving experiential (hands-on) action learning (both formal and informal), after-action reviews, and data-based and statistical methods of process 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 be further shared informally with other colleagues. This diffusion can transfer valuable learning from more successful innovators to other units.
OL-3 Internal Integration (Formal) manages the intricate value chains and formal collaboration networks needed to produce and deliver complex outputs. Typically this work is central to the job specs of middle managers.
OL-4 External relations, scanning the environment for new opportunities and dangers, testing the viability of the org's outputs.
OL-5 External and Internal Integration of the Whole Org.
Typically this area is the job of CEO and top management team. It includes: setting the overall direction (mission, vision, strategy) and height of the bar; shaping the values and organizational culture; ensuring that all divisions and units are collaborating with each other (as in OL-1,2,3,and 4) contributing to the overarching strategy set for the whole organization.
Ambidextrous OL and Management
In a large firm attempting to develop a new venture alongside the established "cash cow" business the managers of the new venture and the managers of the established business both need to ensure that their employees are using OL to improve work processes in their respective businesses.
But the culture of org. learning in each of those divisions is likely to be quite different. That creates a challenge for senior corporate managers. In other words, a very different kind of OL is required of top managers who face their own learning curve on how to integrate these two businesses and their two cultures under the same corporate umbrella.
Edmondson, Amy C. (2013). Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. SF, CA: Jossey Bass.
Sugarman, Barry (2010). Organizational Learning - Dynamic, Integrative: A concept returns, older and wiser. In Research in Organizational Change and Development, vol.18. New York: Elsevier.
Sugarman, Barry (2010). Organizational Learning and Reform at the New York City Police Department. In Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, vol. 46: 2, June 2010.