Learning (OL)  

Barry Sugarman

The Basic Idea of OL  


       Effective management in the 21st century is based on "teaming" - working in coordination with your colleagues. This goes beyond  "organizing to execute"  to include "organizing for learning" (Edmondson, 2013).

Continuous improvement (i.e. org. learning) is necessary in an environment of fierce competition and always new challenges. 

       Organizational Learning occurs when (i) some members find a better way to do something that the org. needs and when (ii) that improvement is adopted. Those individuals learned something - either by borrowing from another source, adapting it, or by their own original idea.  They try it and (sometimes) it works. In a "Learning Organization" this is encouraged and the change is adopted. Now it's part of "the way we do it here". More important, supporting all workers to look for better ways is "the way we do it".  

 Some OL is later changed by newer OL - improvements on top of improvements. And some OL turns out to be a mistake; maybe circumstances change. But correcting mistakes (and learning from them) is what OL does. 


Different Types of OL


 Org Learning applies equally in production and paper work, marketing, customer service, finance, people management, anywhere.  The same principles and processes apply: e.g. attention to data, listening to many views, clarifying purpose, testing one's mental assumptions.

            However, I claim that OL looks different and functions differently in three major levels and areas of any organization. (i) Front-line workers should focus on perfecting their craft and raising customer satisfaction. (ii) Middle managers should focus on improving relations between departments and ensuring that the front-line staff have the resources they need. (iii) Senior managers have still different priorities, including long term strategy and overall organizational culture.


To take that idea further, this table lays out 5 kinds/areas of OL (org. learning) with more complete definitions of the 5 functions:

OL-1   In the large operational core, "front lines" or "base" of the organization, usually comprising the majority of its employees, we should 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  workers & units.

OL-3  Internal Integration (Formal) is typically the job  of middle managers, handling the intricate value chains and formal collaboration networks needed to produce and deliver complex outputs. 


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, but others can be involved. It includes: setting the overall direction, strategy, & priorities, and making sure they are followed!  And checking that all divisions and units are collaborating with each other.   



Ambidextrous OL and Management

In a large firm attempting to develop a radically 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 - if only because one is refining (polishing) a proven, profitable product while the other is trying to build on an idea still unproven.

That creates a challenge for senior corporate managers (above the divisional heads) who must protect both cultures, especially the newer one. The latter can easily be overwhelmed and resocialized by the fat cats, so there is no longer a radical new option in the parent company.


It needs not only shelter but the benefit of company assets - where it is "safe". Senior managers who can guide the new venture through these tricky waters have an Ambidextrous set of responsibilities. This is a crucial part of the challenge of keeping an organization competitive through changing conditions. 


Dynamic Capability requires more than OL that fine tunes an Org's established strategies but also includes timely shifts of strategy, even disruptive ones.

On other pages we shall continue to look at Dualistic conditions which call for Ambidextrous Management or some other conflict management approach.




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.

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Barry Sugarman