Some Management experts believe that several eastern philosophies have the right approach to continuous learning. Such philosophies assert that one never understands anything completely and that life is a continual process of learning. Peter Senge elaborates: “you cannot say the word “learning” in Chinese without saying both “study” and “practice” constantly. You could not say, “I learned something” in Chinese. It is literally impossible, because all you can ever do is practice constantly. Now that is a learning orientation!
Organizations are continuously changing due to both internal and external forces. These changes could be either rapid and significant, or slow and insignificant. But in both cases, the organizations are changing and are trying to adapt themselves to the changing environment. Thus they are also learning.
Organizational learning can be defined as a process, by which organizations obtain and use new knowledge, tools, behavior, and values. Organizational learning occurs at three levels: the individual level, the group level, and the system level. Individuals learn when they interact with one another and the outside world when they are doing their regular work. Group learning occurs when the members of the group cooperate with each other to accomplish common goals. The whole organization (System Level) learns from the feedback it obtains from the environment, and by anticipating further changes. The newly acquired knowledge at all these levels gets translated into “new goals, Procedures, expectations, role structures, and measures of success,”
Organizational learning can be classified into maintenance learning and innovative learning. Maintenance learning means acquiring fixed ways, methods, and rules to deal with situations that are known and recurring in nature. Maintenance learning improves problem solving ability in cases where the problem is known. This type of learning is designed to maintain the existing system. According to Bennis and Nanus, for the long-term survival of the organization and especially in times of turbulence, change or discontinuity, innovative learning is more important. Innovative learning ensures long-term survival by bringing change, renewal, and restructuring.
Most organizations have mastered the art of maintenance learning. They have developed and institutionalized ways to ensure maintenance learning. Though this orientation is necessary, it is not sufficient for growth. In maintenance learning, current performance is compared only with past performance and not with the performance that might have been or that is going to be. Corrective actions based on maintenance learning address only perceived weaknesses or failures, and do not focus on building strengths or creating new opportunities.
On the other hand, innovative learning aims at preparing organizations for action in new situations. This requires an imaginative understanding of the environment yet to appear. Innovative learning deals with emerging issues that are unique and so cannot be learned by the trial and error method. These issues do not have known solutions. This is one reason why organizations have neglected innovative learning. As a result, they find it extremely difficult to adapt to environmental changes. Maintenance learning can be taken care of by the managers; it is the leaders’ responsibility to ensure that innovative learning take place too.
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Acknowledgement: Leadership & Change Management book by ICFAI