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ecoming a Learning Company

Frances Storr, Humberside Training and Enterprise Council

The concept of the Learning Organisation is becoming increasingly topical within industry as organisations struggle to respond to pressures of increased competition, greater demands from customers and a faster pace of change, often with fewer staff. The ability of a company to learn, to be flexible, intelligent and responsive to the environment is now being seen as the only way to sustain a competitive advantage. Theoretical descriptions of the learning company abound but there is little research focusing on companies who have actually applied the concepts and made them work. This case study is concerned with describing a company which has attempted to become a learning organisation.

The Company

Over a six year period Humberside Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) has used this concept to create a specific kind of culture and to improve operational performance. The TEC's core purpose is to develop a viable and sustainable economy for its region. It has approximately 150 staff and an annual budget of £30 million. A recent independent benchmarking study of a number of TECs stated that "Humberside TEC was the highest performing TEC ...... of our sample. The results we obtained confirmed this position, with excellent outputs/outcomes from all programmes.......... Overall, staffing and overhead costs were tightly controlled without compromising either quality or results. We have set Humberside as the role model for many TECs" (Rowe and Baker 1996). The approach of Humberside TEC is to manage through its culture and a key element of that culture is the emphasis on becoming a learning company. The value of this approach is in genuinely using all the knowledge in the organisation to create effective solutions for the business and, to use an evolutionary metaphor, to continually adapt and fit with ones environment.


This case study is concerned with an analysis of the activities of the TEC as it has attempted to become a learning organisation and with a discussion of how these activities have benefited the organisation. Four key themes of activity have been:
· Using the model of four levels of learning, namely:
Level 1 - Knowledge or learning about things
Level 2 - Skills or learning to do things
Level 3 - Personal Development or learning about oneself
Level 4 - Collaborative inquiry or learning together.
Viewing learning through this framework highlighted the fact that, in the TEC, there was significantly more development occurring at levels one and two than there was at levels three and four. The aim was to develop a deeper understanding of learning and thus create more opportunities for people to learn in a variety of ways.
· Bringing together the organisations IT and HR strategies. The extent to which IT controls people or empowers them depends on the way in which it is implemented. The rational for this stream of activity was to combine the TECs approach to learning and development and its approach to IT so that information technology is implemented in a way which increases opportunities for learning (i.e. more empowering and less controlling) and the Human Resource strategy capitalises on the enormous potential of information technology.
· Applying what has been learned from complexity theories. (Wheatley 1993; Waldrop 1992; Stacey 1996). The science of complexity is developing new and challenging theories about how natural systems operate, which have implications for how we understand and attempt to run businesses. The TEC is attempting to move away from a command and control style of organisation and towards a style which is more in keeping with viewing the organisation as a complex evolving system.
· The culture. Every two to three years all staff are involved in discussions about the culture of the TEC: how it is and how people would like it to be. The culture is viewed as an emergent phenomenon and the aim is to make its development explicit and create opportunities for all members of the organisation to take a hand in shaping it.

Levels of Learning

The framework of four levels of learning has been useful for drawing attention to the relevance of personal development and collaborative inquiry (levels 3 and 4). The concept of collaborative inquiry is probably the least well understood of the four levels and refers to the research methodology described by Peter Reason (1994). Reason differentiates between the following two types of methodologies
- The researcher defines the questions to be answered and subjects provide the researcher with information which will assist the researcher in answering those questions.
- The researcher and researched collaborate to define the questions and to answer them together.
Collaborative inquiry relates to the second of these and is based on the assumption that the deepest understanding will be achieved by sharing the knowledge of all those involved. No one person has the right to control the process.

Previously, the development of individuals had focused primarily on the skills and knowledge required to do the job. When people have been in the same job for some time however they often have the requisite skills and knowledge but are still seeking stimulation and challenge. Introducing the ideas of personal development and collaborative learning helps people to understand how they can continue to develop. The TEC specifically aimed to increase the opportunities for all staff to experience personal development and collaborative learning. Helping people to think about problems in new ways is an accepted way of facilitating learning and personal development (Adams 1988) and this is the basis of a number of interventions such as action learning groups (Revans 1983), the Managing Director's "Serious Thinking Sessions", Learning to Learn modules and Thinking Skills modules.
Creating opportunities for collaborative learning not only uses groups as a basis for increasing the learning of the individual (Marton, Entwistle & Hounsell 1984) it also leads to a new, shared understanding and creates solutions which draw on the knowledge of more rather than fewer people. This has resulted in a completely different approach to some tasks.

For example a core business process of the organisation is contracting and a group of people have reviewed the way the contracting process works by using Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland and Scholes 1990). This has resulted in a much richer understanding of the effects of contracting processes and has led to exploratory discussions with individuals who contract with the TEC and an attempt to develop a shared understanding with them. The emphasis in contracting is shifting from outputs (e.g. the number of people who go on a programme) to outcomes (the achievement of the overall aims of the programme and the aims of the TEC).

Another example of creating space for collaborative learning is the process of developing and introducing 360 degree appraisal. This was undertaken by a group of volunteers who approached the task as an action research project. Every member of the group both contributed to the development and also piloted the system on themself. The resulting system is a paperless appraisal system in which the appraisee is responsible for their own appraisal. Appraisal is now moving away form being a tool to "know" or "measure" employees and thus to better govern them (Townely 1996) and towards being a vehicle for learning which is in the hands of the job holder.

A third example of creating opportunities for Level 4 collaborative learning is the installation of an electronic bulletin board (CollabraShare). This is a system which enables people to converse one-to-many, electronically ( as opposed to email which facilitates one-to-one conversations electronically). The bulletin board was introduced by a working group (again, volunteers) and their terms of reference were to introduce Collabra in way that will enhance communication and increase learning within the organisation. It has provided a valuable additional medium for both formal and informal discussions and interestingly, the people who are "vocal" on line are not necessarily the people who are talkative in face to face situations. The facility to respond anonymously has also provided an opportunity to "say the unsayable". Collabra Share links people who would not necessarily come into contact normally and this is consistent with the aim of developing a highly interconnected organisation.

The next challenge in relation to collaborative learning is to explore the potential of dialogue (Senge 1990; Dixon 1996 ) as a method of identifying and removing some of what Argyris refers to as defensive routines (Argyris 1990). These are the customary ways of acting in organisations which serve to avoid conflict or embarrassment but also prevent learning. Bohm (1996) distinguishes between discussion and dialogue. In discussion each person is usually trying to have his or her arguments accepted by others. You might accept part of another person's point of view if it helps to strengthen your own view, but fundamentally you want your view to win. Dialogue is a different kind of conversation to those which usually occur in organisations and requires a different state of mind. In discussion different views are presented or defended. In dialogue different views are presented and assumptions explored as a means to discovering a new view.

IT and HR Strategies Influencing Each Other

Another stream of activity has been the bringing together the of the TECs information technology (IT) and human resource (HR) strategies. This was prompted as a result of the 11 Characteristics Questionnaire (Pedlar, Burgoyne and Boydell 1997) and participation in an IT Learning Company Consortium run by the same authors. One of the TECs most powerful interventions was the formation of a steering group comprising people from the HR team and people from the IT team. The aim of this group was to implement IT in a way that encourages and increases learning. There is now the realisation in the TEC that IT can be implemented in a number of ways on a continuum from controlling to empowering and it therefore seemed important to challenge assumptions about IT (Blantern 1994). These two groups of people differ quite markedly in their language and assumptions and priorities. The steering group gives them a common agenda and frequent opportunities to work together. As a consequence a shared understanding is now developing and this is influencing the operations of both teams. For example the electronic bulletin board was introduced in a more empowering and less controlling way. Instead of the IT team making decisions about whether there would be a facility to respond anonymously, what access people would have etc these decisions were passed to the volunteers who formed the implementation group. Their remit was to implement Collabra Share in a way that will increase organisational learning. Collabra Share is now used to discuss key organisational issues and this, combined with the fact that the managing director is seen to be a regular user reinforces the message that all staff can contribute to policy and that conversation and networking are part of the job, not an extra.

A second example of this group influencing the operations of the teams involved is the training of people to use the email system. This was done by a system whereby volunteers who use it were involved in coaching other people who were unable to use it. This had the advantage that it was quicker than the original plan of all staff being trained by the IT team. More importantly it also increased the interconnectivity of the TEC as users coached people who they would not normally come into contact with and this created more opportunities for collaborative learning.

An additional aim of the steering group was to realise some of the enormous untapped potential of the IT system. At the time the group was formed only a minority of people in the TEC were using IT on a regular basis and a large number of people were reluctant to use IT at all. One of the objectives of the steering group was to help people overcome their individual barriers to IT. A successful intervention was the introduction of a "Computer Dinosaur Club", so named by a member of the steering group who was a founder member of the club. People who were uncomfortable using IT were encouraged to join up with the promise of a safe environment (the first meeting did not even involve a computer) and free sandwiches. Two of the members were executive directors. The "dinosaurs" have all now evolved. They all use email regularly and several of them also do their own word processing and use other software.

The IT/HR steering group developed its own objectives to which there has been a high degree of commitment and a sense of ownership. Examples of these objectives are:
· People right across the TEC are involved in specifying what they want from the IT system and therefore have an influence on how it is developed for the future.
· We have experimented with varying ways of using the IT system to encourage learning within the TEC.
· More cross TEC contact e.g. discussions happen between people who do not necessarily have contact currently
· Decision making happens between people from different departments and the system helps them to do this.

It is now two years since this initiative commenced and this group has made progress against most of its 30 objectives.


Increasing cross TEC contact is consistent with the culture that is being developed in the TEC and is also consistent with the thinking about how complexity theories might apply to organisations (Wheatley 1993; Waldrop 1992; Stacey 1996). Complexity is an interdisciplinary field which has emerged from the work of scientists associated with the Santa Fe Institute in the United States, such as Murray Gell-Mann, Stuart Kauffman and John Holland, and also scientists based in Europe, such as Ilya Prigogine and Brian Goodwin. Complexity theories lead us to view organisations as complex evolving systems which exist on the edge of order and chaos. It challenges the notion of striving for equilibrium and suggests instead that systems survive and thrive when they are pushed away from equilibrium.

Kauffman described the notion of the fitness landscape where, in the competition for survival, species attempt to alter their genetic make-up by taking "adaptive walks" to move to higher "fitness points". The fitness landscape however is constantly changing as a result of the adaptive changes of the inhabiting species. Similarly the business environment is a changing landscape as each business makes adaptive changes which in turn impact on the environment. This reinforces the importance of continual learning and monitoring of the environment, whilst accepting that we inevitably affect our environment.

Models of organisational change have traditionally been underpinned by positivist assumptions i.e. that the whole can be understood by an examination of its individual parts. Complexity theory, in contrast, suggests that organisational change should be approached from a more holistic perspective and specifically that complex systems such as organisations need to be understood phenomenologically. Thus this approach emphasises the dynamic and chaotic aspects of organisations rather than their stability or systematism.

A developing understanding of complexity has led the TEC to identify its organisational design principles. These are:
1 Make connections - to survive and thrive the organisation needs to be highly interconnected so everyone can and should talk to everyone, networking is part of the job and opportunities for collaborative learning are created whenever possible. The role of the Human Resources team (appendix 1) reflects the importance of this.
2 Learn continuously - the TEC as a system needs to respond to and form its environment, learning is seen as integral to the job and mistakes are valued as learning opportunities. The only form which is completed by everybody each month to be passed to the Managing Director is one which asks what people have learned. This communicates the message that learning is valued.
3 Make processes ongoing - the TEC is a self organising system where learning, planning and evaluating are an ongoing process. Structures should follow not lead and systems and processes should be based on the best people in the organisation rather than the one or two people who might abuse the system. Many TEC policies have now been changed to trust people to use their judgement and take responsibility. For example, the expenses policy states that any reasonable expenses incurred on TEC business will be reimbursed.
The assumption is that many of the rules and controls which are introduced into organisations often outlive their value, just as stabilisers on a bicycle are useful when one is learning but actually impede progress once you can cycle.
These design principles are given to all new employees and are reinforced through customary behaviour and approaches to tasks. In other words they are a part of the culture and the TEC aims to foster a culture which is open, where taking responsibility is valued and learning is core. These values are reflected in numerous ways such as the completion of Development Activity Sheets, the design of appraisal systems and the structure and style of communications. Development Activity Sheets are completed by every member of staff each month. They record what the individual feels that they have learned. These are all read by the Managing Director who often responds by talking to individuals about what they have written. As well as communicating the message that learning is valued this also provides an additional avenue of communicating with the MD. Upward appraisal is in operation and 360 degree appraisal is being developed. This communicates the message that managers are not the only people who have a right to give and are expected to give feedback. Communication channels are many and varied and people are encouraged to speak openly. There is an attempt to bring the shadow side of the organisation into the light by providing one or two anonymous channels of communication (annual staff attitude survey and some of the forums on Collabra Share). Although this can be uncomfortable at times it is invaluable for organisational learning. The message that people are expected to take responsibility is reinforced in a number of ways. For example, staff are responsible for being communicated with and for finding out what they need to know. They are also responsible for their own appraisal.

The Culture

The TEC makes a point of discussing its culture in an explicit fashion and involves every member of the organisation in those discussions. Importance is placed on tracking the development of the culture both qualitatively and quantitatively. Approximately every two years all staff complete an organisational culture inventory. They do so twice: once to record the culture as they perceive it now and once to describe the kind of culture they would like to work in. The results of the inventory are then discussed in workshops of mixed groups of staff. This enables everybody to place the quantitative results of the inventory into context by discussing how they are reflected in everyday working practices and the extent to which people feel the quantitative result for the whole organisation reflects the reality in their team. It also means that culture is discussed as something which is a product of everyone's behaviour and thus a joint responsibility.

This tracking exercise has now been done three times and the inventory results show marked changes which are all in the direction of what people have identified as the desired culture. The inventory results are backed up by anecdotal evidence in the workshops and people describe the TEC as a good place to work This is further reinforced by the low turnover and absentee rates. The turnover rate for 1996/7 was 6.8% and for 1997/98, 2.6%, while the sickness absence record for 1996/7 was 2.2% of days lost or 5.5 days per head compared to the national average (CBI source) of 3.59% or 8.26 days per head.


The purpose of becoming a learning organisation is to simultaneously make the organisation successful in terms of its aims and purpose as well as a good place to work in employee terms. The evidence suggests that the TEC is achieving this. A major criticism of the learning organisation approach is that it is idealistic and does not acknowledge the reality of power and hierarchy organisations (Hartley & Coopey 1991). The problem is posed in terms of whether an organisation can truly use all of the knowledge it has and whether people in less powerful positions in the organisation are able in reality to challenge those in more powerful positions. The TEC has attempted to make it easier for people to challenge by training people in giving and receiving feedback, by actively welcoming questions and challenge and by opening up channels where people can challenge, both face to face and anonymously. This has resulted in a high degree of openness but there are still occasions when people have something they wish to say but feel unable to even post it anonymously on the electronic bulletin board. Whether such complete openness is unachievable or perhaps achievable only over a very long period of time is still open to debate.
There appear to be features of the TEC which make the problem less unwieldy than in other organisations. In a medium sized organisation a high degree of interconnectivity is more possible than in large or multi sited organisations Coupled with this is the strong lead taken by the Managing Director in respect of implementing these concepts and encouraging others to do so. These and other factors merit further research to identify what affect they have on the implementation of the learning company concept. On the other hand it may be that the most powerful influence is the set of assumptions underlying the management style, such as "the best ideas do not always come form the top", "control is only an illusion" and "people in the organisation want to do a good job and will do so given the right support"


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