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
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
- 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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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