In Learning Organizations the System is the Star

By Rod Collins

In response to the corporate efforts to adapt to the new demands of accelerating change and escalating complexity, Peter Senge has identified organizational learning as a critical core competency for meeting the challenges of a faster paced and more complex business world. In his seminal work, The Fifth Discipline, Senge makes the case that most companies fail to adapt to changing business circumstances because they suffer from learning disabilities.

While much has been written about the importance of organizational learning and many managers acknowledge the need for this new competency, few understand what it means to be a learning organization. And even fewer know what to do on a practical day-to-day basis in the workplace. That's because the paradigm of learning for most managers is the individual achiever model that is so familiar from their many years of formal education. In their attempts to move their companies to become learning organizations, many businesses are establishing internal corporate training programs or affiliating with independent professional leadership training groups to demonstrate the value that management places on learning. Unfortunately, these well-intended managers are operating from the wrong paradigm! Becoming a learning organization is not about having smarter individuals - it's about having a smarter company. Being a learning organization means having the ability to leverage the power of collective intelligence to make the leap to extraordinary performance.

Leveraging collective intelligence means the focus of work needs to shift from functional experts to cross-functional teams. It also means that companies can no longer assume that everything they need to know is already known by the brightest people inside their organizations. In fast changing times, the smartest people aren't experts; they're learners. The smartest companies in the Digital Age will be those organizations that are able to use their cross-functional intelligence as the foundation for their strategic and operational performance. Rather than constructing top-down hierarchies, the leaders of learning organizations build collaborative networks. Some well known examples include W.L. Gore & Associates (the makers of Gore-Tex), Google, Wikipedia, and Linux.

If managers want to succeed in meeting the unprecedented challenges of of our fast-changing times, they will need to embrace collective learning as the new foundation for both strategy and execution. This means diminishing the longstanding sovereignty of the supervisors because the greatest obstacle to organizational learning is the traditional chain of command that gives far too many people the authority to kill good ideas and keep bad ideas alive. It means having the innovative processes to quickly collate and aggregate their organization's collective intelligence. And it also means creating performance evaluation metrics that support cross-team collaboration.

One of the consequences of the combination of accelerating change and escalating complexity that defines our twenty-first century business world is that no single individual can process everything that's happening in real-time. Thus, it is becoming increasingly perilous for businesses to continue to employ a nineteenth-century management architecture that's based on the belief that the smartest organizations are those that leverage the expertise of their smartest individuals.  By the time the errors of this obsolete belief are realized, it may be simply too late to act. We need look no further than the well-publicized demise of stalwarts such as Enron, WorldCom, Bear Sterns, and Lehman Brothers for proof of the fatal consequences of relying on the direction of supposedly smart individuals. In the new world of twenty-first century business, the smartest companies are not the ones with the brightest individual stars; they're the ones where the system is the star.

Rod Collins


Rod has more than 30 years of experience in management positions of increasing responsibility in the healthcare industry. Rod is an innovative executive leader with sustained success in achieving financial, operational, and market growth objectives in challenging environments. He has extensive experience in serving as a catalyst for positive change and in building highly collaborative organizations.

Rod is also a member of our Speakers Bureau.


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