Re: Help for an article on learning organisations

Fri, 09 Dec 94 09:36:03 PST

Steve -- I've had the unpleasant experience of working in a fairly large company
that is trying to simultaneously use all three of the tools you mention. The
"Learning Organization" is the latest effort, the first to be corporate-wide,
and still in a nascent stage. But it is not too early to reflect on it.

Having been a part of the team that looked into the questions "What is a
learning organization? What would it look like at this company? Is there a
legitimate business reason to do this?" I want to share some of my personal
feelings about why a company should do this.

I think a learning organization philosophy is important for a company that wants
to stay around for the long term and enjoy sustained competitive advantage.
That's why it matters for a business. You stay in touch with the world and
change with your environment. If you're able to change more quickly than your
competitor you can enjoy significant advantages. Of course there are many other
things required, but this is pretty central to business success, especially
long-term success.

TQM can be closely related, and many "Learning Organizations" practice TQM.
Reengineering, on the other hand, is only a tool, and a short-term one for that
matter. It is a new buzz-word for something that has been a part of Industrial
Engineering for many decades and TQM too, for that matter. It may or may not be
used by a company practicing TQM or learning organization principles. It is
quite different from both TQM and L-O in that they are both philosophies where
BPR is just a tactical tool.

TQM can be difficult to implement because many managers just don't have the
solid background in scientific methods to even understand what needs to be done.
In a L-O environment they are probably more prone to go learn about TQM and
implement it properly. In my opinion there is probably nothing more wasteful
than a TQM effort or LO effort which is not well understood and supported. Also
from what I've seen and read the same seems to hold true for reengineering. The
simple Pareto Principle, that about 20% of what's done matters and 80% is
useless, seems to hold true for corporate efforts to change, whether by LO,
reengineering, or TQM.

So, given that each has about a 20% chance of success (there are numerous books
and articles siting such numbers) which do you choose? Well, you can stack the
odds and look at the case studies to figure out what worked and what didn't. The
Field Book is the best list of case studies for LO, there are many books in the
library on TQM. Knowing what you're doing probably reverses your odds. I would
recommend against simply reengineering, it usually turns out to be nothing but a
tool to downsize and that's not healthy, even if you do have "dead wood."
Because we're not talking about trees, we're talking about people. And when you
start cutting off people and discarding them, it sends a very powerful message
to the rest of the employees. If it looks like you spent a lot of money on a
project to figure out who to cut, it means eliminating employees now appears to
be one of your most important business goals. Nice, huh?

There is a danger which I never see discussed in these writings about TQM and
LO, which I would like to talk about in an open forum. Put simply, what happens
when top management changes? Both of these philosophies are by their nature
long-term efforts, although of course they both have short-term benefits as
well. However, given that the average tenure of a CEO is around 6 years,
"long-term" doesn't always mean a lot to the folks at the top.

Consider the example of [a large electric utility]: they won the Deming Prize a
couple years back, the first American company to do so. According to everyone
they were an excellent company, and by every measure of a business that seemed
true. But they got a new CEO and that was the end of TQM, because he thought it
was a waste of money. This year they cut their dividend by 40%. Of course, it
was due to forces "beyond the control of management." Isn't it always??

Doesn't this have serious implications for every large company? We talk of the
need to have top management commitment to launch a successful project, but
there's more to it than that. It does make you think twice before committing
yourself to a major effort, at least it made me think twice. My reason for
continuing was along the lines of Senge's argument: the best reason to have a
learning organization is because you WANT to work in one.

Sean Gawne, Southern California Edison

"The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday
thinking." -- Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years

Steve Gildersleeve wrote:

Bonjour chers collegues,

[...] To what organistional needs does the learning organisation approach
attempt to provide answers?

What assumption is the learning organisation based on?