Memes & The Ladder LO7328

Dr Ilfryn Price (
Thu, 9 May 1996 10:15:54 -0400

Replying to LO7291 --

Replying to Hal Popplewell

>I've been following this thread a bit, primarily watching for the topic of
>"memes" to be taken up. Thought I'd do it myself. >snip>

>In a manner of speaking, "learning organization" is a meme, at least for
>some of us.>

Too right Hal

I have been staying quiet on memes for a while but you do prompt me to
offer the following excerpt from "THE LEARNING ORGANISATION MEME:
delivery next week at the ECLO Conference in Copenhagen. For those now
reaching for 'Delete' the sub title is *Parrots, patterns and performance*

Start of text



The concept of Learning Organisations emerged into the world of business
theory at about the same time, or shortly before the BPR meme.
Interestingly it seems to have evolved largely separately several times.
Perhaps 'learning' as meme already had its niche in the language of
academia. What researcher after all does not like to think that they
belong to an 'institute of learning' [and how many university departments
that you know would you really classify as learning organisations?].

Perhaps also 'the learning organisation' has had a harder time infecting
the listening of the practical business audience because the language [the
meme] triggers more defensive routines in the memetic pattern of the
practising manager who has escaped 'all that stuff'. Many a successful
manager is after all doing, what observers might choose to call
organisational, or action, learning without needing the benefit of the
learning organisation meme. They may call it innovation, or performance,
or even Process Re-engineering. They may even simply call it managing!!!!!

We do not actually know what a Learning Organisation is. We do know that
competing definitions abound and that is there is no common sense of
meaning conveyed by the term, even within the bounds of this conference.
John Harvey -Jones gives a, relatively pragmatic, senior businessman's
definition when he refers to the Learning Organisation as 'the
Philosophers Stone of Business; the thing everyone is searching for that
no one he knows has found'. By contrast Thurbin (34) argues it can be
reached in 17 days!. Some equate the LO with the capability to adapt,
react and change in contrast others [especially Senge and those inspired
by him] who would rather reserve the LO as something of a vision, a quest,
a search for generative innovation and a new sense of community in
organisations; one in touch with traditions other than the dominant
paradigm of western business.

Another more operational viewpoint sees a LO as one in which ideas and
lessons learnt are, openly and quickly adopted elsewhere in the company,
or for some pioneers the whole supply chain. Not many companies manage
such learning well despite databases of good practice, and books of
lessons learnt. Some professional services firms do it very well and a few
companies have cultures where it just happens as a matter of course.

Other schools seek to capture the high ground of learning for a particular
function within the corporation, usually the corporate centre hence
'planning as learning' benchmarking as learning' 'audit as learning' and
even 'control as learning'. Most notably of course this pattern prevails
in the HR function where 'Learning' often appears as a flag behind which
the personnel and training specialists fight for their place in the sun
and share of the corporate resource. Consider this definition of the top
[sixth] level of 'maturity' of an organisation from a recent article in
the UK's IPD magazine:

Training and Learning are the process through which strategy is
formulated. Are HRD people at the top table as both actors and
facilitators in policy formation? Is the organisation acquiring the
characteristics of a Learning Company?

Why the right hand state is a prerequisite of the left is not explained.
[it is a table in the paper BTW]

Yet, albeit gradually, a Learning Company is becoming perceived, even by
pragmatic business people as something they want to be. The Learning
Organisation is not so much a meme as an opportunity space that many other
memes are seeking to occupy. Whereas various, similar, recipes and names
competed for market share of Process Management space, different meanings
compete for the LO label. The confusion - and righteousness - thus
engendered probably hinders any of them becoming dominant.

It also enables much pleasurable discussion and debate into what a
Learning Organisation really is: a debate which unfortunately falls
frequent victim to the 'my meme right your meme wrong syndrome'. We can be
so stuck in our unconscious traditions, biases and language, so thrown to
a condition of 'being right' that we fail to enquire into what is


I can mail [or at least Smail] copies to anyone interested.

If Price
The Harrow Partnership
Pewley Fort Guildford UK


Dr Ilfryn Price <>

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <> -or- <>