Monday, October 10, 2016


Wang and Ahmed (2003) describe the learning organization as the "collectivity of individual learning, training and development...within the organization." Rao (2016) contributes to this description by elaborating on the value of individual worker training to learning organizations. All three advance the belief that a learning organization's stability and growth is intimately tied to and dependent on individual workers' professional development. In this cognition of things, adult workers who are engaged in continuous learning and/or skill development are the essential--the most critical, perhaps--cogs in the learning organization machine; they help drive the organization forward and serve as stewards of the organization's culture. Furthermore, in the context of our ultra competitive labor markets, where learning organizations are increasingly jostling for survival, these adult workers/learners can be viewed as organizational assets as their ability to learn fast "constitutes the only sustainable competitive advantage at the disposal of a learning organization (Wang & Ahmad, 2003). In light of these admissions, it is a bit perplexing why learning organizations continuously turn to "training" as a means of developing their organizational assets.

Rao, after all, defines training as "the process involved in improving the aptitudes, skills and abilities of [...] employees to perform specific jobs" (2016). This definition recalls Kegan's (2000) conception of informational learning and brings to mind Argyris and Schon's single-loop learning theory. In both cases, the role of the adult learner/worker is tied to a specific task and behavior and remains largely at odds with the long-term needs of the learning organization, which is survival. To survive, learning organizations must see beyond the stable present and actively plan for future turmoil (risk). Training, as posited by Rao, does not allow for this; Rao's training merely facilitates a "business as usual" mentality. It helps a learning organization, via its adult workers, become good at what it does--specialization--but it doesn't impart those adaptive skills that are essential for long term survival. What then must a learning organization do if mere training can't facilitate survival in our increasingly complex market economy? Simply stated, learning organizations by way of their adult workers must pursue and encourage learning that is both meaningful and transformational and recalls both double and triple-loop learning. Doing this, I believe, will not only cultivate the insight and mental models needed to weather external risk and organizational competition, but it will ensure the long term survival of the learning organization. 

At this juncture, then, there is one question left to be asked: "if training is not the answer to the question of learning organization survival, why do most if not all learning organizations still make use of it as a means of developing workers' skills?" To me, this gets back to the notion of organizational stability. Organizations, learning or otherwise, have a bias toward stability because stability is safe and cost-effective, in the literal and figurative sense. Trainings, which often reflect organizational mission and culture, reinforce this stability by imparting an organization's "safe" values in workers. On the contrary, professional development that would be deemed transformational and emblematic of double and triple-loop learning is risky and costly. Mazirow (2001) states that transformational learning challenges the current mental model. In the workplace setting, the "current mental model" equates to the mission and/or culture of the learning organization; thus, transformational and double/triple-loop learning can amount to a destabilizing force that wreaks havoc on organizational stability by challenging and undermining the mission and/or culture of a learning organization.

In the end, training can be a force for good in that it can help learning organizations maintain their culture and mission; however, for learning organizations to survive (and thrive) in their resource starved and risk present ecosystems, a more robust means of professional development will be needed to facilitate the skill development of organizational (adult) workers.



Elijah Clapp said...

I found your post to be very well thought-out and argued. I liked what you had to say about organizations planning for the turmoil of the future. I agree that any successful organization needs to develop beyond the tasks of the here-and-now, or run the risk of obsolescence. I also agree that training still needs to be a part of the culture of any organization. Beyond maintaining stability, training is often necessary for compliance; changes in policy or law created outside of the organization.

You use Rao's definition of training, directed towards performing a specific job. How would you differentiate this from professional development? Do you see PD as more of a well-rounded pursuit, as opposed to a specific task?

I wonder how much triple-loop learning is necessary in an organization. While I think it is a good idea to occasionally question the basis of everything that you do, I can see an organization getting bogged down in this.

Finally, your post got me thinking about the following: At what point does an organization look outside of professional development, and instead look to hire new employees who already have the skills, attitudes, and knowledge needed by the organization. These days schools frequently hire new administrators from outside of the school district in order to create turmoil and perform some double-loop learning. Where is the place for this in our course?


KOFI said...


I think training as defined by Roa is professional development; I just happen to think of it as professional development at its most basic level. Professional development suggests continuous, ongoing learning; and I don't quite get that with Rao's training. What I get, instead, is the sense that you are learning for a defined amount of time with the specific end goal in mind of mastering some task. What happens after you master the task for which you underwent training? Does the learning stop? Obviously, my interpretation of Rao's defined training is subjective, and others will have dissimilar views, but I feel that professional development should extend well beyond the training stage. One thing that can agreed upon though is that skill building and professional development activities impacts us all differently. I, for example, am of the opinion that graduate study in Adult Learning will allow me to better serve my adult students and my organization; as Johnson (2008) points out, though, some successful organizational leaders have ranked graduate study low on their list of skill building and professional development activities (via learning experiences). So while I may view professional development as something that is a "well-rounded pursuit", other professionals might feel differently about the matter and I think that is fine.

On the matter of triple-loop learning, I also think that too much of a good thing (triple-looping) can be bad (bogging an organization down). But I don't think (some) organizations, especially those situated in super competitive ecosystems, like technology, have a choice in the matter. In ecosystems like education, however, there is more of a choice and too much triple-looping can undermine good and effective instruction that is already taking place. On the contrary, in chronically underperforming school systems (see Hartford, Bridgeport, etc), as a matter of progress, it behooves school leaders to routinely evaluate culture so as to identify those positive and negative elements that are impacting the school system as a learning organization effectiveness. Sometimes, of course, an objective assessment of school system and learning organization effectiveness is difficult--especially if those tasked with the assessment or those in leadership and non leadership positions are themselves part of the problem: part of the previously mentioned "negative elements". In such a scenario, I think it's perfectly sensible to bring in a leader extrinsic to the learning organization to instigate change and re-imagine the governing culture of the system. Agents of change must be careful in doing this though. A call for improvement and accountability (evolution) must not infringe on self-efficacy, and change agents--playing the role of HRD professionals--must not lose sight of the contributing value of their adult learners.