Class Session 7

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Class Session 7


Austin, Aimee, Anne, Marylou, Melinda

Topic Summary:

This week’s readings and class discussion revolved around the concept of “Organizations as Brains.” The authors note a wide variety of connections between the structures and functions of the human brain and the organization and governance of groups. Morgan (2006) draws upon three such comparisons: information processing capabilities, adaptability to changes aka the ability to learn, and holographic abilities. Katz & Kahn (1996) discuss the concept of organizations as open systems, focusing on energy inputs and outputs, but also on how organizations learn and change over time. Kezar (2005) examines learning and organizations, specifically comparing the concepts of organizational learning with learning organizations. Finally, Senge (1990) details specific organizational recommendations for creating a learning organization with great focus on the role of leadership in that process. One trend across the readings and class discussions was the focus on how organizations “learn” and thus change over time as a way of adapting to new situations.

| Synthesis of Organizations as Brains | Morgan (2006) Chapter 4 - Organizations As Brains | Katz & Kahn (1996) - Organizations and the System Concept | Kezar (2005) What Campuses Need To Know About Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization | Senge (1990) - The Leader’s New Work: Building Learning Organizations | Additional Information to Chew on.... | But wait, there's more... | William and Mary: Showing Signs of the Learning Organization | | Other Resources

Synthesis of Organizations as Brains

A concept that ties all of the readings and class discussion together is learning. Each of the authors addresses how organizations adapt to current realities aka “learn.” This provides great insight into how we think about organizational learning or learning organizations and how these concepts can be implemented into the organizations that we work with. Additionally the authors provide critiques and limitations of organization as a learning entity.

When we think about the brain one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is the brain’s close association with thinking and the learning process. Our brains enable us to take a variety of external stimuli, process them and make meaning from them. We adapt as a system and make changes based on the information processed by the brain. We see the same principle in both Morgan’s (2006) and Katz & Kahn’s (1996) discussion of organizations. Both authors discuss the strong connection between this environmental information and how organizations are altered as a result. Morgan (2006) specifically discusses the use of single- and double-loop learning to detect information from the environment, evaluate that information, and then make corrective action as necessary. Katz & Kahn (1996) expand upon this concept in their discussion of “information input, negative feedback, and the coding process” as a key component of organizational systems. Additionally, they expand upon the desire for “steady state or homeostasis” and how organizations just like systems will adapt to external/environmental influences. These aspects of open systems are very similar to the single-loop decision making process described by Morgan.

Kezar (2005) also discusses the process through which organizations learn via a discussion of organizational learning and learning organizations. Kezar’s analysis of these two concepts relates very strongly to the learning processes described by Morgan and Katz and Kahn. Furthermore, Kezar discusses organizational activities and features which promote the learning process for organizations. There is an emphasis placed upon systematic problem solving, experimentation with new approaches, making meaning of past experiences and quickly and efficiently transferring knowledge and best practices within an organization. To be able to accomplish those learning tasks Kezar encourages organizations to be decentralized with a high degree of trust with strong relationships and solid communication between colleagues. These qualities help establish an environment that encourages the sharing of information and promotes appropriate risk-taking as a way of solving problems. Overall, he shares that it is important to create a learning culture with a shared vision for success.

Finally, Senge (1990) contributes to our understanding of how organizations learn by examining the role of the leader. One of the key roles for leaders is to build a collective vision and continue to sculpt that vision over time. A key element in setting the vision is ensuring that creative tension exists thus that there is an appropriate gap between the vision and the current reality that inspires the organization. Leaders must also challenge the existing mental models and through doing so create change and learning. Finally leaders must focus primarily at the systems level and focus less on the day-to-day. By doing so, they are able to take stock of the underlying trends and become a force for bigger change and a greater level of learning.

While the authors have established compelling arguments for learning organizations there are several areas for concern. Information sharing across organizations is vital to the learning process, yet there are many barriers to information sharing. While technology is greatly assisting in the communication of vital information within organizations, bureaucracy still remains in the way of the idealistic flow of information. Additionally, while there is a need for organizations to view the learning process as holistic and system-wide, it is difficult for individuals to expand their view beyond their single scope. Organizations need to work on investing all individuals in the greater goals and vision to ensure a successful learning process. Finally, organizational learning is complicated and there seems to be a common underestimation of its complexity. There needs to be a greater understanding at all levels about the complexity of the learning process. To best accomplish organizational learning, groups must fully realize the challenges they must overcome to ensure the greatest outcomes in the learning process.

Morgan (2006) Chapter 4 - Organizations As Brains

Brain_Cartoon.pngGareth Morgan uses the brain metaphor because of several characteristics.
The brain displays holographic qualities. That is, multiple areas of the brain are able
to reproduce multiple functions, at least to some level of precision. The brain also has
areas that specialize in particular skills. The complexity of brains raises many
possibilities when viewing organizations as brains. Morgan discusses these possibilities
in the three interconnected areas outlined below. For a detailed summary of Morgan's chapter on the organization as brains and definition of key terms, click BRAINS.

Katz & Kahn (1996) - Organizations and the System Concept


Common Characteristics of Open Systems:
Important Facts:
Importation of Energy
  • Open systems important some energy from external environment- must rely on renewed supplies of energy from other sources
  • i.e. personality is dependent upon external world for stimulation- deprivation can lead to disorganization
The Through-Put
  • Open systems transform the energy in the system in ways that benefit the system and allows work to be done
The Output
  • Open systems export products into the environment (products are created)
Systems as Cycles of Events
  • Cyclical energy exchange – many small cycles can make up large ones
  • Energy reinforcing the cycle of activities can come from exchange of product in world or from the activity of the cycle
  • The problem of structure can be observed in the arrangement of units
    • Structure can be found in an interrelated set of events
  • which return upon themselves to complete/renew cycles
  • Activities promote unity in the closure of the cycle—the chain of events
Negative Entropy
  • Open systems must acquire negative entropy
  • All forms of organization move towards disorganization
    • By importing more energy from its environment then using the system can store up energy for unproductive times
      • Systems maximize profits while they can- seeking to improve position by increasing profit margin
Information Input, Native Feedback, and the Coding Process
  • The inputs into living systems consist of energic materials which are altered in the cyclical process
    • Inputs also help create character of organization
  • Negative Feedback- enables the system to correct deviations from course (simplest)
    • If there is no corrective device, too much energy will be expended and system will stop working
  • Selective energic inputting- only react when attuned
The Steady State and Dynamic Homeostasis
  • Adding energy to stop entropy occurs to create consistency so that organizations are stable
    • No true equilibrium; rather a continuous cycle of energy from environment/system without changing the character of the system
    • React to changes and assimilate them without creating mass system change
    • In preserving the character of system the structure will import more energy than required
  • Most common type of growth is multiplication of same type of cycles- change in quantity
  • Qualitative change can occur: supportive subsystems to develop and where quantitative changes cause qualitative changes
  • Open systems move in the direction of differentiation and elaboration (growth)
    • “Progressive mechanization- interaction of various dynamic forces which entails use of regulatory feedback” (282)
  • Systems can reach the same end product by multiple paths

2012-03-22_20-03-09_4.jpg Classroom discussion with Katz & Kahn

Are you a social thinker? Want to read another article by Katz & Kahn? Click here!

Kezar (2005) What Campuses Need To Know About Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization


Organizational Learning (OL): study of whether, how and under what conditions organizations can learn (Fiol & Lyles, 1985).

  • Started in 1950’s; Herbert Simon is a lead researcher
  • Emerged through organizational psychology
  • Seen as systematic body of research (Argyris & Schon, 1996)
  • Collectives learn as a whole rather than as individuals
  • Environment promotes a culture of learning, a community of learners, and as individuals learn it enriches the entire organization as a whole
  • Main concepts are centered on single and double loop learning, inquiry and action, theories-in-use, overload, information interpretation (unlearning and organizational memory)
  • Features within organizations that encourage learning are decentralization (vs. hierarchy), trust between employee and manager, new information systems, incentives and rewards, learning culture, open communication, sharing of information, staff development and training, and inquiry units.


Learning Organization (LO): An organization that can be adaptable, flexible, experimental, and innovative

  • Emerged out of organizational learning in 1990s
  • Key writers are Senge (1990), Schein (1985), and Garvin (1993)
  • Grew out of the concern that American firms were unable to respond to challenges from external environments
  • Use five disciplines to overcome threats: systems thinking, mental models, personal mastery, shared vision, and team learning/dialogue
  • Identifies five main activities organizations can use to become a learning organization: systematic problem solving, experimentation with new approaches, learning from experiences and past history, learning from experiences and best practices and transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization

Shared concepts between organizational learning and learning organizations:
  • Concerned with processes of acquiring information, interpreting data and development of knowledge and sustaining the learning that occurs
  • Focus on importance of systems thinking and viewing organization as a system (one area impacts another)
  • Mental models (challenging assumptions) are critical to learning and implementing change
  • The level learning occurs is important; individual, group and organizational learning need to be interactive in order for organizational learning to occur
  • Learning is complex and can be easily threatened making it difficult to have clear and simple answers about how to facilitate learning within organizations

Differences between organizational learning and learning organization:
  • Degree to which learning is seen as possible, effective and desirable; OL focuses on study of threats to learning whereas LO focuses on overcoming threats to learning
  • Learning Organization is perceived as a fad and an “ideal” state of organizational functioning and is not based on empirical research
  • Learning Organization focuses on external threats for fostering learning while Organizational Learning focuses on internal concerns for performance and learning as part of the human condition within settings

Evolution of OL and LO in Higher Education:
  • OL and LO tend to be used interchangeably in literature which can be confusing in understanding how they are being applied (depending on what they are addressing terms can have multiple meanings:
  • Intertwined with other concepts such as Total Quality Management (TQM), assessment, human resource management, and knowledge management
  • Most literature advocates for learning rather than providing empirical data about how learning occurs

Current uses of OL:
  • Lead to the importance of creating knowledge management processes ( how organizations assess data and information, how data and information are meaningful and usable across campus, and how knowledge and data are maintained)
  • Knowledge management focuses on how learning occurs (process) rather than techniques (procedures)
  • Encourages lifelong learning in staff and faculty development; implementation of learning plans across groups on campus (faculty, staff, administrators)
  • Additional Insights:
  • OL concepts are more researched based but does not offer simple techniques to be quickly implemented
  • LO provides more practical applications for learning but is an idealized fad that has some positive attributes if implemented wisely

Lessons for Higher Education
  • Literature in higher education needs to be clearer in defining the concepts and to understand how they may produce different meaning based on how they are being implemented
  • Literature illustrates that higher education institutions know about how their organizations learn
  • Leadership may want to wait on implementing these concepts until more research has developed or limit to areas in which experimentation and positive results have occurred
  • OL and LO concepts need to explored sooner than later to meet upcoming challenges that require learning and change (accountability, down economic times, increased enrollments, state and federal mandates, etc.)

Glossary of Terms

  • Benchmarking: comparison of data between organizations to discover information about ways to conduct business which can provide best practices
  • Double-looped learning: challenging existing assumptions and beliefs to align the institution to the environment and requires transformational change
  • Experimentation: systematic searching for and testing new knowledge
  • Inquiry and advocacy: form of dialogue that helps individuals understand underlying assumptions and values that prevent/block learning from occurring
  • Knowledge transfer – providing information among members of the organization; reporting is a key feature
  • Mental models: beliefs and assumptions that people hold that prevent learning if they are not challenge with new information and data
  • Overloads: having more information than the capacity to process
  • Personal mastery: process of continuous learning by individuals and being open to new challenges
  • Shared vision: common purpose that provides force and energy for learning
  • Single-looped learning: detection of errors in alignment with the environment based on existing values and assumptions; incremental changes as a result
  • Systematic problem solving: practice of relying on scientific method for discovering problems and when developing solutions
  • Team learning: process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members really want to accomplish
  • Theories-in-use (mental models): refer to beliefs that guide action; learning occurs when new ideas ore presented and challenges existing theories in use

Senge (1990) - The Leader’s New Work: Building Learning Organizations

Building Learning Organizations (287-288)
Humans are designed for learning. Infants learn walking and talking on their own and have an insatiable drive to explore and experiment. Society in which we live tries to control, rather than promote organic learning. By focusing on performing for someone else’s approval, corporations create a mediocre achievement level. Superior performance depends on superior learning.
Adaptive Learning and Generative Learning (288-289)
Learning organizations are those that are fit to grow and survive and are characterized by adaptive learning (coping) and generative learning (creating). Adaptation is essential for ever-changing business environments and also includes perceiving future needs of customers. Creativity is cornerstone to competitive advantage and output and requires new ways of looking at the world.

Creative Tension: The Integrating Principle (289- 290)

Creative tension is the ability to recognize “vision,” or where one wants to be, and “current reality,” the truth of where one is. The gap between the two generates natural tension. Solutions to creative tension include raising current reality towards the vision or by lowering the vision towards current reality. Without vision there is no creative tension.
New Roles for Leaders (290 - 293)
The traditional authoritarian image of a leader is inadequate for learning organizations. As Edgar Schein recognized, “Leadership is intertwined with cultural formation” and should represent the culture of the organization.
Leader as Designer: craft the ideas of “purpose, vision, and core values by which people will live.
Leader as Teacher: Define reality and act as a coach for the organization. Identify mental models and guide those to restructure views on reality. Influence people to view reality at three distinct levels: events, patterns of behavior, and systemic structure.
Leader as Steward: A critical attitude for learning organizations. As Robert Greenleaf states, “The Servant leader is servant first...This conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead”. Stewardship operates on two levels: for the people they lead and for the larger purpose or mission of the enterprise.
New Skills for Leaders (293-297)
Leaders in learning organization must develop new skills through a lifelong commitment. These skills must be widely distributed throughout the organization.Three critical discipline areas:
Building Shared Vision: encouraging personal vision, communicating and asking for support, visioning as an ongoing process, blending extrinsic and intrinsic visions, distinguishing positive from negative visions.
Surfacing and Challenging Mental Models: challenge existing mental models without invoking defensiveness. Characterized by seeing leaps of abstraction, balancing inquiry and advocacy, distinguishing espoused theory from theory in use, recognizing and defusing defensive routines.
Engaging in Systems Thinking: Leaders focus less on day-to-day events and more on underlying trends and forces of change. Often engage in systems thinking intuitively and cannot explain their intuitions. Key skills: seeing interrelationships, not things, and processes, not snapshots; moving beyond blame; distinguishing detail complexity from dynamic complexity; focusing on areas of high leverage; avoiding symptomatic solutions.

New Tools for Leaders (297 – 303)

Example: New Student Orientation Archetype:

Leaders of learning organizations will need to develop skills to enhance conceptual abilities and foster communication and collaborative inquiry. These include identifying system archetypes that occur repeatedly in organizations.
Archetypes include: balancing process with delay, or knowing the time necessary to complete a project and deciding its relevance upon completion; limits to organizational growth; shifting the burden, or focusing on a short-term solution without considering the long-term negative impacts; eroding goals, or lowing standards; escalation, or employees attempted advantages; tragedy of the commons, or overusing a limited resource; and growth and underinvestment.
Chartering Strategic Dilemmas: management teams unravel when confronted with core dilemmas. Charles Hampden-Turner details a process to cope with common dilemmas.Eliciting the dilemmas, or identifying opposed values from most obvious; mapping, or locating opposing values as two axes as a visual representation; processing, or getting rid of nouns for positive conceptualization; framing/ contextualizing, or thinking in terms of each side of the structure; sequencing, or breaking hold of static thinking; waving/cycling, or knowing cycles were both values will worsen over a period; and synergizing, the ultimate goal of improving along all axes.
Left-Hand Column”: Surfacing Mental Models: An exercise developed by Chris Argyris illustrating how people move from data to generalization without testing the validity of these generalizations.
Developing Leaders and Learning Organizations (303)
Marshall Sashkin and N. Warner Burke emphasize the importance of developing leaders who can also develop organizations. Management will focus on roles, skills, and tools for leadership in learning organizations.


Additional Information to Chew on....

But wait, there's more...

Organizational Learning vs The Learning Organization
Our class activity of identifying the similarities and differences between organizational learning and the learning organization helped differentiate the two. At first glance, Adrianna Kezar's description of the learning organization places it out of reach as she refers to it as a "fad", "a contested area", and "an idealized model." After writing down the differences, Kezar's version of the learning organization is clearer. She holds the title to a very high standard and set of activiites; well beyond those seen in organizational learning. After reading Morgan as well, however, we see a different set of standards for the learning organization. Morgan eludes to double-loop learning as moving toward "learning to learn," while Kezar views it as just another method employed in organizational learning.
From theorist to theorist, there appears to be overlap in the principles and definitions for organizational learning and the learning organization. It's no wonder the terms conjur up confusing gray areas. Could it be that the learning organizaion is still making its transition from an "idea" to a "reality?" How well defined were such concepts as space exploration or the internet, until we could see it and use it?
Katz and Kahn Grafitti Activity
It is difficult to view any organization, let alone an active college setting, as an “open system.” The terminology used by Katz and Kahn to describe an organization is lifeless and foreign when compared with more recent metaphorical images. The nine characteristics outlined in the article have a scientific nature and might gladly have been ignored had it not been for this exercise in class. The informal setting of the activity allowed us to write examples and descriptions at our own pace, as we became comfortable with each characteristic. Intermittent small group discussions moved many of us toward a better understanding of such characteristics as “negative entropy” and “coding process.” The examples we wrote for each characteristic were varied depending on the writer’s perspective. So, this activity served two purposes in the end. It provided realism and clarification to Katz and Kahn’s organization as a system. It also emphasized the reality that members of any group have varied perspectives in viewing an organization and all its parts. Even one of the simpler characteristics, "output," elicited a wide variety of responses.
Example: The Output
What product(s) are exported into the environment from an institution of higher education?
Practical knowledge
Global thinkers
Life experiences
Loyalty to institution
Engaged leaders
Professional development
Great art and waste are both output
Creation of new ideas/problems
The proposed curriculum change is under a barrage of attacks, particularly from The Society of The College, an independent voice for alumni, students, faculty and friends of William and Mary. Many of their concerns are legitimate. Funding for a new physical site; the Curriculum Center, is questioned at a time of economic downturn when a raise in staff and faculty salaries might yield better return. Other concerns focus on the rigor of the new curriculum. For example, the new curriculum is based on 24 hours of COLL courses spread over seven courses. It should provide more flexibility in subject concentration and be less rigorous in the junior and senior years. Click for related essays byAndrew R. McRoberts, '81, President, The Society of The CollegeEugene R. Tracy, Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences at William and Mary
Some of the opposition is based on incomplete information but others express a sincere concern that the faculty committee is really "watering down" the general education requirements. How will the curriculum steering committee handle these external pressures? The characteristics of an open system are playing out here; how will William and Mary adjust, if at all, to the characteristic Katz and Kahn call "information input, negative feedback, and the coding process."
Stay tuned: this outside pressure also invokes questions concerning governance. Is curriculum review and change strictly an internal concern under faculty governance as stated by Eugene Tracy? Or, considering the college is tied to the donations of alumni and greater college community, should they have more influence? Our March 28 topics expound on this dichotomy and other issues regarding governance.
Vision Statement/Left-Hand column activity
This activity revealed that many students in our class were not aware of the Mission or Vision statement of The School of Education at William and Mary. However, in broad terms, the activity made our groups realize that we typically identify very general goal statements that are hard to adequately define. Some members of our group over-defined their goals, creating extensive and encompassing visions. However, there were more people that did not "dream big" and thus created easily attainable dreams for the School of Education at William and Mary. Thus, our groups did not have the creative tension that was described by Senge. This lack of creative tension can be linked directly to a disconnect between individuals identity being strongly linked with the College of William and Mary/School of Education. If perhaps, the students would have a strong identification with this SOE there would have been a higher degree of creative tension. This exercise really helped our group see the assumptions that we make regarding the vision statements of WM in comparison with other institutions, departments, and fields.


=William and Mary: Showing Signs of the Learning Organization== =
As Bob Dylan once sang, “For the times, they are a changin’." A curriculum change,that is, here at The College of William and Mary. The current general education requirements were established over twenty years ago when the environment was much different. Reduced state funding and a shift in expectations for graduates are just two reasons for the curriculum revision. The current system of “gen. ed.” requirements is unsustainable and ineffective in preparing today’s graduate for the current workforce. In April, 2011, a steering committee started with discussions about what type of Liberal Arts Curriculum the college should have. By February, 2012, we had our first glimpse of the proposed new curriculum, although it is still in a skeletal form with few details. We believe the steering committee employed many of the concepts discussed in this week’s topics of organizational learning, the learning organization and organizations as brains. The table below summarizes some of the observed applications.
Steering Committee Actions
Application of Concepts
They initially questioned: “What kind of Liberal Arts Curriculum would we like to create? Will we create something new or adjust what we have?” Focus groups of faculty and students also met to discuss where we see ourselves in relation to the Liberal Arts and what our vision is over the next 20 years.
Existing assumptions are being questioned and challenged; do they align with the changing environment? This creates an opportunity for organizational learning as we work to understand and communicate honestly. This is important if transformational change is to occur. (Kezar)
Subcommittees were formed for data collection, institutional memory and research on other models.
These are examples of other concepts of organizational learning: Overload, Organizational Memory and Theories-in-Use. The search for new knowledge begins by assessing past performance and using the data to correct actions. Researching other undergraduate curriculum models also characterizes a stepin becoming a learning organization. (Kezar)
The Curriculum Review Steering Committee was given little initial direction. There is latitude inside the accreditation requirement of 30 hours of general education coursework.
A key principle of creating a holographic design in an organization is that of “minimal specs.” Lack of detail and direction might intimidate members with an “old bureaucratic mind-set” but it provides the space needed for innovation. (Morgan)
The curriculum committee presented the new concept of the College Curriculum to faculty for discussion.
This new vision of curriculum expectations is very different and bound to generate some natural tension. This creative tension can create the energy needed, however, to move our current reality in the direction of the vision. The discussion provided a platform for faculty to reflect on our purpose and core values. (Senge)
Sharing the vision is also key to a holographic design. (Morgan and Senge)
A pilot program and/or small scale version of the College Curriculum will precede any broad changes. They are considering implementation in disciplines where the change is most natural and success is most likely first.
Start small and in an area with the greatest potential for success rather than trying to change the entire institution at once. This employs one of the guidelines to successfully implementing “the fad of the learning institution.” (Kezar)
The steering committee has several different ways to achieve an improved the curriculum.
Move to a 4 credit system (only take 3-4 classes a semester); Delete the foreign language system; Restructure GRE requirements to fit the needs of modern students. (Katz & Kahn)
The Curriculum Committee researched peer institutions.
The Committee engaged in systems thinking through identifying common trends among other institutions and attempted to develop a curriculum to maintain competitive advantage. (Senge)

Other Resources

The Challenge of Organizational Learning - article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review on the barriers to organizational learning and strategies for overcoming them

On Organizations as Brains by Espen Andersen - summary of Morgan's chapter with connections to cognitive science as an expansion of the metaphor

Transforming Organizations into Social Brains - Peter Krause, a German professor and researcher of neurophysiology and experimental psychology discusses the use of his research to transform a business. (video below is Part 1 of 7 of him talking about his work)

Society for Organizational Learning - good resource to find out more

Quote of the Day:
Group: Shouldn't these terms be opposite? (Organizational Learning +Learning Organizations)
Anne: It makes sense to me. I'm left handed!