I have been reflecting on the relationship between learning and change and improvement for organisations. I know that an organisation can be a learning organisation, but does it learn?
An organisation may have tools to learn and it may have within it various teams that are learning, but does the organisation learn? The teams can do things differently but ar they learning? In that sense, one can do things differently without changing.
If we learn something, we are changed by it. An organisation may improve without changing. For example, if we learn a new skill, or a new game, or just a new song, we are changed by it. Some of the lessons we learn change us more than others, but all change us. If that is the case, then should we be rethinking our approach to change management?
Are we in danger of focusing on the idea of “change management” without thinking through what we mean by change and what change means for the individual and the organisation? If change management means a structured approach to shifting the organization from its current state to a desired future state, then what do we need to do. We need an organizational process that empowers employees to accept and embrace changes in their business environment. If learning creates change, not all change creates learning. Dying changes us but we do not learn from it
Can we empower employees in this way if the organisation is not empowered or structured in this way? By that I mean the emerging work approach is for knowledge workers to push their own learning requirements and pull the required information from the areas around them. The role of the organisation ,in this approach, is to provide the context and support for them to do their work. Yet, most organisations are not structured in this way and want the knowledge worker, or any work, to fit within the pre-determined framework. Thus, we may have learning at the micro level, the knowledge worker and their team, but no learning at the macro or organisational level.
If learning leads to change can what individuals learn make the organisation learn? In many ways, it may be that an organisation has to unlearn before it or we can learn. For example, an organisation has to recognise that what it is doing is no longer going to deliver the same result as before. In this way, are organisation ready to refine how they work and use teams and knowledge workers.
The above presupposes that learning or changing is going to take an organisation from one state, the pre-learning stage, to a post learning state, the learned stage. If the transition is clear, then we can see its effect. What happens, though, if our change is caught up in the environmental change around us? By that I mean, the context in which change is occurring is also changing so that our learning, or change, does not move us forward because it is only enough to keep up. You only know you are speeding when you pass someone or you only know you are going too slowly when you are passed. If all the other cars are going exactly the same speed, relative to you, then you will not notice the change.
If this holds true for organisations, do we need to keep learning at the micro, or individual level, so that the people within the organisation can change? Will that micro level change enable the organisation to change?
Is the underlying reality one that we cannot get an organisation to change and it is the context and the people within it that change? I wonder if the organisation, as organisation, does not change because it cannot learn. It may be that some organisations are not designed to learn and their purpose is not served by learning as such, but rather by honing their pursuit of their purpose. Perhaps what is happening is that instead of learning an organisation only refines its purposes in the same way that we learn a new skill but then we train it and deepen it. If we are seeking to train an organisation, rather than have it learn, then this will have a specific impact for change management. The goal will not be to learn, as such, to change rather it is to train. The difference is that training is only refining while learning is doing things differently for different reasons. For example, if an organisation takes on a service to become something different, it is changing. If it only refining and deepening what it has, then it is only training.
In that realm, change management could be counterproductive if it confuses the change needed to learn, become something different, with the change needed to refine the existing purpose and improve within that framework rather than transcend the framework.
In the end, do we need change management precisely because organisations cannot learn?