The Learning Organization
Towards an Action Learning Organization
David Limerick, Ron Passfield and Bert Cunnington
In a learning organisation, leaders' roles differ dramatically from that of
the charismatic decision maker... (they) are responsible for building
organisations where people are continually expanding their capabilities to
shape their future - that is, leaders are responsible for learning[1, p. 9].
Transformational Change versus the Learning Organization: A Case of Parallel
An interesting and destructive phenomenon is occurring in the field of
strategic change - a phenomenon which we would call "parallel talk". The
idea is borrowed from the concept of parallel play, common in the field of
developmental psychology, where it has long been observed that
three-year-old children do not play with one another - they play next to one
another. In the same way, many of those involved in the newly emerging field
of strategic change are not talking to one another. They are talking next
to, or parallel to, one another.
The two prime culprits, perhaps, are the champions of two streams of
thinking surrounding the ideas of transformational leadership and the
learning organization. Proponents of these two streams seem often to assume
commonality between their two approaches. But they rarely address each
other, and rarely confront their points of difference. Yet there are points
of apparent difference which need to be confronted if we are really to
understand the nature of organizational change. The two most important
differences relate to:
1. the role of the leader; and
2. incremental versus transformational change.
The Role of the Leader
Senge, the architect of learning organization theory, is trenchant in his
dismissal of the need for charismatic decision makers in the process of
change. Compare his sentiments in the opening quote of this article with
much of the rhetoric on transformational leadership:
Strong leaders are necessary, particularly for organisations that must
undergo significant change. Not good managers, or executives but strong
leaders[2, p. 289].
We cannot overstate the importance of top leaderships giving significant
personal attention early on to describing both the organisation's ultimate
vision. Identifying the core mission, specifying the desired environmental
demand and response systems, defining corporate values and vision and
determining the elements of an effective organization all represent tasks
that are too critical to delegate to staff or subordinate managers[3, p.
Leaders - that is, the transformational types - are visionary, solitary,
inspirational figures consumed with certain ideals and goals: they engender
intense emotions in their followers. In a word, they are charismatic[4,
Such notions are clearly at odds with Senge's assertion that "it is simply
no longer possible for anyone to 'figure it all out at the top'"[1, p. 7].
Or are they? Until parallel talk ceases, the issue will not be resolved.
Transformational versus Incremental Change
A second area has to do with the very nature of change. Learning
organization theorists base their concepts on continuous, incremental
learning. To Senge's notion of an organization in which "people are
continually expanding their capabilities to shape their future" are often
attached the notions of continuous improvement and logical incrementalism.
The total package of ideas is not too dissimilar from conventional notions
of organizational development (OD):
Organization development is a top-management-supported, long-range effort to
improve an organization's problem-solving and renewal processes,
particularly through a more effective and collaborative diagnosis and
management of organization culture with special emphasis on formal work
team, temporary team, and intergroup culture with the assistance of a
consultant facilitator and the use of the theory and technology of applied
behavioural science, including action research[5, p.17].
With this focus on the ongoing capacity of their organization to learn and
improve continuously comes an eschewal of the role of crisis in change.
"Crisis", observed Senge at a recent workshop on the learning organization,
"may stimulate change, but its social and individual costs are too high".
Organization transformation (OT) theorists, on the other hand, seem to take
a much more revolutionary view of coping with change. The sentiments of
Fletcher and Kiechel are fairly typical of OT views:
Organisational Transformation can be defined as a holistic, ecological,
humanistic approach to radical, revolutionary change in the entire context
of an organisational system[7, p. xv].
To become true learning organizations, though, companies will have to
appreciate that continuous improvement doesn't necessarily bring with it an
openness to surprises or new directions. Yes, continuous improvement will
rack up the incremental gains, but what will it do when the rules of the
game shift entirely?[8, p. 76]
The Focus of This Article
These issues - the role of the charismatic and evolutionary versus
revolutionary change - are not just theoretical niceties. They are vitally
important for transformational change practitioners. They affect the scale
of change attempted, its timing, the actors brought into the processes and
the very change processes themselves.
This article sets out to bring an end to parallel talk between the two
streams. It argues that they can be synthesized into a single coherent
approach to change. We set out to sketch the outlines of such a synthesis,
using the concept of the action learning organization as a bridge between
learning and transformation. Finally, we consider the demands made by action
learning on both organizations and the individuals within them.
The Nature of Change
In order to reconcile the two schools of thought, we will be drawing on two
1. the metastrategic cycle; and
2. punctuated equilibrium.
The first acknowledges that change takes place at different levels in the
organization, from superficial systems of action to change in the very
identity of the organization. The second argues that the level at which
change is demanded depends on the kind of environmental change taking place.
The Metastrategic Cycle
The idea of organizational identity is not easy, but it is essential to an
understanding of organizational transformation. It is best understood in
relation to other processes which attempt to configure the organization as a
whole. These are the processes which are important in transforming
organizations, and they are stressed by both transformational and learning
theorists. For example, Senge notes that those in the learning organization
understand the total "design" of the organization: they have a "mental
model" of the organization, and understand its "systemic structure".
Limerick and Cunnington have attempted to represent processes such as these
in their model of a "metastrategic cycle". We will explore this concept
briefly, and then use it for looking at learning under conditions of both
equilibrium and punctuation. The metastrategic cycle is a concept which
links together vision, identity, configuration and organizational action.
This cycle is depicted in Figure 1.
The metastrategic cycle has four basic elements or stages within it:
1. founding vision;
3. configuration design;
4. systems of action.
Edgar Schein has commented on the impact of the founder on the culture of
the organization. This impact has largely to do with the founder's vision
for the organization as a whole. Bennis and Nanus argue that such vision is
To choose a direction, a leader must first have developed a mental image of
a possible and desirable future state of the organization. This image, which
we call a vision, may be as vague as a dream or as precise as a goal or
mission statement. The critical point is that a vision articulates a view of
a realistic, credible, attractive future for the organization, a condition
that is better in some important ways than what now exists[10, p. 89].
For a founder, such a vision seems to be a precursor to many of the
decisions he or she will take. Limerick and Cunnington found that, from
their discussions with entrepreneurs in the Silicon Forest, attempting to go
it alone after being a part of a large corporate monolith, it is evident
they had a very clear idea of what type of business they desired to build.
This idea was related to both the values and the ends or purpose of the
organization. In other words, they knew what the desired identity must be
like in terms of the values and purposes it must represent rather than the
products and markets it must secure. Indeed they often explored many
different product-market-technology combinations before selecting one which
had sufficient promise to justify the building of an organization, and
during this period their vision remained unaltered.
The vision of the founder becomes established as a shared overall image, in
the minds of those at the strategic apex of the organization, of the
identity of the organization. This identity image consists of a number of
* its overarching values; and
* a continuing vision of the potential of the organization as it moves
through the environment and through time, that is a continuing vision
of its mission.
The notion of "identity" is difficult and subtle. The word "identity" comes
from the Latin "idem", meaning "precisely that" or "the same". It refers to
that which remains unchanged, although participating in change. In many ways
it is analogous to the concept of self at the personal level. While it is
relatively enduring and continuing, this identity image is capable of change
in the long term; like the identity image of the individual it may go
through periods - sometimes rapid periods - of growth and transition. For
example, Shell carried out a study of companies that had survived for 100 to
700 years. It found that all of them had undergone complete changes in their
corporate content, usually on a number of occasions: they had changed
businesses, areas of competition, focal industries and the like[11,12].
Identity has no reality outside the meanings attributed to the organization
and shared by its members. It is, in effect, a socially constructed
"reality". It is a holistic, inarticulate image which often defies logic,
represented subtly in the symbols, language, myth, labels, allegories and
metaphors of the organization. But, for all its vagueness, it gives
legitimacy and continuity to action. Effective strategic managers do attempt
to make this image more concrete and accessible, often by writing it down in
the credo, philosophy or mission statement of the organization. For example,
Dayton-Hudson's philosophy "reflects or explicitly states the basic beliefs,
values, aspirations and philosophical priorities that the strategic decision
makers are committed to emphasize in their management of the firm".
Basically, though, as Pearce observes, "discussions of self-concept do not
appear per se in company mission statements". They are reflected in the
statements, but not encompassed by them.
The identity of an organization, then, is a holistic image, often vague and
implicit, of the continuing nature of the organization as it moves through
social space and time. Those at the strategic apex of the organization who
hold this image must translate it into something more practical, into an
integrated, operational model - a design which brings together a desired
strategy, structure and culture of the organization into a coherent whole.
Like identity image, the configuration design of the organization may exist
at different levels of explicitness and conscious articulation in different
organizations. The clearer the overall configuration design, the more it
allows autonomy. It enables members to experiment constantly with the
operational objectives, with structures and control processes, with
strategic and operational values, and with the rituals, symbols and routines
in which values are embedded.
Systems of Action
The configuration design of an organization provides a template for the
development of the ongoing systems of action which together form the
organization. The entire metastrategic design, which links together
configuration and identity can become actuality only when various practical
systems are developed to meet the needs of different product-market segments
specified in the design. Desired structures are translated into real
structures. Control designs are turned into real control systems. Formal and
informal communication systems are set up, together with routines and
rituals which express the organization's values, or which make action
predictable, or which create a problem-solving capacity. It is more accurate
to think of these systems as being composed of actions, rather than people.
People come together to create these systems of action. They negotiate them,
and give them substance. Any single individual may move between many such
systems, particularly in network organizations.
While people create these systems of action they may eventually come to have
a momentum of their own. They become routinized, and over time these
routines may be slowly modified and changed. Imperceptibly, these modified
systems of action may lead to a slow change in the very identity image of
the organization which is shared by those within it. The cycle becomes
closed: it moves from identity to configuration to systems of action to
So the process of movement from vision to identity to configuration to
systems of action is ideal. In periods of stability, the actuality of the
ongoing systems of action feeds back to influence the identity image of the
organization held by its members, often including those at the strategic
apex. What the organization does develops a momentum of its own, and becomes
what the organization is. All within it become prisoners of its own
implacable systems of action.
The concept of the metastrategic cycle is useful for exploring differences
in the two schools of thought outlined earlier. Transformational theorists
tend to stress the importance of rekindling vision, transforming the very
identity of the organization, and underlining the role of the charismatic in
that process. Learning organization theorists tend to give the impression of
focusing on systems of action, and on metastrategic design without
challenging the identity of the organization. We will now move to our own
argument and demonstrate that the level of change required depends on the
kind of environmental change confronted.
Little is to be gained in setting up an argument between revolutionary and
evolutionary change. The field of management has seen both long periods of
stable, incremental organizational change and rapid, catastrophic shifts in
the overall shape of organizations. A more useful model of change is
that of Gould, the Harvard zoologist who talks of cycles of "punctuated
Speaking most generally, our usual concept of time and history, abetted by
traditional gradualism, views change as continuous and intrinsic, and
structure as a temporary incarnation of the moment. The alternative view,
the basic vision underlying catastrophism, if you will, sees stable
structure and organisation as the usual state of things, and change as a
rare and disruptive event provoking rapid shifts from one configuration to
another. I believe that we are now witnessing, in field after field, a
growing recognition of this punctuational style of change at all scales[15,
Gould, then, sees change as consisting of long periods of stable structure
(equilibrium), punctuated by short periods of intense change and
reconfiguration. The deep structure of things tends to persist until
apparently small events eventually act to trigger a complete restructuring
of the system.
This, argues Gould, is essentially what chaos theory is attempting to
capture - order emerges through fluctuation and chaos. Nonaka[16, p. 59]
expands on the dynamics of this process:
In a system condition, an element fluctuates. It acts on the neighbouring
elements one after another or competes with them, and the fluctuation begins
to be amplified. When a macroscopic pattern begins to emerge from such a
dynamic co-operative phenomenon, a feedback to each element takes place,
reinforcing the dynamic co-operation. Thus a definite order is fixed
spontaneously and a definite function is performed forming a stable order.
When the order becomes fixed, the organic system again carries on a similar
Such a process makes nonsense out of strict attempts to distinguish between
equilibrium and non-equilibrium conditions - they are interrelated in
process! As the order of a system "becomes fixed", it is possible to discern
a level of deep structure, a "macroscopic pattern". But, if the processes of
the organization were to be examined in detail, microscopically, it would be
possible to discern even then a constant state of fluctuation and change
which will eventually lead to a new pattern, which has within it constant
fluctuation and change.
The implications for organizations are profound. The model argues for
processes that allow elements to engage in collaborative self-organization
out of chaos. The elements must be free to import energy, to fluctuate. At a
Chaos widens the spectrum of options and forces the organisation to seek new
points of view. For an organisation to renew itself, it must keep itself in
a non-equilibrium state at all times[16, p. 59].
Yet at the same time elements within the organization must be able to
recognize and manage levels of deep structure, and transcend and change
these into new structures which are more consonant with chaotic changes in
the environment. This, in effect, is what Shell found among long-surviving
organizations: de Geus reports that they had one thing in common - a
tolerance for experimentation and differences among their elements. They
had highly autonomous units which were permitted to move into new businesses
and new industries. They allowed their own processes to be chaotic enough to
match the chaotic nature of the environment.
In sum, continuous learning and experimentation allows reconfiguration.
Those organizations which learn and adapt fastest are those which empower
their elements to experiment. But they also have to act and think at a
system-design level: they have to think about their co-operative identity,
and move past it to a new identity and new configuration during periods of
Such a model resolves the age-old argument about evolutionary versus
revolutionary change. Biological, human and social systems experience both,
simultaneously and sequentially.
System Requirements for Coping with Punctuated Equilibrium
It may have been possible for organizations in the past to cycle between
incremental managers during periods of apparent stability, and
transformational managers when new macro-patterns are needed. But the
essential feature of change at the end of the twentieth century makes the
potential costs of such cycling of leaders prohibitive. A system which
thrives in today's environment must have a number of characteristics:
1. It must straddle both continuity and discontinuity. First, as we have
seen, even during periods of stable deep structure, continuous
experimentation, fluctuation and disequilibrium is required to match
environmental chaos. Second, within the social-economic environment of
the 1990s, periods of equilibrium are becoming shorter and moments of
reconfiguration more frequent. The apparently small event which has
triggered so much configural change in the 1980s, from the fall of the
Berlin Wall, through postmodernism and the advent of disorganized
capitalism to middle-management wipe-out, was the development of the
computer chip. Nearly all the megatrends identified by
Naisbitt, or the corporate futures painted by Hickman and Silva
are outcomes of the impact of modern information technology.
Organizations undoubtedly face the need to deal with the
discontinuities of this decade through transformational processes, but
they also have to stabilize these newer configurations and get on with
the daily business of living and improving the present. Essentially the
same process of learning and change management must serve both sets of
2. It must have continuous, ongoing processes which scan the environment
and, in effect, import chaos. If a discontinuity is likely to arrive at
any time, then the notion of an "environmental scanning exercise"
conducted every few years does not make much sense. The organization
has to remain in a constant state of environmental scanning, so that it
can revisit its identity in the face of discontinuous change.
3. Within that ongoing system of environmental scanning, organizations
must develop processes which are continually attempting to recognize
discontinuities when they arrive. A change is discontinuous for any
organization when it finds that its past does not prepare it for the
future. But this creates something of a paradox: an organization has to
remain in a continuous state of preparedness to recognize an event
which is unrecognizable in terms of its own background! Yet competitive
modern organizations do find ways of managing this paradox.
4. The learning and change processes must include important others outside
the organization. Thus continuous processes of environmental scanning
and discontinuity checking require the inclusion of people external to
the organization who may have backgrounds which are more relevant to
the organizational future, and can help the organization recognize
discontinuity. Moreover, they can act to reflect back to the
organization its unchallenged assumptions about its own identity. It
may be more useful to think of learning communities and learning
alliances than the learning organization.
5. The organization must be continually rechecking and revalidating its
own definition of self. What is needed, in other words, is what the
late Erick Jantsch called a self-transcendent capacity in
But it is not sufficient to characterise these systems as open, adaptive,
non-equilibrium, or learning systems; they are all that and more; they are
self-transcendent, which means that they are capable of representing
themselves and therefore also of transforming themselves[19, p. 9].
They have to be able continuously to challenge and transform their own
concepts of identity. This can be an extremely subtle process. As Pankow has
so aptly put it:
Self transcendence means the capability to change one's own point of view,
and therefore the capability to view a situation in a new light, or, one
might say, the ability to jump over one's shadow[20, p. 20].
1. To be truly self-transcendent, the organization must be able to
overcome what Argyris call its own "defensive routines" which
enable managers and others to stay within the relative comfort zone of
the current deep structure, whatever is happening in the environment.
It may well take the skills learned in a learning community, combined
with the feedback from such a community, to overcome defensive
routines, and to be able to redefine identity.
2. The organization must involve every member of the organization in the
process which moves from incremental to transformational change. Bass,
for example, observes:
But when the firm is faced with a turbulent marketplace; when its products
are born, live and die within the span of a few years; and/or when its
current technology can become obsolete before it is fully depreciated; then
transformational leadership needs to be fostered at all levels in the
firm[22, p. 31].
During periods of apparent stability, too, widespread involvement is also
required in both continuous improvement processes and in experimenting with
new ideas. From these may emerge a new configuration.
In sum, the modern learning organization needs to be able to engage in
changing and developing the entire metastrategic cycle, from change in
organizational identity to constant change, experimentation and improvement
in systems of action. It must thrive in conditions of both stability and
discontinuity. It must recognize that these two states are essentially part
of the same process. The processes required for continuous improvement are
also those which enable transformation and self-redefinition.
It is this combination between the requirements for both action and
self-transcendent reflection which has led us to focus not on the learning
organization, but on the action learning organization. For the action
learning paradigm adds to the concept of learning a number of features which
are essential to the central notion of the acting, reflecting,
collaboratively self-organizing system described above.
The Action Learning Organization
Action Learning is an approach to the development of people in organisations
which takes the task as the vehicle for learning. It is based on the premiss
that there is no learning without action and no sober and deliberate action
without learning. Action Learning implies both self-development and
organisational development. Action on a problem changes both the problem and
the person acting on it. It proceeds particularly by questioning taken for
granted assumptions[23, p. xxii].
Action learning contributes to continuous improvement and transformational
change because it involves collaborative questioning by organizational
members of their own actions.
Its immediate focus of attention might be systems of action, metastrategic
design and/or organizational identity - but, even when focusing on the more
apparently superficial level of systems of action, it remains alert to
Action learning is often described as a particular system of taking action:
The method has been pioneered in work organisations and has three main
components - people, who accept responsibility for taking action on a
particular issue; problems, or the tasks that people set themselves; and a
set of six or so colleagues who support or challenge one another to make
progress on problems.
The essence of an action learning organization lies in a widely distributed
capacity to question and redefine both individual and organizational
identity. It is this unique autonomy of individuals that is the fundamental
hallmark of an action learning enterprise.
Underlying this distributed questioning capacity in an action learning
organization is a set of fundamental shared beliefs and values:
1. Current knowledge and skill are born of lived experiences occurring in
a previous time and space and, in that sense, are environmentally
2. Past experience can generate misconceptions, not only because our
perceptual capacity is limited, but also because the past is different
from the present and the future.
3. Learning can be defined as "our ability to adapt and change with such
readiness that we are seen to change"[25, p. 136].
4. People learn with, and from, one another when they acknowledge their
common ignorance and vulnerability.
5. Learning is a social process involving collaborative reflection on
The action learning organization contributes to continuous improvement and
transformational change through a range of interdependent systems of action
focused on individual and organizational development. Such an organization
has the following characteristics:
* A bias for reflection-in-action.
* Formation of learning alliances.
* Development of external networks.
* Multiple reward systems.
* Creation of meaningful information.
* Individual empowerment.
* Leadership and vision.
A Bias for Reflection-in-Action
Peters and Waterman identified a "bias for action" as one of the
characteristics of excellent organizations, and this is often contrasted
with reflection, or with "analysis paralysis". But in an action-learning
organization, it is the capacity of action to generate information which is
critically important to the organization. Nonaka[16, p. 65] emphasizes the
information-generating capacity of action when suggesting that "only after a
concrete action has been taken will a concrete response (move) come back".
Similarly, Senge[27, p. 39] relates action to learning:
Learning cannot exist apart from action. Learning is the process for
enhancing our capacity for effective action.
Action learning has a similar bias but adds the reverse: action enhances
learning because it provides a basis for the critical dimension of
reflection. At the heart of action learning is the process of reflection
which is designed to develop "questioning insight" - the capacity to ask
fresh questions "in conditions of ignorance, risk and confusion, when nobody
knows what to do next".
The need for reflection on the way we think and act is captured in
Senge's "discipline of mental models". He states that it was only after
his book was completed that he understood a premiss underlying it:
The way organisations are is a product of how we think and how we interact:
they cannot change in any fundamental way unless we can change our basic
patterns of thinking and interacting[27, p. 38].
Action learning provides the mechanism for managers to reflect on their
actions and the assumptions that underlie them. More specifically, it is the
social dimension of action learning that provides the challenge to
misconceptions of individual managers that have arisen "through the enticing
distortions and deceitful recollections of their past triumphs and
rebuffs"[28, p. 12]. Management adaptability is often blocked by these
"ingrained mental schemata" which predispose a manager to overlook the ways
in which he/she needs to change[29, p. 33].
Action learning managers, "anxious to do something effective about something
imperative", willingly submit their actions to the constructive scrutiny of
persistent but supportive colleagues. Through this process of enforced
self-revelation, managers are able to get in touch with why they say the
things they say, do the things they do and value the things they value[28,
p. 10]. However, unless senior managers engage in similar processes "they
are likely to disown any transformation in reasoning patterns coming from
below"[21, p. 106].
Leaders, themselves, despite their commitment to continuous improvement, can
be the greatest impediment to organizational learning because they fear
embarrassment, vulnerability, perceived incompetence or threat. Argyris[21,
p. 103] suggests that most leaders engage in "anti-learning" through their
defensive responses to information that they find threatening:
Defensive reasoning encourages individuals to keep private the premisses,
inferences, and conclusions that shape their behaviour and to avoid testing
them in a truly, independent, objective fashion.
Action learning promotes more productive reasoning by encouraging leaders to
explore real business problems in a non-defensive way with supportive
colleagues who feel free to question, criticize and advise. Inherent in this
approach is the ability to acknowledge that we frequently act in ways
incongruent with what we espouse and rarely see the unintended consequences
of our actions. It also demands the capacity to transcend a self-image
that is built on the assumption that our actions are entirely congruent with
our espoused intentions.
Forming Learning Alliances
The origins of action learning in a management context can be traced to the
creation of a learning alliance among colliery managers in Britain in 1952
following nationalization of the British coal industry. Revans describes
how he established a group of 22 managers, drawn from pits in England and
Wales, to work together over three years on problems they identified as
critical to their operations. Other learning alliances included
collaboration between doctors and nurses across a range of hospitals. On a
larger scale, Revans also developed a learning community through a
consortium of leading industrial organizations in Belgium.
Recent research points to the role of learning alliances in helping
organizations to achieve continuous improvement and develop the capacity to
cope with discontinuous change. The growing awareness of worldwide
interdependence in the legal, economic, social, political and technological
spheres has resulted in a burgeoning of alliances built on collaboration
rather than aggressive self-reliance[14,31]. At the heart of this movement
is the fundamental acknowledgement that no organization has all the skills
and knowledge necessary to survive in the global market. Even the Honda
Motor Company, founded on an ethos of total self-reliance, is confronted
with the need to establish strategic alliances if it is to survive the
current global shake-out in the industry.
Rehder et al.[32, p. 56] emphasize the importance of alliances:
The ability of individuals, groups, organisations, sectors, and nations to
build strategic alliances is growing as a critical success factor for
survival. Partnerships and joint ventures between corporate arch-rivals are
already common, and simultaneous co-operation and competition between groups
are growing. Non-adversarial co-operative relationships between corporate
management and suppliers, customers and Government are now essential.
Hamel et al.[33, p. 134], after more than five years' study of 15 strategic
alliances, suggest that "learning from partners is paramount" for success.
Organizations that achieve major shifts in competitive strength through
alliances build their own skills through their partners' capabilities and
"systematically diffuse new knowledge throughout their organization".
In response to the challenge of discontinuous change, a number of European
educational institutions have adopted the learning alliance as the model for
innovative MBA programmes. This approach involves industry-university
co-operation for the conduct of company-based MBA programmes which are
student-oriented and interdisciplinary. These programmes incorporate action
learning principles through a focus on experiential learning and
collaborative action research, empowerment of participants and stakeholder
involvement in programme planning and decision making.
At the heart of all of these developments lie the challenges of the change
processes subsumed under the banner of "punctuated equilibrium". Action
learning alliances straddle continuity and discontinuity:
* They enlarge the range of the continuous environmental scanning ability
of those in the alliance.
* They bring a wider analytical range, and a wider range of assumptions
to the learning process, so that discontinuities are more likely to be
* They are more likely to help their members recognize and overcome
defensive routines so that they can be more self-transcendent.
* They can take place at multiple levels within the alliance, and improve
the learning of all members.
* They open up the boundaries of the organization, and make possible
completely new organizational forms, constantly open to importing chaos
and evolving new forms of order.
Development of External Networks
Alliances are networks that exist at an inter-organizational level. But in
addition, an action learning organization recognizes the social dimension of
learning and the value of collaborative interdependence. These values are
reflected in active support of external networks to support individuals and
groups within the organization.
Individuals are encouraged to form external networks and contribute to
network development through the exchange of ideas, information and
resources. There is recognition within the organization that enrichment of
individuals through network activity is enrichment of the organization.
Networks are seen as fertile breeding grounds for the development of
alliances which depend on the existence of prior relationships and mutual
External network activity extends the scanning capacity of the organization.
In an action learning organization, leaders recognize that organizational
culture is both a help and a hindrance to strategic adaptation. Besides
providing power for action, culture acts as a perceptual filter, a
constraining frame for decision making and a restraint on action options.
Networking activity exposes the organization to alternative perceptions,
decision processes and actions. The test of an action learning organization
is whether management has the robustness to assimilate and act on
information that is derived from premisses that differ from those that are
prevalent in the organization, particularly those held by the dominant
In sum, external networks bring to the individuals and units within the
organization the same kind of benefits reaped by broader organizational
Multiple Reward Systems
The development of the action learning enterprise as an "autonomous learning
system" creates a wider employment contract with employees than the basic
agreement about wages for allocated work. The empowerment which goes along
with immersion in action learning communities encourages levels of personal
autonomy which allow individuals to challenge current organizational
concepts of identity. It is part of the development of "collaborative
There is, within action learning organizations, the explicit recognition
that management's role is to provide continuous opportunities for employees'
self-development. Revans[24, p. 285] elaborates on this broadened perception
of the contract of employment:
This wider bargain, even if not explicit, has deep implications for personal
development and personal autonomy: outstanding persons should be encouraged
to develop themselves to the limits of their capacities and ought not to be
restricted entirely by ingenious mechanistic programmes devised by
quick-witted experts trained not to ask questions outside their own fields.
Revans goes on to say that it is the responsibility of the expert to devise
systems to cope with whatever problems this generates for the organization.
In the final analysis, an action learning organization values innovation
above conformity and reflects this priority in its reward systems.
Kanter describes 3M's reward system for "product champions" which
includes the opportunity to set up and manage their own divisions. Many of
3M's innovations would not have made it to market if the organization had
not developed the flexibility to establish a different form of reward system
for the innovator. The challenge confronting organizations is to develop the
capacity to reward both those who engage in continuous improvement within
the existing identity frame and those who challenge organizational identity.
This dilemma is heightened by the need to have multiple, and conflicting,
exemplars. Organizations too have to find ways to reward their "network
champions" who are rich sources of information and alliances. Nonaka[16, p.
69] maintains that leaders need to play the role of a "strategic sponsor" to
protect, nurture and sponsor "creators of information".
Creating Meaningful Information
Action learning organizations are information-rich. Information flows are
enhanced by external and internal networks, learning alliances and
managerial reflections. Internal networks, developed through
cross-functional action learning programmes, heighten awareness of
organizational resources, facilitate exchange and sharing of resources and
generate information about interdependences.
Nonaka suggests that information creation is a fundamental requirement
for the self-renewing organization. The information, if accompanied by a
change of viewpoint, triggers a chain reaction which produces fluctuations
in the organization and "dynamic co-operation to resolve the
inconsistencies". If organizations are to engage in continual renewal,
leaders need to allow "several coexisting countercultures" and to develop a
creative conflict between autonomous units[16, p. 65]. To increase the
organization's ability to act on the expanded capacity to take in chance
information, there needs to be a "coexistence of diverse systems and
behavioural patterns" such as project teams and task forces which connect
the different units.
The starting-point for the creation of contradictions that energize
organizational renewal is a multidisciplinary, self-organizing group of
middle managers. Nonaka[16, p. 67] argues that intense activity by such a
group will enrich information creation and act as a renewal agent generating
action both below and above:
An autonomous self-organizing group begins to be realized when individual
members are given the freedom to combine thought and action at their own
discretion and are thereby able to guarantee the unity of knowledge and
action. The group begins to experiment with the trial-and-error method for
both thought and action. Action clarifies and generates meaning.
Revans' writings about action learning continuously reinforce the need for
autonomy of the individual and their empowerment to take action. He suggests
that empowerment of individual workers "will offer management their own
opportunities to learn".
Nonaka[16, p. 60] argues that "the systematic incorporation of the
opportunity for creating information into daily work at the operator level
has been precisely the major characteristic of Japanese organizations". This
is evidenced by the "Kanban" system of Toyota and Quality Control Circles in
other organizations. In an action learning organization, the creation of
information and the associated capacity to develop a new perspective are not
the sole province of top management and the traditional planning and
development groups. Groups at all levels need to be empowered to achieve new
ways of viewing and doing.
Leadership and Vision
There is an enormous difference between an organization that does action
learning and an action learning organization. In the former, action learning
cycles are atomistic and unrelated. In the latter, they are all carried out
within the context of reflection on the vision and identity of the
organization. The basic insights of the transformational theorists, who
focus on the vision provided by organizational leadership, are relevant to
the action learning organization - and they are compatible with the views of
the learning organization theorists. The responsibility of leaders, argues
Senge, is to ensure that a shared vision does exist. That vision can come
from anywhere in the organization. Top leadership is concerned with:
* building shared vision;
* empowering people and inspiring commitment;
* enabling good decisions to be made through designing-learning
This sounds remarkably like the picture of the envisaging, inspiring,
enabling charismatic leader propounded by the transformational theorists.
There are at least two reasons why shared vision is so important to the
creation of the action learning organization. First, it translates learning
from a reactive to a proactive process. The "fluctuations" that occur during
equilibrium in biological systems are non-purposeful. In social systems,
however, they can be inspired by the envisaging of a possibility. An
organization directed by a vision is more likely to create discontinuities
for its competitors than experience its own action as discontinuous. Second,
it translates the individual learning event into an organizational action.
By jointly reflecting on the meaningfulness of any event for the
organizational mission as a whole, the amplification of the event and its
communication throughout the organization are accelerated and organizational
renewal is more likely. What emerges is a learning system, a learning
Perhaps the most important aspect of vision which underlies the action
learning organization, though, is a new worldwide understanding of
organizational and social effectiveness which underlies the new
organization. Senge has identified this overarching vision in Japan in the
Today, a new overarching vision seems to be emerging in Japan to
characterize and guide this continuing evolution. The vision centres on
creating the "knowledge-creating company", an organisation whose ability
continually to improve its processes and systems comes from continually
enhancing its underlying knowledge base[35, p. 1].
But this is a common vision we too are developing in the West: the
knowledge-generating organization is that which is most likely to be able to
survive both equilibrium and chaos. Perhaps the final word should be given
The most precious asset of any organisation is the one most readily
overlooked: its capacity to build on lived experience, to learn from its
challenges and to turn in a better performance by inviting all and sundry to
work out for themselves what that performance might be[24, p. 286].
1. Senge, P.M., "The Leaders' New Work: Building Learning Organisations",
Sloan Management Review, Vol. 32 No. 1, 1990, pp. 7-23.
2. Levinson, H. and Rosenthal, S., CEO: Corporate Leadership in Action,
Basic Books, New York, NY, 1984.
3. Beckhard, R. and Harris, R.T., Organisational Transitions: Managing
Complex Change, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1987.
4. Burke, W.W. and Associates, Leadership Report, W. Warner Burke
5. French, W.L. and Bell, C.H. Jr, Organization Development - Behavioural
Science Interventions for Organization Improvement, 3rd ed., Prentice-Hall,
Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1984.
6. Senge, P.M., Keynote address to the EMFD-Foresight Group Dialogue on
Learning Organisations, Brussels, November 1992.
7. Fletcher, B.R., Organisation Transformation Theorists and Practitioners,
Praeger, New York, NY, 1990.
8. Kiechel, W., "The Organisation That Learns", Fortune, Vol. 6, 12 March
1990, pp. 75-7.
9. Schein, E.H., "The Role of the Founder in Creating Organisational
Culture", Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 12 No. 1, 1983, pp. 13-28.
10. Bennis, W.G. and Nanus, B., Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge,
Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1985.
11. de Geus, A.P., "Planning as Learning", Harvard Business Review,
March-April 1988, pp. 70-74.
12. de Geus, A.P., Keynote address to the EMFD-Foresight Group Dialogue on
Learning Organisations, Brussels, November 1992.
13. Pearce, J.A., "The Company Mission as a Strategic Tool", Sloan
Management Review, Vol. 23 No. 3, 1982, pp. 15-24.
14. Limerick, D. and Cunnington, B., Managing the New Organisation: A
Blueprint for Networks and Strategic Alliances, Business and Professional
Publications, Sydney, 1993.
15. Gould, S.J., "An Asteroid to Die for", Discover, October 1989, p. 69.
16. Nonaka, I., "Creating Organisational Order out of Chaos: Self-renewal in
Japanese Firms", California Management Review, Vol. 30 No. 3, Spring 1988,
17. Naisbitt, J., Megatrends: Ten New Directions for Transforming Our Lives,
Warner Books, New York, NY, 1982.
18. Hickman, C.R. and Silva, M.A., The Future 500: Creating Tomorrow's
Organisations Today, NAL Books, New York, NY, 1987.
19. Jantsch, E.J. and Waddington, C.H. (Eds), Evolution and Consciousness:
Human Systems in Transition, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, MA,
20. Pankow, W., "Openness as Self-transcendence", in Jantsch, E. and
Waddington, C.H. (Eds), Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in
Transition, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1976.
21. Argyris, C., "Teaching Smart People How to Learn", Havard Business
Review, May-June 1991, pp. 99-109.
22. Bass, R., "From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning
to Share the Vision", Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 18, Winter 1990, pp.
23. Pedler, M., Action Learning in Practice, 2nd ed., Gower, Aldershot,
24. Revans, R.W., The Origins and Growth of Action Learning, Chartwell
Bratt, Bromley, 1982.
25. Revans, R.W., "Management, Productivity and Risk: The Way Ahead", Omega,
Vol. 9 No. 2, 1981, pp. 127-37.
26. Peters, T.J. and Waterman, R.H., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from
America's Best Run Companies, Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1982.
27. "The Learning Organisation Made Plain: An Interview with Peter Senge",
Training and Development, October 1991, pp. 37-44.
28. Revans, R.W. "Action Learning: Its Origin and Nature", in Pedler, M.
(Ed.), Action Learning in Practice, Gower, Aldershot, 1991, pp. 3-15.
29. Revans, R.W., "The Management Apprentice", Management International
Review, Vol. 6, 1968, pp. 29-50.
30. Argyris, C., Strategy, Change and Defensive Routines, Pitman, Boston,
31. Kanter R.M., When Giants Learn to Dance: Mastering the Challenges of
Strategy, Management and Careers in the 1990s, Simon & Schuster, London,
32. Rehder, R.R., Porter, J.L. and Muller, H.J., "Challenging the Management
Education Monster: The Learning Alliance MBA", European Business Journal,
Vol. 3 No. 1, 1991, pp. 49-56.
33. Hamel, G., Doz, Y.L. and Prahalad, C.K., "Collaborate with Your
Competitors and Win", Harvard Business Review, Vol. 67 No. 1, 1989, pp.
34. Passfield, R.M., "From Vicious to Virtuous Circles: Improving the
Quality of Education through Action Research", in Carr, T. and
Zuber-Skerritt, O. (Eds), Working Together for Quality Management: Action
Research in Management and Education, The Tertiary Education Institute, The
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, 1992.
35. Senge, P.M., "Transforming the Practice of Management", Paper presented
at the Systems Thinking in Action Conference, 14 November 1991.
The arguments featured in the above article are complemented by these
abstracts selected from the Anbar Abstracts database. Anbar Abstracts
provide a regular review of the most pertinent recently published
literature, and are available only by subscription from MCB University
Press. Licensed photocopies of these articles are available at a cost of
£5.75 each from Anbar, 60/62 Toller Lane, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD8 9BY,
UK. Please quote the alphanumeric reference number shown at the foot of the
abstract. Prepayment is required, with cheques made payable to MCB
University Press Ltd.
Action learning: reflections on becoming a set member
E. Beatty + others in Management Education and Development (UK), Winter 93
(24/4): p. 350 (18 pages)
Identifies the properties of action learning and reveals that the core of
action learning is in the learning rather than in the problem solving, and
the function of an action learning set is not to find a solution to each set
member's problem, but to help set members to learn from finding solutions to
their own problems. Discusses how set members can do just that, by exploring
the attitudes that are conducive to productive work in sets, and the
behaviours that express and convey those attitudes; examines ways in which
problem-owners can get most from the set in terms of solving the problem and
learning as much as possible in the process.
Action learning: taming real problems in real time
P. Frolland in Training (USA), Jan 94 (31/1): p. 37 (7 pages)
Uses a number of examples from US firms to show how action learning works in
practice and to illustrate the many different ways in which it can be used;
looks at the people who are best suited to action learning within the
organization, balancing the views of some that it suits only people at the
executive level, with examples of successful action learning projects among
line workers. Briefly examines the link between action learning and outdoor
development, highlighting both sides of the argument concerning the
effectiveness of outdoor learning. Anecdotal, but full of information.
David Limerick is Foundation Professor of Organizational Behaviour and
Director of the Graduate School of Management. Ron Passfield is a Lecturer
in Human Resource Management and Bert Cunnington is Senior Lecturer in
Marketing and Strategy, and Deputy Dean, all at the Faculty of Commerce and
Administration at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.
The Learning Organization, Vol. 1 No. 2, 1994, pp. 29-40, © MCB University
Copyright 1995 / MCB University Press