With the ultimate aim of examining the extent to which universities are or could be learning organisations, this paper will commence with a review of selected literature on organisational learning and the learning organisation. It will then discuss the extent to which practical manifestations of these concepts are found in Australian universities by examining common university structures and systems which contribute to or impede the development of a learning organisation. Specifically, discussion will focus upon university organisational structures, human resource and knowledge management systems and organisational culture. Proposals will be made regarding structural and system modifications necessary for the development of organisational learning and a learning organisation. Finally, the role of leaders and teams in facilitating effective learning will be discussed. This latter discussion will take place with reference to the ways in which leadership and teamwork currently contribute to development of universities as a learning organisation and how current leadership and teamwork strategies might be adjusted to better reflect the requirements of a learning organisation.
As Kofman and Senge (1995, p. 32) point out, however,
when we speak of a "learning organization" we are not describing an external phenomenon or labelling an independent reality ... we are taking a stand for a vision, for creating a type of organization we would truly like to work within and which can thrive in a world of increasing interdependency and change.In talking about the learning organisation as the type of organisation we would like to work in or 'a human community ... a living community of people who have certain shared responsibilities', Senge (quoted in Fulmer & Keys 1998) indicates that it is incumbent upon all members of an organisation to contribute to its development and progress, for both utilitarian and humanistic reasons. It is this theme that Martin (1999) takes up in her recent discussion of learning in universities, drawing upon Senge's strategies and student learning literature to provide suggestions regarding the way universities might go about learning.
In Senge's (1990) conception of the learning organization, adopted by Martin (1999), learning is predicated upon personal mastery, awareness of mental models, building a shared vision, team learning and systems thinking. This learning would ideally result not just in the capacity to deal effectively with immediate challenges (single-loop learning) or in the capacity to examine assumptions about the environment and consequent beliefs about appropriate behaviour (double-loop learning) but also in metacognition, or learning how to learn (Cummings & Worley 1997). Underpinning such learning, one might expect there to be bottom-up as well as top-down flows of information and ideas (Rolls 1995), reflection upon action (Redding & Catalanello 1994) and the elicitation of existing mindsets (de Geus 1996) for the purpose of developing flexibility as well as sharing perceptions, needs and expectations (Starkey 1996). For Watkins and Marsick (1993, p. 11), a learning organisation arises from structures and processes that
The reality according to Coopey (1996), however, is that the concept of a learning organisation is a utopic vision blind to the inevitability of organisational power politics and dependent upon the rare chance of 'shared goals in a climate of collaborative high trust and a rational approach to the resolution of differences'. Under this less optimistic assessment of the 'learning organisation', organisational learning within a university may serve to suppress vital diversity of ideas (Rifkin & Fulop 1997) or may primarily serve the utilitarian purposes implied by Salner's (1999) argument that 'the concept of organizational learning has emerged as a way to conceptualise the restructuring needed to achieve greater organizational adaptability'.
Salner's (1999) and Coopey's (1996) descriptions of organisational learning and the learning organisation highlight the issue that bedevils much of the discussion on organisational change and most attempts to achieve change: the false objectification of 'the organisation' (Garavan 1997). Thus writers either ignore human heterogeneity in behaviour and motivation in order to provide descriptions (mostly from managers' or leaders' perspectives) of achievement due to 'shared vision' and or, as Martin (1999) seems to, take 'the organisation' as a given and seek to describe what individuals can do to make a difference. Faced with the reality of political and designated power, however, it is perhaps not surprising to find that members of organisations often perceive agency to lie outside themselves and characterise frustrations as inevitable consequences of 'the system' or themselves as victims of 'the system'.
In this paper it is argued that, despite the individual's responsibility to develop personal awareness and deal with optimistically with setbacks, it is primarily a leader's responsibility to ensure that the structures and systems in place maximise the opportunity for organisational learning through encouraging the expression and adoption of diverse ideas, and to ensure that their own actions provide both models of and opportunities for contribution and learning. The remainder of the paper will focus on exploring 1) the extent to which universities have developed or are capable of developing learning organisation characteristics, 2) on what type of structures and systems are required to achieve ongoing learning and any necessary change, and 3) on the role of leadership and teamwork in development of a university capable of effective organisational learning.
Such dysfunctions are probably immediately recognisable to most employees of universities. Universities gain their status and structure from the division of knowledge into distinct, specialist areas, which often fight each other for recognition, funds and students (Becher 1989). Academic modes of enquiry are dominated by rational/analytical problem-solving and because, according to Franklin et al. (1998), the social sciences and sciences 'use falsification as the dominant methodology ... we see consensus as being naturally rare'. The resulting inclination to tear down comes at the expense of personal angst and the integration of ideas (Tannen 2000), and the encouragement of problem-solving occurs at the expense of intuition and creativity, yet continues possibly because problem-solving provides more easily measurable outcomes. Competition between institutions, encouraged by external political pressures and funding processes, tends to lead to institutional separation and an emphasis on quantity rather than quality of production, as evidenced in institutional performance indicators such as student progress and completion rates, research quantum per 10 staff, and achievement of DETYA load targets. When government-imposed quality measurements focus on processes (Kemp 1999), the lack of triangulation of processes with inputs and outputs often results in institutional process 'window-dressing' in time for inspection. In the absence of similar triangulation or effective measures of quality in many areas of academic endeavour (especially in areas such as leadership or management capacity, community service and teaching), individual claims for selection or promotion are too often also based on looking good rather than being good, and on demonstration of short-term achievements rather than long-term development and change. Teaching performance, for example, is too often judged in large part by comparing an individual's student evaluation scores during a one or two-year period against university means on a range of measures - a strategy which fails to recognise those who make consistent improvement over a number of years, and may prejudice innovative teachers who introduce sound learning strategies which require their students to work in unaccustomed ways. While research is group-based in some disciplines, in universities rewards usually accrue to individuals in competition with others. In other words, fragmentation, reactiveness and competition are hardwired into the mental and functional architecture of universities and clearly these dominant structures will not be readily demolished.
Nevertheless if underpinned by genuine commitment to their demonstration, hope for change lies in values statements proclaiming the importance of achievements such as 'interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches to knowledge and understanding; consultative and responsive management practices that lead to improved performance; integrity, tolerance, and mutual respect in dealing with others; and equality of opportunity, social justice and environmental responsibility' (Murdoch University 1997, p. 8). Currently, however, the development of interdisciplinary links within universities is typically left to individuals on the basis of a chance discovery of mutual research interests or expressed in courses which explore diverse discipline approaches via input from discipline representatives who work alone rather than together on course topic development. Alternatively, foundation courses may emphasise interdisciplinary perspectives but these are usually taught in first year by a few enthusiasts for interdisciplinarity and all students' subsequent studies highlight the packaging of knowledge into discrete boxes. This not surprising given that academics gain PhDs and employment on the basis of discipline divisions ... but let us now assume that, instead, the commitment to knowledge sharing and understanding across disciplines is genuine, for achievement of this goal may well presuppose existence of other values such as consultative and responsive management, integrity, tolerance and respect, and equality of opportunity. Through the achievement of knowledge sharing across disciplines, fostered by respect for diversity of ideas, the foundations of a learning organisation may be laid. Predicated upon continuous learning, inquiry and dialogue, collaboration and team learning, the development of learning systems, empowerment and organisational connection with the environment (Watkins & Marsick 1993), this learning organisation is however, necessarily also dependent upon facilitating structures, knowledge management systems, human resource management systems, organisational culture and leadership (Cummings & Worley 1997).
It would not therefore be a huge step to establish innovative 'microcosm groups' (Cummings & Worley 1997) empowered to, for example, 1) establish a mechanism for the sharing of interdisciplinary knowledge leading to the publication of interdisciplinary research 2) establish a mechanism for the sharing of interdisciplinary knowledge in teaching leading to the development of a full interdisciplinary course 3) develop and implement links with industry, other education providers, and academic/industry exchange programmes (see Patterson 1999 for examples) or 4) develop and implement the prototype of a university leadership and management system that maximises staff involvement and the responsible use of autonomy. Such projects would presuppose investigation of the expectations and needs of students, staff, government, industry etc., and seek their input into strategy and their feedback upon implementation in order to create a continuous learning loop. A commitment to collaborative action and clearly defined project goals and timelines would also be essential, as well as the development of systems supportive of continuing learning, empowerment and change. The actual projects undertaken would be chosen to serve as vanguards of future action, on the understanding that 'you are never going to bring about change in every part of a large organization at the same time ... [so therefore it is necessary to] ... create pockets of profound change' (Senge, quoted in Fulmer & Keys 1998).
These ideas are not new, but when attempts at change are undertaken in universities they too often seem to threaten those in power, leading their proponents to suffer marginalisation and/or the strategies developed to be quickly shelved or ignored (Bergquist 1992). The keys to change in structure designed to increase organisational learning are therefore university leaders' capacity and willingness to model collaborative action and inquiry, to involve all staff in the initial setting of directions, to promulgate and maintain enthusiasm for a broadly shared vision that nevertheless provides for local variation , and to cede to staff, across all levels of appointment, authority and responsibility for development and implementation of ideas (within negotiated guidelines and a clear budget). Senior academic and general staff managers need also need to change their behaviours, to become idea sponsors, coaches or mentors, providing advice, support and access to resources (Tushman & Nadler 1996) rather than controlling and directing. Although such changes in role necessarily require changes in the way managers' time is allocated, these new roles are greatly facilitated by the recent technological advances that provide for the efficient sharing information and ideas.
Protection against the loss of undocumented organisational learning may reside in establishment of the type of team-based projects described above, or in the type of operational strategy that provides for the use of staff who are excellent practitioners of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity and their use in staff, curriculum and research development activities. There are, however, several impediments to this second strategy for sharing learning - namely, lack of time and incentives, and the prejudices which result, for example, in the knowledge about education and organisational development which exists in Education and Business Faculties being used for the benefit of students and outside organisations rather than the university itself. Such issues can probably really be best dealt with through adjustment of human resource management systems.
If learning is to occur, it is critical not just to provide time and structures for learning but also to develop compensation, performance management and promotion systems which encourage and reward ongoing learning as well as ongoing implementation of the outcomes of learning. Current compensation strategies based on set pay scales and increments tend to reward mediocrity, for payment is contingent not upon productivity but upon the fulfilment of specified job tasks at a certain minimum standard and the same payment occurs irrespective of high or just adequate performance. While performance management systems have the capacity to identify and reward extraordinary performance, the individualistic focus of the systems existing in most universities serves to reinforce barriers to sharing, teamwork and thus organisational learning. It also serves to reinforce existing hierarchical structures and poor management through the use of one-way (up-->down) review and feedback processes rather than 360° feedback processes. In the absence of collaboratively determined review criteria, the fact that those who do the reviewing are often Heads of Department who later return to work alongside those they have reviewed may militate against honest assessment. The fact that the performance of senior managers and leaders is usually reviewed only by their peers or superiors not only militates against proper assessment of their effectiveness as leaders but also serves to maintain the status quo, as often those doing the reviewing have acted as mentors or patrons and may have a vested interest in support irrespective of performance. Under such circumstances a performance management system, which might be used as an accountability process, becomes instead an accounting procedure.
The failure to establish appropriate performance reward strategies, means that in most universities mediocrity remains tangibly as well rewarded as extraordinary performance, and incentives for extraordinary performance are visibly lacking. Promotion, like compensation, tends to take into account primarily the fulfilment of set criteria relating to teaching, research, university and community service, with usually greater weighting given to research, whereas to be effective as a tool for promoting organisational learning it should require tangible demonstrations of effectiveness in areas such as communication skills, teamwork, conflict resolution, leadership and management. Those making recommendations about promotion need to be trained to recognise evidence of effectiveness in these areas, beyond that which relates to incumbency of designated leadership or management positions or number of committee memberships.
Staff participating on selection panels similarly need to develop strategies for testing skills beyond those relating to teaching, research and community service, in the attempt to engage staff willing and able to contribute to organisational learning. At the other end of the employment path, exit interviews with staff leaving the university could well provide valuable information about staff perceptions of organisational climate and workplace satisfaction (Stone 1998) and be used to identify areas of necessary change or organisational development.
Frequently the commitment of time for such activities is complained about by staff and or managers as an unjustifiable cost and yet the cost inevitably results in savings or gain for an organisation if staff involvement engenders more enthusiasm for work, more creativity, and more commitment to the organisation. The resistance to such activities usually arises not because staff members begrudge giving their time, lack ideas or don't want to be involved, but because experience confirms that the seeds of their labour will be quickly blown away by lack of their leaders' real commitment to change or support for grass-roots decisions, learning and action.
assumption of competence that is supported by ... curiosity, forgiveness, trust and togetherness ... For too long organizations have operated on an assumption of incompetence ... [characterised by] ... controls and directives, rules and procedures, layers of management and pyramids of power (Handy 1995, p. 46).While Coad & Berry's (1998) research indicates that a personal learning orientation is associated with transformational leadership, Dever (1997) argues the need only for a strong individual leader - 'be it heroically transformational (admittedly rare) or politically transactional (to adapt the well known terminology of Bums [sic], 1978)'. Collins and Porras (1994) suggest, through their discussion of 'visionary companies', that leadership strength lies not in specific personality variables such as the leader's individual charisma, but in the capacity to design and build a vision shared throughout the organisation. In a university, as mentioned before, one might however question the desirability of a 'shared vision' with its implications of conformity and suppression of dissent. In any case, as Senge (1996, p. 303) observes, 'many charismatic leaders ... deal in visions and in crises, and little in between'. Recent Australian academic experience probably confirms that the painting of crises and subsequent visions for change may be used effectively to mobilise people in the short-term, especially at the beginning of a Vice-Chancellor's term. However, if those whom change will affect have no role in planning the change or if their suggestions and organisational knowledge are elicited in initial, never-to-be-repeated meetings and then disregarded in favour of the leader's vision, it is likely that little learning will occur. Worse still, under these circumstances even mandated structural change is likely to be undermined by resistance and resolute retention of old mindsets, and the organisation thus becomes internally divided, inefficient and often too caught up in internal angst and defence strategies to be able to respond appropriately to external threats or opportunities (Argyris 1996).
The effective leader is therefore less necessarily a charismatic visionary than a collaborating designer (of organisational values, policies, strategies and learning), a steward (who leads by explicitly and visibly serving the interests of the organisational and wider community) and a teacher (who helps others discover their assumptions about the world and develop their full potential) (Senge, 1996; Tichy & Cohen, 1998). In other words, the effective leader is motivated primarily by what Sashkin (1992) describes as a 'prosocial power motive', that is, the desire to foster the interests of the organisation and its staff rather than self-interest. Selection processes for Vice-Chancellors at many universities appear not to have explored these capacities or motivations in would-be university leaders. Activities designed as collective in situ learning exercises to develop these leadership capacities in the Senior Executive group of one university, for example, although supported by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, were not proceeded with because the Vice-Chancellor apparently felt he and the rest of the Senior Executive Group were sufficiently skilled at and knowledgeable about leadership and management. It is notable, however, that in his vision statement leadership does not rate a mention and his only expressed concerns relating to management - 'who is in charge, who makes decisions, who is listened to (and how seriously)' - translate into objectives to 'make clear delegations to managers' and 'establish objectives for each manager and review performance' .
Good leadership, while essential at the top, needs also to be seeded throughout the organisation. Thus, leadership training and team building activities, focussing on enhancing interpersonal communication, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills (Cummings & Worley 1997) must involve people from the highest to the lowest levels of staffing if an institution-wide learning potential is to be created. Teams need to be established with reference what is known about the enabling factors associated with effective, self-managing teams - namely, clear goals, decision-making authority, accountability and responsibility, effective leadership, training and development, resources, and organisational support (Hunter et al. 1996; Yeatts et al. 1996; Harvey et al, 1998). Many university staff are used to working in research teams or on committees but if teamwork is to be used successfully to develop a learning organisation, training for effective teamwork must be supported by the conscious development of teamwork strategies in each new teamwork context. Rewards and performance management strategies must also be tied to effective teamwork, especially in the initial phases of any attempt to change work patterns, and it is probably helpful to ensure that enthusiasts for teamwork undertake the initial teamwork projects.
The development of leadership and teamwork capacities and strategies for empowering staff and capturing learning become particularly important in the absence of top leadership commitment to developing the institution as a learning organisation. As Martin (1999) suggests, the common retreat into blaming the system for frustrations and lack of change does not have to occur. However, it is not the argument of this paper that difficulties need to be faced primarily through the development of personal mastery. Rather, local action with the aim of developing a small-scale learning organisation can still occur at Faculty or Department level level. If poor leadership at the top is reflected in appointments at Dean or Head of Department level, as is often the case, even small groups charged with developing research activities or teaching units can work together to produce a dynamic and responsive environment in which people learn, enjoy working and feel rewarded. The failure of top management to envisage and support development of 'a type of organization we would truly like to work within and which can thrive in a world of increasing interdependency and change' (Kofman and Senge 1995, p. 32), does not absolve us of our responsibility to try to create just such an organisation at the local level within which we have influence.
Change need not be revolutionary in form but must be revolutionary in effect, arising from a clear, well-considered vision of a different future. Pockets of change can be developed to provide persuasive illustrations of the benefits of change, valuable information regarding successful strategies, and act as small-scale learning organisations. However, the commitment of the senior executive body to furthering small-scale change is critical if experimentation is to produce widespread organisational learning rather than cynicism and frustration. This commitment comes in various forms - support for changed reward systems tied to performance management systems, the provision of resources, visible concern for staff and their work, the modelling of openness to learning, good leadership and management, and collaborative behaviour - and it must be modelled by the Vice-Chancellor if there is to be significant progress towards whole-organisation learning. In the absence of authentic leadership, characterised by the modelling of desired behaviours, commitment to developing a shared vision and genuine concern for developing the potential of the individuals who constitute the organisation, the development of a learning organisation becomes extremely difficult. To ask for such commitment might seem excessive - but shouldn't universities, which take out advertisements boasting about the learning of their students, strive to develop and demonstrate their own organisational learning capacities?
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|Author: Dr Lesley Willcoxson, Department of Human Resource Management and Employment Relations, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba. Phone (07) 4631 2440 Fax (07) 4631 1853 Email Lesley.Willcoxson@usq.edu.au
Please cite as: Willcoxson, L. (2001). Strategies for changing a university into a 'learning organisation'. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 720-731. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/willcoxson.html