A New Light on Organizational Learning

Steve Rice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  A few weeks ago I was reading The River, one of the books in Gary Paulson’s Brian’s Hatchet series, to my son. One key passage set the basic premise for the story – “It’s not what he did that is important. It is his thinking … how his mind worked and how he learned. THAT’s what is important.” This quote seems like a lighthouse shining its beacon on what seems to be a vital, yet missing element in this past year’s sustainable development discussion and activity.

While I am confident that many individuals learned a tremendous amount about sustainability during this past year, I am not sure if organizations learned very much. That is, what learnings will organizations retain long after the individuals leave? What was, or was not, achieved – and why? This absence may be keeping many sustainability efforts, and organizations, from achieving their full potential.

The concept of an organizational learning system is not new to business operations. While working at Exxon several years ago we had our multi-volume “Environmental Design Guidelines”. Sales and marketing staffs use learning systems, currently based on either intranet-based Lotus Notes or other contact management software, to keep their entire organization instantly aware of what others have learned about customers, potential customers and competitors. Even software producers and web hosting services have intelligent troubleshooting software to access solutions that others in the organization previously learned. All of these systems retain the learning of the organization, long after the departure of any individual.

A search of several sustainable business web sites and dozens of recent sustainability research reports provides a tremendous amount of information on organizations, and companies sustainability initiatives, along with what individuals learned (or had the opportunity to learn). There is no evidence, however, of what each respective organization or company had learned during the process of conducting the initiative. Further, I cannot find a single commercial environmental management system software package that contains an organizational learning component.

Clearly, individuals are learning, but all that learning seems to be archived in their respective heads and/or file cabinets. Is the mantra of “If information is power, then if I don’t share my information I am more powerful” that has overcome the environmental, health and safety management industry the past several years now taking root in the sustainable business industry? I hope not.

The only system I found that contains any substantive element of an organizational learning component is Lockheed Martin’s environmental, health and safety intranet web site. Kevin Dykema, Manager of EHS Systems at Lockheed Martin, indicates “Lockheed Martin has completed much of the work on our knowledge management systems, tools, resources and message boards. Our next step is to integrate the knowledge management systems with the business units” systems, then focus on a system that shares learning across the entire organization.”

A non-profit industry group, The International Association for Environmental Cooperation, Inc., is planning to incorporate a knowledge management and organizational learning system on its web site for use by its members. Blue292.com is launching their ‘Expert Solutions Network’ this January, though Dr. Lawrence Curcio, their Senior Vice President for Industrial Business Relationships, recognizes this is only a preliminary foray into the development of an organizational learning system.

Honeywell International’ s environmental intranet web site includes sections devoted to lessons learned regarding environmental bonds (to fund waste management infrastructure improvements), audits, pollution prevention and eco-efficiency. What one person has learned can be accessed and used by anyone else in the Honeywell organization.

Why is an organizational learning system important to a business pursuing a sustainability agenda? Well, perhaps if Monsanto’s and Interface’s respective sustainability programs had included an organizational learning system they might have been able to recognize key hurdles and others’ miscues much earlier, and thus make important adjustments to their own programs.

Sustainability and sustainable development are both characterized by the need to blaze new trails never traveled before. Like explorers, an organization’s scouts must map the terrain and make notes on what they learned along the way. It is the only process that allows the main body of the community to follow the path and progress both further and faster.

The published literature identifies six stages of organizational learning:

Information Management

  1. Schedule events and requirements (e.g. calendars and personal data assistants)
  2. Collect and manage data
  3. Report the data collected

Knowledge Management

4. Evaluate and assess the knowledge provided in the reports
5. Make decisions based on the knowledge obtained

Organizational Learning

6. Create a learning organization

In this last phase, the entire organization is provided with the tools and opportunities to learn from others’ experiences – not only what has worked and what has not worked, but also WHY.

Clearly the technology exists for sustainable businesses to reach this sixth stage – why not the tools or systems? Is there an insufficient market demand, or size, to warrant the development cost
s? Do people not have the time to enter, much less retrieve and use, the learning that such a system provides? Such systems don’t have to be very elaborate. They merely have to have the capability to capture people’s learning, then organize and allow users to retrieve that learning in a comprehensive and understandable manner.

If there are such tools and systems currently in use, and their users or developers are interested in sharing their knowledge, please contact me at the email address below. I will be glad to report on them in a future Sustainable Business Insider column. Likewise, if any organizations are interested in developing a prototype organizational learning system that could be tested and refined on a cooperative basis, also please contact me.

By collectively learning from our organizations we, and our respective organizations, will all be more successful in 2001 – and beyond.

Steve Rice

# # #

Steve Rice is president of Environmental Opportunities, Inc. (Florham Park, NJ), a strategic environmental management advisory and project services firm. Before starting his own company he led the sustainable business unit at BASF Corporation and has over 25 years of environmental management leadership in executive positions at both BASF and Exxon.
Contact him at (973) 966-5505 or srice@enviropps.com

(Visited 44 times, 1 visits today)

Post Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.