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Building a Learning Organization with a Focus on Crisis Management

Updated: May 19, 2021



A learning organization has key components that work together to build the foundation for learning and evolution. Members of a learning organization should understand the shared vision for the organization. They should also constantly strive for personal betterment that translates into excellence for the overall team. As the members begin to master their personal expertise, and contribute to the team, a shared vision will continue to develop. One of the most important factors to take into consideration is team's the ability to continually learn and grow. Stagnation is the opponent of the true learning organizations. Crisis management should take these learning organization components a step further to include a sense of urgency and plan strategically for the future based on the experiences in the past and present.



Building a Learning Organization


The cornerstone idea of what organizational learning is essentially identifying and rectifying errors . However, building a learning organization is slightly more complicated than just identifying and rectifying behaviors because a variety of learning styles must be taken into consideration. The thinking methodologies must be considered, motivation to strive for constant improvement, grouped goal setting, as well as the creation of a a crisis management team, all contribute to a strong learning organization.


What is a Learning Organization?


A learning organization should learn from its experiences, both positive and negative and plan for the future accordingly. Peter Senge contributed greatly knowledge pertaining to learning organizations. He detailed the components of a learning organization as systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning .


Systems Thinking


Variables in an organization do not exist alone, they are all influenced by other parts of the organization. They are all part of a system, interconnected, and working together whether the connection is obvious or not. Understanding how facets of the organization are interconnected is essential to unraveling systems thinking. The question of “How will this choice influence other parts of the company?” must be asked repeatedly. All departments are a vital part of the company, each performing their essential task, each connected to the next. For examples WageWorks, Inc. processes flexible spending account claims daily, sometimes there is a system error that impacts the company. If the error is in the Claims Department, claims cannot get processed, Customer Service gets bombarded with calls, Accounting doesn’t send out payments and so on. The crisis started in Claims but impacted a number of departments across the company. Systems thinking is looking at the overall “forest” of the business with each department as individual “trees.”


Personal Mastery


Senge viewed personal mastery as a skill that can be developed, although some are more apt at developing their personal mastery than others. Personal mastery entails objectively assessing a situation, as free of ego as possible, and understanding how to improve it. An individual would have difficulty learning if they did not have a sense of personal mastery, understanding that they can always do better. The diligence to never allow stagnation and consistently seek improvement requires a delicate hand by some managers. Employees vary in their receptivity of the motivation their managers are trying to give. While some employees are constantly looking for clues on what is expected, others may take criticism personally and that would have a negative impact, not only on their morale, but also potentially their motivation, and ultimately the teams' performance.


Personal mastery begins internally and has an impact on the team they support, and eventually in the overall company. Working from the corporate leader, the CEO, should very clearly have self-motivation and personal mastery, setting the example for the executive team and distributing the behavior through to rest of the employees. If demonstrations of personal mastery are lost along the hierarchy, it becomes much more difficult to infect entry level employees with the personal mastery contagion.


Mental Models


Perspectives, assumptions, and viewpoints are as limitless as there are people. Organizations work hard to group common assumptions together into categories that make the facets easier to study and understand. Mental models are highly aligned with understanding psychology. Tendencies to evade blame and entertain a state of denial are common among many cultures, and groups, across the world therefore these behaviors should be readily identifiable by most leaders. Negative mental models, like denial and scapegoating, should be circumvented as much as possible for a healthy learning organization. While avoiding negative mental models is important, is it equally important to understand how to assist team members in overcoming these mental ruts.


Each employee is going to have strengths and weaknesses. In Strengths Finder 2.0 Rath urges management to focus on their employee’s strengths rather than their weaknesses . This simple change could translate into huge profits, and is applicable to all industries. Strengths Finder 2.0 is a bestseller on both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestsellers lists. According to the research performed by scientists, led by the late father of strengths psychology Donald O. Clifton, having a direct supervisor or similar influence, who regularly focuses on strengths can make a dramatic difference in work performance. This is based on a 40 year study of human strengths, translated into 20 languages, surveying more than 10 million people. One of the many facets this assessment analyzes is engagement, based on whether the manager focuses on their employee's strengths, weaknesses, or just ignores the employee. If the manager primarily ignores the employee, the chances of the individual being actively disengaged are about 40 percent . If the manager focuses on weaknesses, the chances of being actively disengaged is about 22 percent. However, if the manager focuses on strengths, the chances of being actively disengaged falls to 1 percent.


The conclusion is simply that people respond to positivity. The data above indicates that employees are far more likely to be engaged in their duties if their direct manager takes an active and positive role in their work, helping them to develop their strengths instead of constantly pointing out weaknesses to improve upon. The intuitive leap is not difficult to make. If employees are actively engaged in their duties, they are going to be more productive, and employee productivity is directly related to increased profitability for a company. Rath describes “society’s relentless focus on people’s shortcomings” as “turning into a global obsession" explaining employees have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies . If the employer chooses to take an active part in this growth, the company itself should benefit from the growth of its employees. Corporate business culture should nurture its employee’s strengths and help them find a facet of the business they excel in for the sake of the company, and their employees. Many corporations do administer a personality profile before employment. It is an interesting consideration for an acquiring company to assess personality types for the purpose of determining how the employees’ strengths align with their job duties. If a company is going to nurture the strengths of its employees, they will first need to determine what those strengths are. The Clifton Strengths Finder Assessment is one way to do that. The culture of change, in this case, can change a company from assessments based on weaknesses to assessments based on strengths, improve the morale of its employees, and increase productivity.


Building Share Vision


Members of an organization should understand the role they play in the organization and the role that organization plays in the greater scheme of things. That scheme may be the local community, the state, country, or even the planet. When a crisis occurs the very foundation of that vision is shaken. Perhaps the shaking foundation awakens the realization of its importance and perhaps that is why crisis management is often met with enthusiasm in an attempt to get things to return to the status quo as soon as possible.


Organizations should be careful to acknowledge a general and relatable shared vision for its members to hone in on, and solidify, their role. Without a shared vision there is a vulnerability if and when a crisis occurs . Some fragmentation can be expected, especially when conflict presents itself. Conflict, even if it is minor, is after all somewhat unavoidable as personalities and leadership styles mesh. The fragmentation may even have a positive spin if the group can become aware of it and correct the root issues, ultimately building a stronger more solid team. The strongest bonds may form after common obstacles have been overcome with unity.


Team Learning


Interpersonal dynamics are a critical element in the construction of a learning organization. Individual skill quality is undeniably important, yet, the ability to communicate effectively with team members is crucial. Without proper communication, the skills of the individuals will not culminate to create the complex yet well-oiled learning organization. Senge makes the distinction of specifying “dialogue” as the key to better performance (Crandall& Spillan, 2014). He goes onto explain that dialogue is a deeper form of discussion involving the creation of new ideas, finally giving way to a group that is able to reach a greater level of unified performance than the individuals could reach on their own (Crandall& Spillan, 2014).


Single-Loop Learning


Perceiving and improving blunders can be done without changing the basic organizational standards (Arguris & Schon, 1978). Firefighting is a useful example of single loop learning involving a crisis because the principles of fighting the fire are the same irrespective of the structure. A firefighter will learn to adjust the way the fire is fought, but the essential equation of water + fire= extinguishing of fire. Decisions about the quantity of water used, the direction the fire is single loop learning because the fundamental equation to solve the issue does not change.


Double Loop Learning


Unlike single loop learning, in double loop learning there is a change in the basic organizational norms . The process of double loop learning often involves critical thinking and reflection. Double loop learning can change the culture of the organization including beliefs, world view, and precautionary norms . Members of an organization should understand that a perception of invulnerability is inaccurate, and crisis absolutely is possible.


Another way that double loop learning reveals itself can be during a specific crisis, as it escalates. Interestingly enough, an example of fire can be used for double loop learning, similarly to single loop learning. The difference is a specific example, the 1990 Hagersville tire fire, which had to adjust traditional firefighting assumptions because of the nature of fighting a tire fire, specifically. They could not simply add water because the water draining off the fire could potentially contaminate the drinking supply. A more creative resolution involved fighting the tire fire in smaller batches and directing the flow of contaminated water to pool in controlled area where the oil could be skimmed from the water and refined later.


Dialogue


Dialogue is the pre-requisite of double-loop learning for the simple reason that new norms are needed as old norms are discarded . The optimal time to learn from a crisis is soon after the crisis has occurred. If a Crisis Management Team (CMT) waits too long to assess the situation, valuable feedback could be lost. Dialogue is essential in the process of evaluating why certain decisions were made and where there is room for improvement. Dialogue is used to further educate in the follow-up discussions.


Crisis Management Team


Strategic Planning


As with all teams within a company, the Crisis Management Team also needs to assess their plans and strategies. The CMT needs to determine the best possible composition of the team itself. The first aspect to consider is the essential function of each individual member that composes the team. In addition, the size of the team should also be considered. It stands to reasons that each individual member would have an expertise, a valuable skill that contributes to the strength of the whole. So the essential functions must be defined and then the expert for that function named (although not necessarily always formally) but the roles are generally understood. For example, a crisis marketing strategist, a crisis social media analyst, a crisis technical IT specialist, and so on.


Crisis Management


Once the team is in place the specific responses of the highest probability occurrences should be addressed. Together the team identifies possible issues. These specific instances may be broad possibilities and can be further analyzed as new specific instances present themselves. The expert of the afflicted function should take the lead position, and the others provide support. The team should have an environment that they can interact in live action, like a virtual class room, zoom meeting, or even a simply conference calls. Once the crisis has been dealt with the CMT will identify areas of improvement but also focus on drawing attention to what was done correctly. That is a very important morale booster. Employees who went above and beyond and made a positive impact, improving the crisis, should be recognized.


Barriers to Organizational Learning


Although a learning organization should be willing and able to learn from its mistakes, there are varying degrees of learning levels and abilities. Resistance to change and learning from mistakes is an unfortunate reality. Sometimes returning to the “status quo” as soon as possible is the mission). Operational considerations relative to resistance to change and also factors related to an organizations culture can both play a considerable part in the barriers to organizational learning.


Operational Considerations


Operational considerations, or day to day functions, may include being too dependent on planned decisions, information imbalance, and not validating smaller failures . Managers can become vulnerable to the mundane monotony of the work routine in the scope of daily duties, weekly duties, even yearly. When years pass without considerable crisis it becomes comfortable to find a routine that works and an arranged set of responses for the typical complications that come up. Creativity can suffer under those types of circumstances. Then when an unusual crisis strikes, the programmed responses that so often would solve problems no longer apply.


Programmed Decisions


In an effort to be prepared for certain, usually more common outcomes, management can determine rules based on some of the most common conflicts that come up with relative frequency. Programmed decisions are important for many reasons, namely building confidence, but the possibility of needing to develop creative solutions must not be overlooked. Unfortunately, the more reliance there is on programmed decisions, the more resistant the organization becomes to change.


Information Asymmetry


With the geographic distribution many major organizations can have, technological incidents can present themselves in a variety of different ways. A manufacturer may have a particular set of data while a company’s customers have a completely different set of information. Customers may even have vastly different data sets from each other.


Information asymmetry can also be illustrated with a corporate example. If several departments are experiencing technical difficulties with a specific program specific to their particular duties and report it to the IT/ Help Desk, the Help Desk has all the information related to the system error but the individual departments will not be aware of the malfunction that very well may have had a simple solution that the departments could have fixed themselves but instead had to use the time and energy of an additional team wasting time, energy and money that was probably not necessary


Failure to Validate Small Incidents


As tempting as it is to avoid drawing attention to a small incident, they too must be addressed and evaluated. Reoccurring incidents, no matter how small should be particularly troubling and warrant further investigation. The fact that a small incident is reoccurring should raise attention of management because there is likely an underlying cause that must be addressed before this minor incident turns into a more embarrassing crisis. Smaller occurrences do often signal the possibility of a larger occurrence of the cause is most eliminated. The term “smoldering crisis” very accurately describes the potential for smaller events to eventually catch to become a full blow catastrophic blaze.


Possibly the most eventually disastrous smoldering crisis in recent history was the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon nightmare. There is sufficient evidence to support the case of a series of human error and overlooked issues that may have prevented the disaster if handles appropriately.


Something often overlooked during acquisition is the changes in responsibilities that occur, and the tasks which still need to be performed but go unrecognized by the acquiring company. In the example above the supervisors’ responsibilities changed rather drastically. In a similar manner, responsibilities and accountability can change. What happens if the acquiring company does not absorb or recognize responsibilities that still need to be performed within the acquired companies? Lack of communication can mean that some employees are not properly compensated because the parent company doesn’t recognize some of the vital duties that they are performing. This also potentially leads to dissatisfaction and ultimately poor performance. Overflow tasks in a department may be assigned to random individuals, adding to their work load, but not increasing their compensation, when cumulatively these tasks should have been designated to a new position entirely. Instead of incurring the cost of hiring new employees, the company fails to assess the importance of these tasks and is satisfied to have them done by several individuals. This may complicate things even further because these individuals may not conform to a standard format or methodology. The tasks would also be performed at varying levels of aptitude. It is also vital to understand what each employee’s duties are, not only because other employees may need to ask questions to further understand a processes, but also for accountability’s sake. Who is accountable for the task? It is easy to over burden employees with excess tasks to the point that the quality of their standard duties suffer. If there are overflow tasks in a department, management should assess if cumulatively these tasks are sufficient to request budgeting for an additional position, or positions.


Organizational Cultural Considerations


Business anthropologists have spent considerable time and resources trying to understand the complicated and covert corporate business culture. Corporate business culture itself is very specific in comparison to other business cultures like entrepreneurs and small business culture. The hierarchy of corporate culture lends itself to the vulnerability of scapegoating, always blaming the next person in the hierarchy both above and below the position in question.


People naturally separate themselves into smaller more identifiable groups. There are many ways in which people create groups. In corporate business we often see separation of groups based on job description, language, education, and an almost limitless array of other factors. On the other hand these variables can be used to exclude potential group members, as well. In linguistic anthropology we study language as a means to distinguishing groups. Language, and the way we speak, is often used to distinguish groups. For example, after the arrival of a new group, a subtle way to exclude a perceived outsider would be to change the words being used to describe the same things regularly so the new group is always adjusting. For example, you have a group of employees who may have worked for several years together and have developed an occupational bond accordingly, we shall call them Group A. Say their company acquired a new group of employees, Group B, which must coexist with the first group, within the physical boundaries initially belonging to the acquiring group. It is likely that the group that spent the most time in the location, Group A, would be initially considered somewhat dominant. However, the new group quickly adapts and we begin to see the absorption of the original groups’ cultural lexicon, to some extent. These wouldn’t be technical words, they would likely be adjectives and easily changed. To maintain cohesion amongst themselves Group A will adjust the adjectives that have been absorbed by Group B, and create new words to continue to define themselves as a separate group. This group behavior can be observed outside of the context of corporate acquisition. However, in the corporate context this cultural rebellion is about distinguishing groups and therefore insinuates there hasn’t been a cultural merger. That merger occurs later, if at all. Why is this important to corporate America who so is so often concerned with the bottom line? Human grouping is unavoidable and natural, not a hindrance to the corporate culture necessarily. However, there is the potential for some groupings to be a hindrance and even potentially hostile. While hostile groups are not always avoidable they must be dealt with quickly and judiciously to prevent the spread this infection of negativity to other groups. Concerning macro perspective of the acquired group versus the acquiring group, employers must strive for cohesion and acceptance on the cultural level not just from the business perspective. Care should be taken to ensure that acquired groups are not discriminated to in anyway and have a place to voice their concerns.


Bringing Cohesion


Students are often an untapped resource, but there are still other ways to implement a program on a strict budget. Employees often will participate in company-wide competitions for a simple opportunity. For example, when faced with a website marketing need an employer may announce a company-wide video submission contest about the values of the company to be used on the company website. This is excellent for a few reasons. Firstly, the commercial will feature employees, not actors, and therefore there is a reduction in potential costs to the company. Using authentic employees in the video also adds credence to the sincerity of the message which is generally centered on company values or ideals. A competition like this could be company-wide including even entry level positions, or it can be directed more toward middle management as there is the potential to groom the winner(s) for a promotion. The value of a competition like this is not only monetary. This interaction has the potential to strengthen the culture of change by increasing interaction between the acquired companies and the parent company in a positive manner. This is a way to bring corporate cultural cohesion by selecting a winner from each office and then a grand winner if need be, or perhaps several winners. Employees could vote on the video, or elect a panel to judge it to ensure confidence for an unbiased judging process. In a similar program I observed as an employee, the grand prize was a trip to corporate headquarters to meet with executive management. This is excellent because it provides exposure for up and coming employees, and makes it possible to interact with officers that otherwise would be mostly inaccessible. On the other hand, this same tool could be used to ostracize and demoralize. Let’s say all the winners are based in the corporate office causing employees at sites in the company other than headquarters to feel ostracized. Care should made there is no discrimination based on job sites.


Scapegoating


Accepting responsibility for errors is not only a part of being a responsible human being it is integral in the functioning of an organization as a while. Shifting blame from one party to another does not do anything but waste time, perhaps the most valuable resource of all, especially in a crisis. Ultimately scapegoating means that those committing the errors are not learning from their mistakes but rather shifting blame onto others. For the organization as whole key issues are not being addressed and important lessons are not being learned. The very essence of scapegoating is denial. A culture which which is ripe with scapegoating is contrary to a learning organization and would require a complete cultural overhaul. Management would be responsible for overseeing these major changes but nothing is impossible when devoted works unite with the goal of company betterment.


Status Quo Seeking


Along the line of programmed decisions, seeking to maintain the status quo indicates a resistance to change. It is likely that there would be a level of scapegoating and denial in business cultures that do not accept the possibility that change would be to their benefit. Change and analyzing failure is painful . It is not difficult to understand that managers who have spent decades in a company align their personal achievements and failures very much with those of the company. So admit a failure in their department, under their management, could feel very much like a personal failure. Of course managers should strive to separate their personal goals and failure from those of the company, but still, the above mentioned cohesion does happen. When a manager achieves success, that manager may attribute the success to his/her leadership and visa-versa with failures .


Summary


One of the most important aspects of organizational learning is the ability to detect potential issues, hopefully correct them, and without a doubt learn from them either way. Single loop learning and double loop learning, whether the change impacts the norms or not, should ultimately lead to deeper understanding of problems with the ultimate goal of mastery. The facets of learning organization development provide neat groups of concepts to help researchers delve even further into organizational development learning.


Learning from crisis should begin with identifying and accepting there is an issues performing the necessary steps to rectify the situation as soon as possible, and evaluate the process, steps taken, and plans for future possibilities.


When all the facets of a learning organization come together and perform optimally a true learning organization emerges. This constantly developing organism consumes the energy of its teams, digests the performance, and evaluates its options critically. A true learning organization absorbs information ready, identifies critical team members, and balances all the responsibilities and performance needs at any given time.



References


Crandall, W. R., Parnell, A. J., & Spillan, J. E. (2014). Crisis management: Leading in the new strategy landscape. (2nd. Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE


Cannon, M., & Edmondson, A. (2005) Failure to learn and learning to fail (intelligently): How great organizations put failure to work to innovate and improve. Long Range Planning, 38, 299-319.


Seeger, M., Sellnow, T., & Ulmer, R., (2003, Fall). Why organizations don’t learn from crises: The perverse power of normalizations. Review of Business, 25-30.


Garvin, D., Edminson, A., and Gino, F (2008) Is yours a learning organization? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization.


Johnson, T. (2018) Zoom 0. Retrieved fr https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THTmRg_gVac&feature=youtu.be


Garvin, D., Edminson, A., and Gino, F (2008) Is yours a learning organization?

Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization.


Johnson, T. (2018) Zoom 0. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THTmRg_gVac&feature=youtu.be


Rath, Tom. Strengths Finder 2.0. Gallup Press. 2007


Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (Rev. and updated. ed.). New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.


US Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Health information privacy. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/index.html.


Veil, S., & Sellnow, T. (2008). Organizational learning in a high-risk environment: Responding to the anthrax outbreak. Journal of Applied Communications, 92, 75-93.


Viel, S. (2011). Mindful learning in crisis management. Journal of Business Communication, 48 (2), 116-147.


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