Knowledge : Learning Organizations ( Part 2 )

by Kai Larsen, Claire McInerney, Corinne Nyquist, Aldo Santos, Donna Silsbee and Dr. Sue Faerman, May 13, 1996, University of Albany.

The original material is at 



A team, say Robbins and Finley, is "people doing something together." It could be a baseball team or a research team or a rescue team. It isn’t what a team does that makes it a team; it is a fact that they do it "together." ( Robbins and Finley, 1995, p. 10 ) "Teams and teamwork are the ‘hottest’ thing happening in organizations today..." according to French and Bell. ( 1995, p. 97 ) A workplace team is more than a work group, "a number of persons, usually reporting to a common superior and having some face to face interaction, who have some degree of interdependence in carrying out tasks for the purpose of achieving organizational goals." ( French and Bell, 1995, p. 169 )

A workplace team is closer to what is called a self directed work team or SDWT, which can be defined as follows: "A self directed work team is a natural work group of interdependent employees who share most, if not all, the roles of a traditional supervisor." ( Hitchcock and Willard, 1995, p. 4 )

Since teams usually have team leaders, sometimes called coaches, the definition used by Katzenbach and Smith in French and Bell seems the most widely applicable: "A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." ( 1995, p. 112 )

Organization development ( OD ) focuses on the human side of organizations. It is believed that individuals who have some control over how their work is done will be more satisfied and perform better. This is called empowerment in OD. Put these empowered individuals together into teams and the results will be extraordinary, we are told. French and Bell put it this way:

"A fundamental belief in organization development is that work teams are the building blocks of organizations. A second fundamental belief is that teams must manage their culture, processes, systems, and relationships, if they are to be effective. Theory, research, and practice attest to the central role teams play in organizational success. Teams and teamwork are part of the foundation of organization development." ( French and Bell,
1995, p. 87 )


Characteristics of Successful Teams

OD interventions are divided into two basic groups: diagnosis and action or process. Team building is one type of process intervention. In fact, French and Bell consider teams and work groups to be the "fundamental units of organizations" and the "key leverage points for improving the functioning of the organization." ( 1995, p. 171 )

A number of writers have studied teams, looking for the characteristics that make some successful. Larson and LaFasto looked at high-performance groups as diverse as a championship football team and a heart transplant team and found eight characteristics that are always present. They are listed below:


A clear, elevating goal


A results driven structure


Competent team members


Unified commitment


A collaborative climate


Standards of excellence


External support and recognition


Principled leadership ( Larson and LaFasto, 1989, in French and Bell, 1995, p. 98 )

How does a group become a high performance team ? Lippitt maintains that groups operate on four levels: organizational expectations, group tasks, group maintenance, and individual needs. Maintenance level activities include encouraging by showing regard for others, expressing and exploring group feelings, compromising and admitting error, gate keeping to facilitate the participation of others, and setting standards for evaluating group functioning and production. ( Lippett, 1982, p. 9 )

Lippitt defines teamwork as the way a group is able to solve its problems. Teamwork is demonstrated in groups by: ( a )"...the group’s ability to examine its process to constantly improve itself as a team," and ( b ) "the requirement for trust and openness in communication and relationships." The former is characterized by group interaction, interpersonal relations, group goals, and communication. The latter is characterized by a high tolerance for differing opinions and personalities. ( Lippett, 1982, p. 207-208 ) 

Team Building and Team Learning

A recent concept in OD is that of the learning organization. Peter Senge considers the team to be a key learning unit in the organization. According to Senge, the definition of team learning is:

"...the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. It builds on the discipline of developing shared vision. It also builds on personal mastery, for talented teams are made up of talented individuals." ( 1990, p. 236 )

Senge describes a number of components of team learning. The first is dialogue. Drawing on conversations with physicist, David Bohm, he identifies three conditions that are necessary for dialogue to occur: All participants must "suspend their assumptions;" all participants must "regard one another as colleagues;" and there must be a facilitator ( at least until teams develop these skills ) "who holds the context of the dialogue." Bohm asserts that "hierarchy is antithetical to dialogue, and it is difficult to escape hierarchy in organizations." ( Senge, 1990, p. 245 ) Suspending all assumptions is also difficult, but is necessary to reshape thinking about reality.

Before a team can learn, it must become a team. In the 1970s, psychologist B. W. Tuckman identified four stages that teams had to go through to be successful. They are:


Forming: When a group is just learning to deal with one another; a time when minimal work gets accomplished.


Storming: A time of stressful negotiation of the terms under which the team will work together; a trial by fire.


Norming: A time in which roles are accepted, team feeling develops, and information is freely shared.


Performing: When optimal levels are finally realized—in productivity, quality, decision making, allocation of resources, and interpersonal interdependence.

Tuckman asserts that no team goes straight from forming to performing."Struggle and adaptation are critical, difficult, but very necessary parts of team development." ( Robbins and Finley, 1995, p. 187 )

Senge’s characterization of dealing with conflict draws on Chris Argyris. Argyris writes about how even professionals avoid learning, using entrenched habits to protect themselves from the embarrassment and threat that comes with exposing their thinking. The act of encouraging more open discussion is seen as intimidating, and they feel vulnerable. ( Argyris, 1994, p. 346-7 ) ) The missing link for Senge is practice. Team learning is a team skill that can be learned. Practice is gained through dialogue sessions, learning laboratories, and microworlds. ( Senge, 1990, p. 245 ) Microworlds are computer based microcosms of reality, in which one learns by experimentation . Examples are Logo, in which children learn the principles of geometry, and SimCity, in which one literally builds a city, making all the decisions and learning the consequences of those decisions. Simulation, Senge believes, is a tool for learning "How do things work ?" and just as important, "How might they work differently ?" ( Senge, 1990, p. 338 )

Team Practices

Contributors to The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook declare that team learning is not team building, describing the latter as creating courteous behaviors, improving communication, becoming better able to perform work tasks together, and building strong relationships. ( Senge, 1990, p. 355 ) Just as teams pool their knowledge and then examine it from many different angles, so have the practitioners of OD shared their different perspectives and experiences. One such OD "strategist" is Juanita Brown, who has coached organizations toward innovative ways to involve employees. Looking back on groups with which she has worked, she recounts those experiences where team building turned into team learning. She draws inspiration from the community development movement and from the study of voluntary organizations. Roots of this are found in the work of Miles Horton, Paulo Freire, the Scandinavian study circles, Saul Alinsky, M. Scott Peck, and Marvin Weisbord. ( Senge, Fieldbook, p. 508-9 )

Of particular interest is her description of the San Francisco Foundation, a funder of worthy causes throughout the Bay area, which she counseled through a period of extraordinary growth, change, and pressure. Foundations may promote innovative projects, yet they are seldom organized progressively themselves. The executive director, Martin Paley, wanted to shift the role of the Distribution Committee from administrative decisions to policy making, involve the community in a dialogue on project directions, and then for the first time publish explicit grant guidelines in a newsletter. He also faced the delightful problem of an extremely large bequest. Approaching it as an adventure, he hired Juanita Brown as a long range planning consultant. In addition, he attended a systems dynamics training session led by Peter Senge at M.I.T. ( Sibbert and Brown, 1986 )

Six ‘Commitment to the Community’ input sessions were held to open the foundation to new ideas. What they heard was that this foundation didn’t belong to the Distribution Committee or to the staff; it belonged to the community and community members wanted "damn good care" taken of it. They came to think of the foundation as a kind of community development bank. They learned that every meeting agenda is subject to change; that they had too much structure; and that people can learn from each other. ( Sibbert and Brown, 1986 )

Brown expressed her belief in the importance of dialogue as follows:

"Strategic dialogue is built on the operating principle that the stakeholders in any system already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges." The ‘community of inquiry’ can extend beyond employees to include unions, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders, becoming a "dynamic and reinforcing process which helps create and strengthen the ‘communities of commitment’ which Fred Kofman and Peter Senge emphasize lie at the heart of learning organizations capable of leading the way toward a sustainable future." ( Bennet and Brown, 1995, p. 167 )


While much anecdotal evidence exists, there remains a lack of a clear understanding of how to really describe and measure team learning. As Senge stated:

"Until we can describe the phenomenon better, it [team learning] will remain mysterious. Until we have some theory of what happens when teams learn ( as opposed to individuals in teams learning ), we will be unable to distinguish group intelligence from ‘group think,’ when individuals succumb to group pressures for conformity. Until there are reliable methods for building teams that can learn together, its occurrence will remain a product of happenstance." ( 1990, p. 228 )

Image1.gif (9392 bytes)

What usually is measured is productivity, because high or low productivity has a direct effect on wages, the cost of products, the consumption of resources to produce goods, the quality of work life, and the survival and competitiveness of industries and of individual firms. However, these studies only evaluate productivity at the individual level. ( Pritchard, 1990, p. 254 ) Goodman et al suggest that "if we want to understand how to design more productive groups, we need to move to finer-grained models that link group design and productivity changes." They suggest that the Hackman model ( below ) provides a good start. ( Goodman et al., 1988, p. 317 )      

Shared Vision

John Brown, mentioned earlier, had a vision of freeing the slaves. Obviously, this was not a vision that came out of his own mind. He must have taken the slaves’ vision and shared it with them. Clearly, if the slaves had truly preferred to stay enslaved, John Brown's vision could not have existed. The slaves’ sense of shared vision made it possible for them to die by Brown's side, but they did not die for Brown, they died for a shared vision.

What does it mean to have a shared vision ? A shared vision begins with the individual, and an individual vision is something that one person holds as a truth. Throughout history there are many examples of people who have had a strong vision, some of these people are remembered even today. One example is John Brown with his vision of a holy war to free the slaves, which culminated in his attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. According to Carl Jung, "Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.... Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." ( Mindscape, 1995 )

What is this vision that is found within our hearts ? According to WordNet,3 a vision is a vivid mental image. In this context, vivid means graphic and lifelike. Based on this, it can be concluded that a vision is a graphic and lifelike mental image that is very important to us, i.e., held within our hearts. The vision is often a goal that the individual wants to reach. In systems thinking that goal is most often a long term goal, something that can be a leading star for the individual.

The shared vision of an organization must be built of the individual visions of its members. What this means for the leader in the Learning Organization is that the organizational vision must not be created by the leader, rather, the vision must be created through interaction with the individuals in the organization. Only by compromising between the individual visions and the development of these visions in a common direction can the shared vision be created. The leader's role in creating a shared vision is to share her own vision with the employees. This should not be done to force that vision on others, but rather to encourage others to share their vision too. Based on these visions, the organization's vision should evolve.

It would be naive to expect that the organization can change overnight from having a vision that is communicated from the top to an organization where the vision evolves from the visions of all the people in the organization. The organization will have to go through major change for this to happen, and this is where OD can play a role. In the development of a learning organization, the OD-consultant would use the same tools as before, just on a much broader scale.

What is a shared vision ? To come up with a classification for shared visions would be close to impossible. Going back to the definition of a vision as a graphic and lifelike mental image that is very important to us, Melinda Dekker's drawing [see p. 2] is as good as any other representation of shared vision. The drawing will probably be interpreted differently by people, but still there is something powerful about the imagery that most people can see.

Reflection on shared vision brings the question of whether each individual in the organization must share the rest of the organization's vision. The answer is no, but the individuals who do not share the vision might not contribute as much to the organization. How can someone start to share the rest of the organization's vision ? Senge ( 1990 ) stresses that visions can not be sold. For a shared vision to develop, members of the organization must enroll in the vision. The difference between these two is that through enrollment the members of the organization choose to participate.

When an organization has a shared vision, the driving force for change comes from what Senge calls "creative tension." Creative tension is the difference between the shared vision and the current reality. With truly committed members the creative tension will drive the organization toward its goals.

blog comments powered by Disqus