An important area in management literature related to quality concerns “learning organisations". This seems to be curiously overlooked in much of the literature related to quality in adult learning. Curious because quality systems are devoted to ensuring the provision of high-quality learning without apparently giving much attention to how adult learning providers might actually “do" learning themselves.
The first major contribution to the concept of organisational learning was made by Argyris and Schön in the late 1970s and made popular in the 1990s by Peter Senge. Argyris and Schön, defined the “learning organisation" as an organisation “with the ability to see things in new ways, gain new understandings and produce new patterns of behaviour–all on a continuing basis and in a new way that engages the organisation as a whole." At the heart of the concept is the idea that new knowledge arises from tapping into tacit knowledge possessed by individuals and making it explicit. This is “double loop" learning (in “single loop" learning tacit assumptions and underlying mental models remain unchanged). Evidently, this offers the potential for learning providers to look at what they do in new ways.
A key issue for enterprises is therefore how they manage learning processes: “… organisational management requires the conversion of individual knowledge into explicit forms and their location at the level of the organisation. This leads to prescriptions to do with codifying and proceduralising knowledge so that it is available to all members of the organisation and not susceptible to loss when individuals leave".
This line of thinking calls for the adoption of new ways of working, as identified by Peter Senge (see box). Overall, it requires a shift away from hierarchical structures to new organisational forms such as networks and team working. This is good news for adult learning given the tendency for educators to work in such ways anyway (see my previous blog).
At the same time, researchers have highlighted the challenges inherent in such developments. Both double and triple loop learning tend to require significant management and especially leadership. Capturing knowledge may “kill it" and organisations may need to make difficult choices between the relative pros and cons of codification versus personalisation of knowledge. Argyris has noted that organisations tend to approach organisational learning as an add-on to their work, as a checklist of prescriptive “to do" items.
Nonetheless, the ideas built into the learning organisation concept have great potential value, especially in non-formal adult learning which lacks “regulation" and where many good ideas probably fail to be recognised and developed systematically. The concept also has much to say about innovation which can be very important in a sector where changes in the needs of client groups are part of everyday life.
Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.