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Organizing Learning for a Purpose

We want to eliminate or at least reduce impediments to our learning. As a company, we would like to do things to create an environment for learning, as well as capture that learning in some effective way and find ways to encourage this learning to be distributed throughout the organization.

The organization has objectives both long term and short. Competition and a constantly evolving technical landscape require adapting and this adapting is best met through growing competence in the organization. Competence can be developed through providing an environment that recognizes the importance of learning, not just for the individual, but for the organization. This environment of learning can only be developed through the effective sharing of knowledge obtained by all its members.

Organizations that are unable to share the learning of teams beyond the individual learning, can find a company work environment wherein project failures have a recurring theme, or failure mode. This happens, in part at least, because different teams work within the organization. Failure to learn is costly and is not the most productive way to grow teams or a company and is counter to a high or positive morale a learning organizational environment.

The Organization

There are many factors that influence the organization and how it operates, none of this larger than the impact of the structure and culture of the organization. The organization is subjected to chaos theory, that is, the randomness and uncertainty

An example of the structure of a functional organization

Figure 2.1 An example of the structure of a functional organization.

to which everything is subjected. These can be unknown (and often are) and, even when known, difficult to measure, consisting of unknowable inputs or stimulus.

There are many types of organization structure types. Generally speaking, each structure type comes with strengths and weaknesses. We start with the functional structured organization; it is a collection of special skills. For example, we may have an organization that produces vehicle electrical/electronic systems and have a collection of groups that could look like this:

■ systems engineering

■ embedded software engneers

■ embedded hardware engineers

■ wire harness

■ project managers

■ test department

Each of the groups has specialized skills, work with tools specific to their domain, and have processes unique to their respective work. The advantage of this structure is in this focus on the required knowledge and tools to be successful in each of the respective domains. This focus on individual competencies, from experience, comes at the expense of lateral communication and understanding how the parts connect to make the whole.

An example of a matrix organization

Figure 2.2 An example of a matrix organization.

There are many other types for an organization beyond the functional; some other examples are matrix and project structured which are some of the more common. Modern work now has the organizations distributed all over the world, and even when co-located, there are fabrications beyond these typical ones. For example, there are modern examples that lack structure. Some software development organizations opt for the team members to be in a group that is self-directed, and that have a variety of skills to undertake the work. This self-directed teaming and a reduction of hierarchies that manage the work flow provide some advantages as well as disadvanges. This book does not address the optimum organization structure, only to point out that the structure of the organization and the environment in which it exists will influence learning and distribution of that learning through the organization.


The structure of the organization consists of many elements and influences. Below is a short list of the sort of things that influence the organizations structure:*

Formalization - refers to the amount of documentation such as process documentation, procedures, work instructions, company regulations, and other policy manuals.

Specialization - refers to the degree to which the organization divides the work, sometimes referred to as functional organization, that allows for specialization in each of a variety of disciplines. For example, in the automotive product organization, there will be mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, power train specialists, test engineers, procurement personnel and much more. This specialization often means these unique areas will have a high level of expertise, including the tools for the work, but this comes at negative consequences of depending upon communication throughout the organization.

Standardization - refers to the degree to which the company’s work activities are uniform, businesses like restaurant chains. These organizations detail how the work is to be accomplished that will apply to all locations of the organization.

Hierarchy of authority - refers to the reporting structure of the organization, often displayed as boxes with horizontal and vertical boxes showing individual titles and people, connected to other positions up (reports to), lateral (peers), and lower (reports to). In this structure, an individual has a collection of people reporting to

Team sizes and distribution vary through the organization

Figure 2.3 Team sizes and distribution vary through the organization.

them; in other words, the person these people report to is responsible for that part of the work and those individuals reporting to that part of the hierarchy.

Complexity - refers to the number of systems and subsystems of the organization; within the organization. Tilings like the number of layers of the hierarchy, as well as the horizontal span of those layers, number of departments, the global distribution of the departments, and the expected interactions of these layers, departments as well as the geographical distribution.

Centralization - refers to the decision-making authority of the organization; centralization is when decisions are made at the executive or management levels. Decentralization is when the decision making is made at the lower organization levels; sometimes this is referred to as empowerment to the organization.

Professionalism - refers to the amount of education and training of the employees. Does the organization work require that much of the staff be highly trained with university degrees and perhaps advanced degrees and certifications? Professionalism is often measured by the average number of years of education for the employees and staff.

Personnel ratios - refers to the deployment of people to the departments and functions of the organization. This includes things like the ratio of the administrative staff to the functional staff in the case of an engineering or product development organization, for example, the number of engineers to the number of administrative personnel.

Team Size

It likely is not very surprising to find out that team size significantly impacts the work and how the team works together. There is more to this than randomness, but some evolutionary biology associated with the limits that Malcolm Gladwell referred to in his book Tipping Point, as social channel capacity[1] The case for a social capacity has been made, most persuasively, by the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Dunbar begins with a single observation. Primates, monkeys, chimps, baboons’ and humans - have the biggest brains of all mammals. More important, a specific part of the brain of humans and other primates, the region known as the neocortex, which deals with complex thought and reasoning, is huge by mammal standards. Dunbar argues that group size correlates with brain size. Dunbar’s arguments are that brains evolved, getting bigger in order to handle the complexities of larger social groups. In fact, Dunbar developed an equation, that works for most primates. The equation looks at the neocortex size, specifically, the the ratio of the neocortex size to the size of the entire brain. With this ratio the maximum group size can be derive and that is the Dunbar number. For humans, this calculation renders approximately 150 connections. This represents the maximum number of individuals with which a genuine social relationship can be developed and maintained. Dunbar goes on

The organization must contend with many external influences

Figure 2.4 The organization must contend with many external influences.

to explore hunter gatherer societies and finds that the average number of people in a village is about 150. ’[he work even cites a religious community (Hutterite) that has a strict policy that every time a colony approaches 150, they split into two and start a new one.

Even exploration of military hierarchy yields a maximum size not to substantially exceed 200. Larger groups require increased regulation and formal measures to maintain command and control. At 150, orders can be implemented, and unruly behavior controlled on a basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts.

So what does all of this mean for the organization? The larger the organization the more command control processes; additionally, this limit can be an impediment to dispersion of information and learning. Large companies will have to contrive other ways of spreading the learning, as the personal connections and social limits will be impacted.


The company may be inundated by many external stimuli, ideally identifying those things that can be the most damaging and the most promising of opportunities to avoid the pain from the damaging events and risks, and to capitalize on the opportunities. Since the businesses are unique, these challenges and opportunities are also different, for example, an automotive design and manufacturer company will have risk associated with product, material, and legal issues. A bank, on the other hand, may not produce material parts, but may have internal systems along with legal requirements that have no resemblance to that of the automotive manufacturer. A software gaming company, which has no hardware, perhaps the game is online, and requires no personal information to log in such as real name, credit card, and similar type of inputs, will be in an entirely different category of risk and so the approach to the work will likely be different.

Tlie significant stimuli may originate from outside of the organization, but not be relegated solely to that. A large organization will likely have considerable internal dynamics as well. For example, consider the churn of the talent within the organization. At any given time there may be some loss of key personnel within the company. There may be change initiatives within some groups within the organization that will alter the operations of the company and how the individual units work together.


Each of the other characteristics, structural and environmental, are implicated by the context of the company.

Size - refers to the number of people in the organization, and this measurement may be by specific division of the organization or for the entire organization. The size of the organization can make communication and distribution of things learned.

Organizational technology - refers to the level of technology required to transform the inputs to the organization to the outputs of the organization. A manufacturing line employs some levels of technology as well as a product development, but these are likely not the same level nor type of technology.

Goals and strategy - refer to how the company intends to achieve the goals and objectives of the organization. These are often documented articulations of the aspirations and the constraints within which the company wishes to abide, for example, social and environmental aspects of the goals and strategy.


The culture of the organization is elusive to describe and includes a mix of a variety of attributes. This includes, but not limited to, the guiding principles of the organization, the beliefs, the aspirations of the organization, as well as priorities of how the organization will go about working and the behaviors expected to achieve those objectives. Everybody is touched by the organizations culture, but culture is not really noticed or easily articulated by those in the organization beyond perhaps some parroting of the formal documents. That is not to say that the organization’s culture consists of a set of documents, on the contrary. The overt articulations of the culture are but a small aspect of the corporate culture. Organizations generally teach new members about the culture via formal training and ceremonies. The culture of the organization provides an identity and commitment to the beliefs and mission of the organization.

■ Symbols

■ Ceremonies

■ Behaviors

■ Stories, legends, myths

■ Language

We can plan, and create, an organizational environment to influence or drive the culture where it is desired to be; however the culture of the organization has significant emergent properties. That is, it is influenced by many variables much of which will be random, unknown, and therefore unplanned. The culture is more easily influenced early in the organization’s life. This cannot be overstated. The biggest ability to influence the culture is at the start of the organization, before bad habits have been formed, with no need to overcome the inertia of a pre-existing culture. In addition to the culture being emergent, so too can be the strategies.

First, we should start by saying changing the organization’s culture is not so easy. In fact we cannot really predict how the culture will alter. Culture is emergent, ’[hat is, it is not the sum of the individual actions we take nor the sum of the individual interactions within the organization. We can take actions that we believe will help create the culture we desire, and we may plan carefully; however, culture is not the sort of thing on which we can exert perfect influence, all the more reason for being persistent and consistent in our organization culture change efforts. Any change that runs contrary to the corporate culture will meet the headwind that is the present corporate culture. Change at the organization level is large scale change, and changing the organization’s culture is like changing the direction of a wheel with considerable inertia (mass and speed).

Learning Organization

Management has shifted from the Frederick Taylor approach, often referred to as scientific management. Instead of looking at the organization as a purely economic model, there is a recognition that the organization is an economic and social model. Management’s role, at least in part, is to make the most of the organization’s resources and talent. That is, to set the operating environment of the company in such a way as to maximize the results. There has been a shift from the command and control approach to management typical of Frederick Taylor to an empowerment approach.

This management shift has been prompted by two accelerating trends. The first is the increasing rate of change brought by global competition. Organizations must adapt faster and be able to do more things well. The second trend is a fundamental

Process diagram is a way to illustrate the process and the control mechanisms

Figure 2.5 Process diagram is a way to illustrate the process and the control mechanisms.

change in organizational technologies. Traditional organizations were designed to manage machine-based technologies, with a primary need for stable and efficient use of physical resources, such as mass production.[2]

In certain areas of the world, the work has moved from the mechanization or manual manufacturing line type of work, to knowledge intensive. For an organization to be an effective global competitor, it will require the constant learning by the individual team members that enable the organization to become increasingly competent and efficient and able to discover new opportunites and effectively take advantage of these. This ultimately requires more than the individual to learn, but team learning, and learning that spreads through the organization.

  • [1] Gladwell, M. (2014). Tipping point. Place of publication not identified: Little, Brown.
  • [2] Daft, R. L. (1998). Organization theory and design. Cincinnati: South Western CollegePublishing.
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