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Some Notes on Organizational Learning(1999/05)

It was pointed out that with different definitions of the learning model, it requires different research strategies(Karl Weick, 1991). I'll use learning in very loose way, that is, it means " awake, alert, wise and eager and direct the mind and pay attention to" (Lewis Thomas, 1990. The basic point is to acquire new information, learning about the world as the Greeks use the word Mathematics). I think it corresponds to Deming's theory of knowledge in his System of Profound Knowledge (Deming, 1994)*

We can think about Deming's System of Profound Knowledge( SoPK) as one approach of the realizations of the Novum Organum for modern organizational learning. That means in certain ways I am specializing in this article about the Advance of Organizational Learning in terms of SoPK and Action Science.

The readers are encouraged to re-read Francis Bacon's works and think about their implications for the organizational learning science and arts. I 'll point out that both Deming and Argyris deal a lot of the organizational Idola of the organizational man and promote to adopt new tool kit and philosophy. Deming goes further to promote ethical organizational transformation and the new economics.


Deming's SoPK, various 14 points and learning organizations

The key componets of Deming's 14 points for management, such as point 2: "adopting a new philosophy", continual improvement with Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA)cycles, organizational-wide investment in education and training, 14 points in leadership and red bead/funnel experiments and so on, all are related with the study and practice of organizational learning.

Deming's system of Profound Knowledge (SoPK ) is with the aim for organizational transformation , its coverage include most important aspects or approaches of organizational learning (Rheam, 1995). The new competence acquisition, experimentation and continual improvements are the core of SoPK. Indeed, Deming's system concept and its barriers breaking is broader than the so-called 'boundary spanning"(which is a "benchmarking" study, and Deming pointed out that benchmarking without theory is meaningless.).


Deming's teaching and action science/learning

I'll first talk about one interview of C. Argyris ( 1998 Fall issue of Organizational Dynamics). His value system or key words are " justice, truth, competence, effectiveness and learning ". Both Argyris and Deming think we need to use knowledge (operational or actionable) to change the world. The readers may know that Deming used to urge his friends like Dr. B. Joiner and others to teach managers theory of variation( Joiner, 1991). This great story reminds me the story of P. Drucker and his father had a conversation with great economist and educators J. A. Shumpeter a week before his death (Drucker & Nakauchi,1997).The important thing for most people is to change the world, to make it a better place for well-being of people.

Deming used to use the inquiry " How do you know?" For this mode of thinking, Argyris' answers to this question is a tautological one " when you can create what you say you know".( this might be equivalent to Deming 's operational definition ).In fact, I think Deming is with much profound understanding of the important orientation and measurement processes which are the cornerstones of organizational learning.


Both are concerned with organizational reality, or " what the hell is really going on?" Deming emphasizes that most Western organization practitioners' and leaders' behavior and modes of thinking are in what he called in the crisis which might be equivalent with Argyris' " self-defense mechanism or skilled incompetence ". I think Argyris is right that model I learning and various defense routines are universal. In both Chinese and Japanese culture, there are many face-saving mechanisms. But Deming knows it and is kind with us.

Deming proposed the leaders to adopt the new management philosophy practice his various 14 Points in management obligations and leadership through the lens of SoPK. The result of this learning/training/education journey is to help the learners to learn how to learn so that they can become more reflective learners ( in Model II learning of Argyris and D. A. Schon's framework).

Deming emphasizes that it is executives' obligations to create the fear-free employees' working conditions, so that people in the system can release the power of trusting and creativity. I think this might be equivalent to Argyris' diagnosis for most organizations, that is, the reason of skilled incompetence of most executives is their fears to fail or fear to think about * the fear to fail". Hence executives might develope many fancy footwork included out-talking people, outgunning them or internal competition. I believe that the first four chapters of Out of the Crisis are one of the best sourcebook to be consulted in this subject.

As most of us know that Deming's theory of knowledge and learning is a journey of double-loop learning with operational meaning, see his work on PDSA (plan-do-study-act), analytic studies, stability of system and the causes/strategies of improvement.

Argyris' definition of leadership is" the every day, face to face relationship to create ways that knowledge is managed so that it is valid and actionable." I think this is exact a leader with profound knowledge. Deming 's operational definition of a leader is much better and clear (Deming, 1994).



愛略特(T. S. Elliot)《四首四重奏》中的:「我們不應中止探索,而在我們的探索後,必將回到我們的出發處,從而再談一次認識那地方。」(由Little Gidding “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started /And know the place for the first time)。


* Note: A Learning Theory

Since many people like the metaphor of organization as a living organism or talk about " Bring Life to Organizational Change," I suggest we study the

learning theory proposed by G. Bateson( GB)which I think it is one of most profound and ambitious ones. In the glossary of the book Angels Fear, explains learning as follows,

GB included within the notion of "learning" all those events in which a system responds to some eternal stimulus, including as a limiting case examples in which the system adjusts but is unchanged (e.g. a thermostat switching on the heat in response to falling temperature: zero learning), but focusing in those cases in which the system is modified in response to the information( note: "Any difference that make a difference" in the Glossary) received. The concept thus becomes an umbrella concept to include adaptation, character formation, habituation, acclimation, addiction, etc., as well as more familiar forms of learning, and can refer to different logical types. Notably, learning in which the learning capacity of the system is modified ("deutero-learning") is referred to as learning II, being of a higher logical type than learning in which the organism is changed without alternation in learning capacity.

The fundamental learning concept by Bateson approach can provide us a sound infrastructure for a learning organization, it also related to many learning strategies discussed in W. E. Deming's teachings (e.g. the rifle vs. shot gun modeling quoted in the GB book comparing with the funnel rules and much more.)

GB's definition of epistemology is very inclusive and general and can also be applied to most organizational learning studies. For GB," it is a branch of science combined with a branch of philosophy. As a science, epistemology is the study of how particular organisms or aggregates of organism "know", "think', and "decide". As philosophy, epistemology is the study of the necessary limits and others characteristics of the processes of knowing, thinking and deciding."

Deming's system of profound knowledge emphasizes the epistemology too. This makes SoPK can be an important contribution to organizational learning studies, in addition to Action Learning or Action Science (around '60, many people, including Prof. Raven realized that it is important to integrate social science, statistics and systems approach.).


Some list of reference

W. E. Deming(1986) " Out of The Crisis" MIT CAES

W. E. Deming(1992) "The New Economics for Industries, Government and Education" MIT CAES

Francis Bacon " Novum Organum" Chinese translation (1984), Commerce Press

Karl Weick (1991) " The Nontraditional quality of Organizational Learning " Organization Science, Vol. 2, No. 1

Lewis Thomas (1990) " ET CETERA, ET CETERA" Mathematics and Language,

Little Brown.

C. Argyris and D. A. Schon(1996) " Organizational Learning II" Addison Wesley

Peter F. Drucker & Isao Nakauchi (1997) "Drucker on Asia"

Helen Rheem(1995) "The Learning Organizations" Harvard Business Review March-April , p 10-11

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