Learning Disabilities in Organizations

There exist many issues that an organization may experience due to wrong decisions or poor company culture. Such organizations fall under certain system archetypes that outline the issues the company faces and the reasons for these problems. Additionally, these organizations may experience “learning disabilities” that prevent them from becoming learning organizations. This paper will provide an example of an organization affected by a variety of issues, as well as possible solutions to them.

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The Case

For this paper, the case will not present the name of the organization or any names of its employees. A few years ago, I worked in the IT department of a clothing store chain. The organization operated for over 30 years but unfortunately did not keep up with the technological advancements in office equipment. Our office mostly operated on computers that were at least five years out of date. The same could be said of all the equipment such as printers, scanners, and the internal network.

This situation has led to numerous issues with computers that negatively affected the workflow of the office. The IT department was understaffed, with only four people servicing more than 40 machines. During my work there, I have confronted the management on multiple issues, but unfortunately, they were not addressed. I have requested a newer generation of computers to be installed in the office. Still, despite the initial agreement, only the completely broken computers were replaced, leaving the rest just as faulty.

Other people working in the department told me that only ten years ago their efforts were sufficient because the equipment was new and rarely broke. The company was dedicated to using new technologies to improve their workflow. However, after the economic crisis of 2008, management changed its vision. This is why the current situation was so dire.

System Archetypes

By analyzing the possible system archetypes, it is possible to categorize this case into two of them. The first system archetype that can apply to this organization is called “shifting the burden.” This archetype utilizes short-term solutions to address problems that would gain more benefit from long-term solutions. Moreover, because of the positive results achieved during the initial implementation, short-term solutions become prioritized by the company.

This outcome leads to the company losing the capabilities to implement a fundamental solution. The case presents a situation where instead of upgrading all the outdated computer equipment, the company chose only to replace those machines that were completely broken. This did enable more people to continue their work, but at the same time, it did not solve the issue of the older machines constantly malfunctioning. The number of work hours that were lost due to faulty machinery had to be significant enough to cause additional losses to the company, which were later used as an excuse not to upgrade the computer equipment.

The management did not see a problem with this outcome, despite the major increase in the workload of the IT department in the last three years. This attitude suggests that the managers did not believe that a fundamental solution was possible in the current organizational environment (Senge, 2006).

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The second system archetype that can be observed in the case is called “eroding the goals.” It describes a similar situation to the previous archetype where short-term solutions affect the vision of the company and its standards. The 2008 economic crisis affected many different companies on a global scale, and some have never recovered from it. This was the case with this organization. The original vision of the company was focused on utilizing the newest technological advancements available for office work. This focus created a competitive advantage for the company because it significantly streamlined the workflow of the office work.

Unfortunately, the 2008 crisis prevented the company from fundamentally updating the computer equipment, and now the management has gone astray from the original vision. Perhaps during the initial crisis, this change in vision was required for the future sustainability of the company, but an attempt had to be made to hold onto it or restore it at a later date. Because the original vision was lost, the organization is now unwilling to address issues that would not be there in the first place if the vision was maintained (Senge, 2006).

Learning Disabilities

One of the more common learning disabilities that large and powerful organizations experience is the “boiled frog parable.” The parable states that if a frog is put into a boiling pot, it will try its best to immediately jump out of it. However, if the water in the pot is heated from room temperature to the boiling point, the frog would not leave the pot. Although the parable has no scientific basis, it serves as a vivid illustration of the certain types of human behavior.

A large company can underestimate the impact of their competitors if they are slowly gaining their market share. The case is not related to competition. However, it describes how the organization lost its main competitive edge through the lack of a proper reaction to a problem. The case points out the fact that ten years ago, the company used the newest technology, which gave them a competitive edge. This technology slowly became outdated and, in some cases, obsolete with time. If there were a sudden change that would make all the computer equipment obsolete in the office, the company would be forced to react immediately, but due to this gradual change, no proper actions were taken (Senge, 2006).

The second learning disability that was present in the organization is called “the myth of the management team.” This disability refers to the belief that the management team is usually right in their decisions. The team members often try to keep their problems with the company silent, and the decisions made by those teams are often compromised or reflect an opinion of a single member of the team. People who express their displeasure with decisions are rarely rewarded, and those that quickly resolve issues are prioritized. Sometimes management teams consist completely of people who do not want to appear uncertain and to do so.

They are ready to reject any perceived issues with the organization. The case shows that the management team was more likely to address small issues than to acknowledge the larger one. When confronted with those issues, management mostly ignored them, and instead found a quick solution to an insignificant problem that did not solve anything. The employees expected this behavior because it was consistent with the previous decade’s work of the same team. However, these actions eventually led to the loss of the organization’s competitive edge, as well as the unreliable computer equipment being utilized by the employees (Senge, 2006).

The Action Plan

One of the main issues of the organization presented in the case lies in the inability to see the bigger picture. By focusing on short-term solutions, the management team became blind to the long-term consequences that were caused by their actions. Additionally, the management team started to ignore how their actions affect other departments and aspects of the work. A quick solution to a problem became the most desired goal, while in reality, it only prevented a more fundamental solution to be implemented (Senge, 2006).

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All five disciplines of learning organizations are interconnected with each other, just like how the work of one department affects others around it. To fully understand this interconnected picture, the action plan should start with addressing the discipline titled “systems thinking.” This discipline is focused on having the employees of the organization see the interconnected nature of decisions and change. Feedback plays an important part in systems thinking and is usually divided into two types: reinforcing feedback and balancing feedback (Senge, 2006).

Reinforcing feedback consists of a reaction to either desired or undesired behavior from an employee. If the behavior is desired, then it is rewarded with additional attention, but if the employee does not perform well, they do not receive attention. Reinforcing feedback can lead to different issues such as the employee that receives less attention, becoming even worse at their job. The relationship between the employee and manager is likely to deteriorate, leading to negative results overall. Awareness of this process is required for any learning organization (Senge, 2006).

Balancing feedback is a more complicated process. It often becomes required when organizations encounter change. Many scenarios can apply to this situation, but they are united by the common resistance to the change and the need to find its causes. Even when implementing seemingly positive change for the employees, a manager can encounter resistance if the change is contradicted by an outside factor (Senge, 2006).

A training course would be required for the management team to transition their mindset from the search for quick solutions to the search for the causes of these problems. The interconnected nature of the organization can be illustrated through the use of simulations and models or examples from previous experiences of the organization. For example, the current loss of work hours can be connected to the constant breakdowns of the computer equipment.

Subsequently, this situation can be connected to the decision not to update the equipment until it is inoperable. This is a relatively linear connection, but with time it is possible to see how one decision can lead to losses in a seemingly unrelated department. When the management team gains a complete perception of their actions, it would be able to make more educated decisions, which would not result in negative consequences down the road (Uhl & Gollenia, 2016).

The second discipline that would need to be implemented is called “personal mastery.” Unlike the title suggests, it is not only reliant on the personal ability of the organization, but on its constant self-discovery and self-improvement. This discipline requires the organization to be more active, rather than reactive in making its decisions. An understanding of the organizational priorities is important to focus on the self-improvement of the organization into the required fields (Senge, 2006).

Four traits need to be gained by the people who seek personal mastery. The first is a sense of purpose with a focus on their visions and goals. The second is the ability to work with change, as opposed to resisting it. The third trait requires the person to have a strong connection to other people and life in general. The final trait is the most important one, and it requires the person to always be ready to learn new information (Senge, 2006).

This process cannot be forced, and can only start when a firm decision was made by the person. Otherwise, the results would not be positive. To facilitate personal mastery among their employees and themselves, managers would have to create an atmosphere of transparency. Everyone must be able to freely express their opinions about the organization. The case shows that at that time, management did not reward confrontation, which made the team unwilling to address the issues within the company (Senge, 2006).

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To facilitate this discipline in the presented organization, the process of open space technology could be implemented as an intervention. The nature of the process would help to address different aspects of this discipline. The first would be the need for honest discussion among the team and the managers. Open space technology requires the participants to discuss the topics they are interested in without thinking about the positions of the people they are talking to. It is a safe atmosphere that allows the management team to gain an honest opinion of their employees. The second aspect is the increased awareness of the issues the company faces. When the issues become clear through their discussion, it would be much easier to address them and move toward self-improvement (Thakadipuram & Stevenson, 2013).

The next discipline is called “shared vision,” and it focuses on the creation of a unified force within the employees of the company that would drive the organization to fulfill its vision. When personal mastery is implemented, the work on the shared vision can begin. Personal mastery helps the employees to create their own visions for the company, while the shared vision allows the employees to transfer the energy of their visions into the commitment to the common vision (Senge, 2006).

This requires the shared vision to be created from the combination of the personal visions of the employees. This notion opposes the traditional approach of communicating the vision of the company to its employees in one-way communication. The vision of the manager should not represent the vision of the company as a whole (Senge, 2006).

A process that can be implemented to create a shared vision is the appreciative inquiry. One of the main components of appreciative inquiry is the creation of a vision comprised of many personal visions. Everyone on the team would have to describe their personal vision of the company, and then create a combined vision through discussion. It would also benefit personal mastery, as the team would become more aware of the strengths of the organization, and how they can be improved further (Bushe, 2013).

The case suggests that the management team lost track of the original vision that the company had, and was unwilling to return to it. Perhaps, by creating a new vision based on the strengths of the company, the whole organization would become connected in their pursuit of the common goals (Bushe, 2013).

The fourth discipline is titled “mental models,” and it focuses on the personal beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, and views that people have, as well as human interaction. These factors can strongly affect the actions of people despite the efforts of the individual to combat them (Senge, 2006).

This issue makes awareness of mental models essential for managers. It is important for them to be able to reflect on their mental models before they become addressed in public. By analyzing the causes for decisions that they have made, a manager would become more aware of situations when these assumptions would affect their actions in the future (Senge, 2006).

In the presented case, the management team had one very evident mental model. They saw short-term successes as indicators of the validity of their actions, despite other consequences. The managers would have to be made aware that perceived success does not always reflect the reality of the situation. Perhaps this could be done through personal intervention with each of the managers to let them think about this idea before publicly addressing it (Nielsen & Abildgaard, 2013).

The last discipline is titled “team learning,” and as the name suggests, it is focused on facilitating the ability of a team to learn. This discipline consists of three main components. The first lies in need for the teams to explore complex problems based on the abilities, experiences, and knowledge of its members. The second component is the need to work together and coordinate through open communication. This component requires trust so that the members can rely on each other. The last component is the requirement to interact in such a way that facilitates learning and sharing of information.

Different teams might work independently, but they must share information with the organization as a whole. Dialogue and discussion are essential for teams to operate sufficiently. This means that disagreement is not a negative thing, but an opportunity to learn for the team. People within teams should not be afraid to admit ignorance because otherwise, they would miss an opportunity to learn and improve (Senge, 2006).

This discipline could be facilitated by the use of future search intervention. This type of intervention relies on the interaction between all teams within the organization. It promotes dialogue and discussion. Also, it is done in a safe environment where admittance of ignorance would not reflect poorly on the person, and in fact, could be used for further discussion (Janoff, 2016).

The implementation of these five interconnected disciplines would be the main goal of the action plan. Some would take less effort than others, as the organization has very specific issues that have to take higher priority over others. However, the interconnected nature of these disciplines is likely to make the transition to becoming a learning organization easier. By focusing on personal mastery and systems thinking during the early stages of implementation, the team should be able to understand the other aspects of the plan.

Conclusion

Learning organizations can have a distinct advantage over those that suffer from various issues. System archetypes suggest that companies are often stuck in a cycle of making the same mistakes without realizing it. Learning disabilities often prevent them from escaping from these cycles. However, with an action plan, an organization can change its ways for the better and become a learning organization.

References

Bushe, G. (2013). Generative process, generative outcome: The transformational potential of appreciative inquiry. Organizational Generativity: The Appreciative Inquiry Summit and a Scholarship of Transformation, 4(1), 89-113. Web.

Janoff, S. (2016). My future search journey. OD Practitioner, 48(1), 46-50. Web.

Nielsen, K., & Abildgaard, J. (2013). Organizational interventions: A research-based framework for the evaluation of both process and effects. Work & Stress, 27(3), 278-297. Web.

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday. Web.

Thakadipuram, T., & Stevenson, L. (2013). Turnaround: From breakdown to breakthrough with Open Space Technology. Human Resource Development International, 16(1), 116-127. Web.

Uhl, A., & Gollenia, L. (2016). Business transformation management methodology. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. Web.

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