Organizational Structure for Becoming a Learning Organization

A good working example of the learning organization is the primary school in Singapore. Despite that the administrative structure is hierarchical but the organization is not authoritarian, especially at the school children level. In this case, the effective school is really a group structure made up of 3 concentric circles, with all the learners in the outer rim and the teachers and support staff working as a team in the inner ring, and the principal in the center orchestrating the entire program.

If we apply this model to the workplace, we have all the employees in the outer rim; the auditors, facilitators, master trainers and support staff working as a team in the inner ring and the business owner or CEO in the center. The employees in the outer group will work in clusters, but with the flexibility of people moving between clusters whenever specific knowledge or skills or help is needed. Each of these clusters is a self-managed team.

The structure is flat. The maximum number of staff is limited to 150. There are no Board and no managers. Whenever the number grows beyond 150, they are spun off as a separate business. Where there is more than 1 business, the CEO is a rotating role.

The number 70 to 150 is a practical number where the number of staff is small enough for everyone to know each other and is the point when the company would think about investing in electronic HR related systems.

This structure fits in with society in 3 ways:

(a)   It provides a familiar culture when transiting from the academic environment to the work environment. In fact, learning pedagogies can be adapted and cooperative learning can be continued. These promote a collaborative culture.

(b)   It connects with the staff’s family as a support unit.

(c)    It provides a more conducive environment for Generation X and Y.

The learning organization is an important survival tool for the business. These are the features that make it such an effective tool:

(a)   It is a learning culture. It enables the members to take initiatives, to explore, to experiment and to learn from mistakes and failures.

(b)   It promotes continuous improvement

(c)    It brings out the hidden potential and talents of the members.

(d)   The members take responsibility for the outcome of their team’s work.

(e)   The members monitor their own work performance.

(f)     There is both demographic and skills diversity.

(g)   The members are closest to the customers. They have the authority to find out what their customers need and make decisions about what will work better for their customers.

In fact, it is a more effective tool to drive performance than the traditional performance appraisal system. High staff participation in running of the business also means that the workplace becomes more democratic and opens up the opportunity to create a workplace community.

As there are no managers:

(a)   We avoid the case where the person do not have the expert knowledge or skills but is hired into a management role purely based solely on management skills.

(b)   We remove the top reason why people leave their jobs.

(c)    We lower the possibilities of workplace bullying and harassment.

(d)   We are required to hire persons who have good facilitation skills, that is people who are able to impart their knowledge and skills to others and find meaning in supporting others and making them succeed.

This takes away the problem of attempting to force a mentoring and coaching role on people who do not have it in his or her personality to do it.

(e)   We stopped hiring and paying for people who are given responsibility but have to work through others to fulfill their responsibilities.

(f)     We cut down costly and usually ineffective layers of management.

(g)   We can transfer some of the money that goes to pay for managers to pay staff a higher salary.

Facilitation may be defined as “the process where a facilitator guide the group members in meeting to share ideas, opinions, experiences and expertise in order to achieve a common goal and agreeable action plan.” In fact the learning organization model will be able to satisfy many of the requirements of Gallup’s Q12 on staff engagement.

The value of using auditors, facilitators and master trainers:

(a)   Because of the higher frequency of communication, it works better than the quarterly performance reviews.

(b)   There is a strong emphasis on training and development. This does not stop in an economic recession because the company wants to cut costs.

(c)    There is a strong emphasis on quality.

(d)   There is an active effort to resolve conflicts and search for consensus.

There are some points to note:

(a)   However, not everyone is suitable for this work culture. Providing training can help, however, the personality of the person is important.

(b)   For the new organizational structure to succeed, HR needs to review its systems, policies, processes and programs.

(c)    Organizational structure is a tool in itself. Its use will also depend on the business strategy. For example, a command and control hierarchical structure may be appropriate for setting up business in another country because people, culture and operating environment are unknown and when confidence and trust needs to be build.

(d)   A transition plan is required to shift the organization from a traditional hierarchical structure to this structure.

An article for thoughts:

“Lessons from Semco on Structure Growth and Change”

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