MIT Organizational Learning Center Emphasizes Collaboration


Early in March, fifty managers and executives convened in Cambridge, Massachusetts to inaugurate a new research partnership between business and academia — the MIT Organizational Learning Center. They came from diverse corporate backgrounds, from computer and car manufacturers to insurance and package delivery services, to participate in a unique approach to improving the practice and development of the disciplines of a learning organization.

The Center, as Director Peter Senge describes it, is a “an experiment in fostering collaboration among leading academics and corporations.” Unlike many academic research programs, where sponsors fund a research agenda that is determined primarily by the school, the Learning Center corporate sponsors will be active partners in developing and pursuing a research agenda. To date, thirteen corporations have joined the Center, including Polaroid, Federal Express, and Ford Motor Company.

Model of Management

The goal of the Learning Center is to create a new model of management and leadership — one based on systems thinking and related learning disciplines. Achieving that goal, Senge believes, will require a unique blend of collaborative learning between academia and organizations. “It is not enough to write about or develop new theories and tools in the university,” Senge feels. “The fundamental focus of change must be within institutions.”

“We must learn together because what we need to learn — how to move critical new ideas into practice — cannot be learned any other way.”

Ed Baker, Director of Quality Strategy for Ford Motor Company, emphasizes that need for change. “There certainly is a recognition in the business community that we need to do things differently,” he feels, “but we don’t necessarily need to adopt Japanese management ideas as we have in the past. We can use concepts such as systems thinking to build a foundation for change, rather than just grasping fragments from Japan.”

Creating such change will require a different type of learning environment, such as the one provided by the Learning Center. Bob Bergin, Property Claims Manager for the Hanover Insurance Company, explains, “Operational decision-makers are constantly under pressure to ‘figure it out and do it.’ They don’t have time in their everyday environment to ponder theoretical decisions that don’t impact their work today. The Learning Center gives us an opportunity to take important issues from an operational setting and move them to an environment that leads to thinking about them differently and to producing better solutions.”

‘Common Base of Expertise’

Although the actual design and format of the Center is still in the formative stages, its projects will meet three primary objectives:

  • to continually develop and make available new tools to advance systems thinking in management practice.
  • to test the tools in actual organizations as a means to both improve the tools and theory behind the tools, and to build a body of knowledge about how organizations can assimilate systems thinking and related disciplines.
  • to better integrate systems thinking with other management tools and disciplines.

The first step in meeting these goals is to develop the systems thinking skills of the participants, says Senge. With that in mind, the activities of the Learning Center over the next year will consist of a series of workshops, offered in both Boston and California, that will “establish a common base of expertise” among corporate partners.

The Systems Thinking Competency Course is a series of five two-day workshops that build skills in systems thinking, team learning, and other “disciplines” involved in developing learning organizations. The first course, held in March, focused on the basics of systems thinking. Working in teams, participants applied systems archetypes—generic systems structures that recur in a variety of business settings—to specific issues in their organizations. They also held mock consulting sessions to develop skills for enhancing team learning.

In addition to the competency courses, corporate partners will also participate in a series of three introductory Learning Laboratories over the next year “Service Quality Management,” “Product Life Cycle Management,” and “New Product Management.” The Learning Laboratories, explains Senge, “allow participants to reflect, hypothesize, and experiment with different strategies for managing a particular issue of organizational importance, all within a microcosm of real decision-making.”

Participants begin a learning lab by examining their current assumptions, such as “what do we believe are the factors influencing quality, productivity, and costs in our operation?” Through a series of conceptualizing exercises, they develop their own “systems map” of the major interdependencies in the system. They then test out their strategies with a management flight simulator — an interactive computer decisionmaking game that allows participants to manage a simulated company and see the implications of their decisions over time. With the simulator, participants “learn through doing,” discovering the dynamic consequences of their own decisions.

Learning Center Activities

Learning Center Activities

In Phase I, sponsoring companies will build internal capacity through competency courses and learning laboratories. In Phase II, multiple companies will collaborate on pilot projects, leading to “active” learning processes operating in each company during Phase III.

Learning Together

The second phase of activities at the Learning Center will involve developing learning laboratories or other projects within participating companies. Over the next several years, corporate sponsors will participate in ongoing research within their own companies and with other sponsors, developing new tools and practices and studying their effectiveness. The goal of these initiatives is to develop tools that work in practice, says Senge. “There is little point in starting learning laboratories if we am not committed to carefully studying their effectiveness, so we can understand the larger organizational forces that come into play when management teams attempt to transfer new insights from workshop to workplace.”

Cross-organizational learning will be a key emphasis of the projects, he adds. “Not only will these projects develop new tools and knowledge, but they will also offer unique opportunities for sharing insights about organizational change across companies.” Senge does acknowledge that the collaborative venture goes against the “every company for itself” attitude of corporate America, but he feels that collaboration is crucial to the success of the Center. After all, he says, quoting professor Shoji Shiba, “No company in Japan would ever try to bring about a significant management innovation by itself.” The bottom line, says Senge, is that “we all must learn together because what we need to learn — how to move critical new ideas into practice — cannot be learned any other way.”

Building a shared body of knowledge is one of the Learning Center’s greatest appeals, according to Bergin. “The depth of experience of the participants benefits the entire group,” he insists, adding that the opportunity to transfer learning across industries is especially important in the current shaky economy. “Right now, the service industries in America are facing the same threat of foreign competition that the car-makers experienced in the 1980s,” says Bergin. “There is a lot we can learn from companies such as Ford in recognizing this challenge.”

Some corporate sponsors also view the Learning Center as a springboard for advancing systems thinking within their organizations. “I see our company coalescing more as a result of the Center,” says Bea Holland, Executive Customer Curriculum Manager at Digital Equipment Corporation. “Digital has many isolated pockets of people whose goals and work are consonant with the goals of the Learning Center. Being part of the Learning Center will help make those goals and attitudes the norm.” Adds Bergin, “We are looking to expand the nucleus of people in our organization that have an understanding of the core disciplines.”

While the upcoming workshops will offer immediate benefit to the participants, they realize that achieving the Center’s goals will require a longterm commitment. “I’m in it for the long haul,” says Ford’s Baker, who acknowledges that bringing systems thinking into the culture of Ford will be a lengthy process. Holland agrees, describing the Learning Center as an “evolutionary journey.”

It is in some ways a journey of coming together, says Senge. “I believe that we currently know much more about building learning organizations than we think we know. But our collective knowledge is fragmented in the individual experiences of people and organizations rather than unified in a common pool of theory and methodology.” The Learning Center offers a way to fuse together that knowledge into a coherent whole — to bring together, as Holland says, “some of the best thinking about management innovation in a powerful way.”

For more information about the MIT Organizational Learning Center, contact Angela Lipinski at (617) 253-1549.

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