An attempt to Find Midway between Utopian Sunshine and Foucauldian Gloom
Among the two stream of thoughts, the first one is the group of optimistic people referred as Utopian sunshine, who see the concept as highly practicable.
Driver says that the more optimistic side may be populated by practitioners and consultants who are looking to sell their advice to client organisations and therefore not interested in pursuing the more critical aspect of the learning organization (Denton, 1998 cited in Driver, 2002, p. 34).
On the opponent’s side are the people called Faucauldian gloom, who find this concept as no better than a ‘psychic prison’.
Explaining who all can be finding the concept as impracticable, Driver says that the more pessimistic side may be populated by academics looking for publish and therefore problematize an overly critical view of learning organization without any interest in the practicality of some of their suggestions (Denton, 1998 cited in Driver, 2002, p. 34).
The difference of opinion among the two groups is on three organisational dimensions which are control, ideology and painful employee experience that they go through for giving the competitive edge to the organisation.
Regarding the concept of the learning organisation, Driver comments that the lack of clarity with regard to the exact definition and theoretical conceptualization of a learning organization has been a common problem (Denton, 1998 cited in Driver, 2002, p. 36).
Hence a constant dialogue can only lead to an agreeable conclusion.
The vision of learning organisation is based on superior human values such as sharing of knowledge, trust, love, mutual care and voluntary cooperation, humility, commitment to organisation, collective enhancing of capacities and decentralization of power and control. All these qualities claim to make the learning organisation an exceptional place. Needless to say, this is in stark contrast to the traditional bureaucratic organisations that believe in concentration of knowledge, power and decision-making. This does not mean that a learning organisation does not have any kind of control.
Regarding the managerial control in a learning organisation, Driver says that while the learning organisation may have few traditional managerial controls, it is not completely free of managerial control (Starkey, 1998 cited in Driver, 2002, p. 39). In other words, the shared values in tightly knit ‘communities of learners’ (Edmondson, 1996 cited in Driver, 2002, p. 39) serve as internalized controls in which employees conform because they share the same views and values rather than they fear or respect external controls imposed on them by management (Mills and Friesen, 1992, Smith and Tosey, 1999, cited in Driver, 2002, p. 39).
Building a learning organisation requires change in the basic culture of an organisation; a transformation from traditional bureaucratic organisation that helps them imbibe the benefits mentioned in the concept of learning organisation. However, organisational culture does not develop in days, week or months. Hence such a dramatic change would also consume a lot of time. Also there will be managers who would have to share their knowledge to the employees. There is a famous saying that knowledge is power. Power or control is not something that a normal human being would like to lose so easily. Hence the top managers of the transforming organisation, who are to lose power, social stature and monetary rewards, would like to influence what knowledge should go to whom, in order that they are able to gain indirect control.
As Coopey indicates that directors’ access to increasing stock of collective knowledge intended to be generated in a learning organisation and their control of nodal points of relationships within the broader circuits of facilitative power would enable them to create ‘networks of control, of alliance, of coalition, of antagonism, of interest and structure’ (Clegg, 1989, cited in Coopey, 1995, p. 205)
This increase in internal power politics of the organisation will make the culture sour. Hence the idea of decentralization of power is applicable only in an organisation that has just started; where the culture is yet to be built.
The proponents of learning organisation emphasized on sharing of information across the organisation and collective decision-making by all the members of the organisation. We are living in a globalized economy. Let’s think of an organisation which has 5000 employees across 5 different countries. If each and every piece of information flows seamlessly to each and every employee, there will be so much of information overload which cannot be managed easily. If the same organisation has to reach at every decision after discussion among all the employees, it will be shear wastage of man-hours and affect the overall productivity. Also, the junior level employees will hardly add any value to strategic decision that is to be taken by the top management. There is a chance that one dishonest employee can leak a crucial information to a competitor. On one hand, it will be difficult to find the culprit; on the other will be huge business loss. Hence the idea of information sharing and collective decision making is applicable only in very small organisation which wishes to grow its business without increasing its size; thus each member plays a crucial role in its growth and development.
In a scenario where downsizing the organisation or outsourcing a part of the business is the only way to keep the business profitable, it is difficult to get the consensus of the employees. In such conditions, collective decision making is next to impossible.
In the modern society, knowledge plays a key role in getting competitive advantage. Sharing knowledge among colleagues at office and learning new skills is always beneficial for employees’ as well as the organisation’s growth. Also, knowledge workers do not want to be dictated what they should do and what not. They prefer discussion as a mean of persuasion. Hence when we talk about increased knowledge sharing and discussing as a way to reach at a decision, Utopian sunshine is more persuading in modern scenario than Foucauldian gloom. However, we should not forget its limitations. All the employees need not have all the information. All of them need not participate in the process of decision making when they do not have the required skill level to be an active participant and when the decision is not concerned with their work.
As Coopey mentioned that the organisation’s members would probably be encouraged to see themselves as critical providers of organizational knowledge through their enhanced learning capability; as responsible for experimentation; as wise interpreter of collective knowledge; as honoured participant in decision making; as responsive for the needs of internal and external customers (Coopey, 1995, p. 209).
Undoubtedly, the concept of a learning organisation indeed is a dreamlike situation. However, some pearls of advice can definitely be useful for any organisation. The middle way between Utopian sunshine and Foucauldian gloom is the only solution to get the best out of this concept in the benefit of business organisations.
Driver, Michaela., (2002), The Learning Organization: Foucauldian gloom or Utopian Sunshine, Human Relations, London, Thousand Oaks, CA, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.
Coopey, John. , (1995), The learning organization: Power, politics and ideology. Management Learning, SAGE Publications, Available through: University of Liverpool
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