A review of Tara J. Fenwick’s â€œLimits of the Learning Organization: A Critical Lookâ€ (article found in Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education).
This article is a critique of learning organization literature (as presented in the works of Peters, Senge, Watkins, Marsick, Argyris, Schon and others). I chose to do a review of it because learning organization literature can and does inform the work of Agile practitioners. The writer, Tara Fenwick, offers a critique of this literature as an academic and practitioner in the field of adult education. Even though the language and tone of the article is judgmental and at times affronting to the corporate trainer audience, it is never-the-less challenging and valuable because she raises interesting ethical questions that can serve as cautions against potential trends that can distort agile practice. I will summarize her argument in the some of the areas most relevant to Agile practice.
Fenwick’s summary of the model of learning organization found in the literature, is an organization that: â€œcreates continuous learning opportunities, promotes inquiry and dialog, encourages collaboration and team learning, establishes systems to capture and share learning, empowers people toward collective vision and connects the organization to its environment.â€
The following is a summary list of some of Fenwick’s critiques:
Who’s Interests are Served
Although the learning organization literature holds great promise for a more humanitarian and egalitarian workplace, it has the potential to distort learning â€œinto a tool for competitive advantageâ€ and in turn, exploit people as resources in the pursuit of profit. To explore this idea she asks a valuable question: â€œWho’s interests are being served by the concept of learning organization, and what relations of power does it help to secure?â€ She argues that learning organization literature tends to serve the interests of educators working as trainers in organizations and managers interested in their own self preservation.
How Learning is Defined
Learning, in learning organization literature seems to be defined as that which benefits the organization, all other learning falls into the dysfunctional category. This perspective negates other ways that people create meaning and learn and potentially causes a person to become â€œalienated from their own meaning and block flourishing of this learning into something to benefit the community.â€
Assumptions about Learners
The learning organization literature subordinates employees by seeing them as â€œundifferentiated learners-in-deficitâ€. Educators and managers are the architects of the learning organization while employees are busy â€œlearning more, learning better and fasterâ€ trying to correct their knowledge deficit. In the learning organization workers become responsible for the health of the organization without the authority to determine alternative ways to reach that health. The fear of being left behind in a quickly changing market environment is used to create anxiety and fear as motivations for learning. All of these factors serve to put serious limits on the potential of people to learn in the work environment.
Diversity and Privilege Overlooked
Perspectives of race, class and gender -which research has shown affects the way people learn and collaborate- are lacking in the literature. Fenwick challenges the notion of achieving a democratically ideal situation for open dialog -that the learning organization literature calls for- when all people in the work place do not â€œhave equal opportunity to participate, reflect, and refute one anotherâ€ (for example because of the status of ones job, character, gender, class, age etc.)
Fenwick sheds a clear light on where the good philosophies of the learning organization are found wanting. The Agile community can benefit from asking some of the same ethical questions she asks in relation to our work. Her critique is a good challenge for Agile practitioners. It challenges us to:
- Continue to strive for higher levels of ethical excellence in our work
- To consider issues of power in our work
- To become conscious of how we use our own power
- To give thought to what voices are included / excluded in the creation of the learning organization
- Pay attention to how we motivate learners
- How to foster collaborative environments that are conscious of the privileging of some over others
- Think about who decides what is valuable knowledge and learning and how that affects the knowledge creation process
Reflecting on these issues will go a long way to contributing to the development of agile practice.
The full text of an old version of Fenwick’s article can be found here.