Concepts and Approaches to Institutional Development:
The Organization

Heba El-Shazli

The Learning Organization

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There is a simple exercise called the Hidden Triangle which is often used in training sessions: it shows a diagram consisting of a number of intertwined triangles and the participants are asked to guess how many there are. Usually, the answers lie within a wide range of numbers. The meaning of this exercise is to discourage people from jumping to early conclusions. Whenever looking at a situation or a problem, one should take the time to conduct a careful analysis before making a decision. The same exercise shows that when people work in groups they are more likely to come up with the right answer, because they need to consult with each other and agree on a number. It is the same situation with a problem; one person alone might get caught up in details and get confused, whereas working together with others will lead to the integration of different perspectives and ultimately, a solution.

The term ‘learning organization’ is taken from a book entitled The Fifth Discipline - The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, which introduces a quite interesting concept by looking at an organization as a learning organization. The underlying idea is that people can continually expand their capacity in organizations that nurture new and expansive thinking and collective action, i.e., one is constantly learning as a body (organization), not as an individual. This joint learning process also extends to the ways and means of working together, as a team, towards accomplishing a common goal.

This concept of a learning organization is called Metanoia, a Greek word that means ‘shift of mind’ (meta = above or beyond, noia = mind) and usually refers to a fundamental change. In a learning organization this ‘shift of mind’ implies a different way of looking at situations. Learning processes are often accompanied or followed by a change in values, thoughts, and perspectives, because learning creates new ideas and allows things to appear in another light. When learning something – whether as an individual or an organization – one usually applies it to his own situation and, consequently, changes accordingly. For a learning organization this basically means to continually expand its capacity in a future-oriented manner, i.e., by looking for new answers and ways of performing and operating, guided by the overall objective of the organization.

Learning organizations are based on a system of thinking that helps in allowing the organization to prosper and grow. The four main elements are:

Personal mastery
Mental models
Shared vision
Team learning

Personal Mastery

There are different concepts pertaining to personal mastery but they have two elements in common: reason and intuition. The integration of these two elements is the basis of personal mastery. One cannot operate totally on reason or totally on intuition. Organizations do not operate in a vacuum, disconnected from the world, but within a society or certain community. Personal mastery means fostering the compassion and commitment that drive an organization, not for the sake of the organization alone but also for the sake of others. An NGO working on the environment, for example, is seriously and emotionally committed to protecting the environment.

Mental Models

A mental model is an image in one’s mind; it is not necessarily articulated but it still affects a person’s behavior and perception of the world and has an effect on how decisions are made. For example, a look at my passport shows an Egyptian name on an American passport - this forms a mental model, which is especially relevant in situations such as boarding a plane. A mental model can be developed by the mere name of an organization, a skin color, a political affiliation or any other feature that creates a certain stereotype.

Within a learning organization, people constantly deal with mental models and search for ways to get over or change them; for example, changing the community’s view of a certain issue or prevailing stereotypes could well be the goal of an organization.

Shared Vision

A shared vision is not an idea, such as freedom or liberty, but rather a force in people’s minds. It may be inspired by an idea or a belief but once it goes further and is compelling enough to acquire the support of more than one person, it changes from an abstract idea or belief into one that is shared. The story of Spartacus, who was the head of all slaves and led their rebellion against slavery, is a good example: when the rebels were surrounded by the Roman army and the Romans, who were searching for Spartacus, asked everyone "Are you Spartacus?" all the slaves said yes because they shared his vision of liberty and freedom and, thus, embodied the image of Spartacus.

A learning organization has to be clear about what it wants, i.e., what its objectives are. From there it will derive its vision, shared by all those involved in the organization. NGOs usually stand for a particular cause, which makes working in them more than just a job; if employees have a shared vision in which they truly believe, they are more dedicated, committed, and passionate about what they do and where their organization is heading.

A shared vision is very important for a learning organization because it means bringing everyone together to learn and progress as one body. A shared vision fosters risk-taking and experimentation among the employees because they know that they are not working alone and with sole responsibility toward a particular goal.

In order to build a shared vision among a group of people, all of whom have their own ideas, their personal views must be heard, discussed and combined into one vision that is agreed upon and shared by everyone. The starting point is the objective an organization wants to accomplish, which is also the reason and justification for its initial establishment.

Team Learning

Working in teams is a very important concept and part of the learning organization. Team learning is a process of aligning and developing the capacity of a group in order to create the results its members truly desire. To be a team is simple, but to act and work as a team is not. Team learning builds on the discipline of developing a shared vision, on personal mastery, compassion, and so forth. The notion of a team implies that the members sacrifice their individuality for the end vision, i.e., to jointly achieve a common goal. A jazz band, for example, consists of musicians, all of whom are talented and play their instrument beautifully, but what really matters is that they know how to play together. It is the same with a team in a work place: it is the sum of the parts that counts. Employees might be extremely talented people, but if they are unable to work as a team because of their egos and personal ambitions, the talent is wasted. To work in a team means to leave the egos outside the door, which is particularly important in the Middle East where education, social status and titles bear a lot of weight. This is where good leadership is needed: the manager or leader should be able to inspire and guide the team. Leadership – be it in an organization or in politics - comes from the people that are behind the leader and back what he stands for. The leader functions as the spokesperson for the people, while his ideas and support are always derived from the masses.

Team learning has the following three critical dimensions:

The need to think insightfully about complex issues;

The need for innovative and coordinated action;

The role of team members in other teams.

The last point refers to the fact that one often finds more than one team in an organization, working on different, sometimes overlapping, issues. This provides a good opportunity to learn from and coordinate with the other teams. Team learning also involves dealing effectively with the forces opposing productive dialogue and discussion in working teams.

There is an important distinction between dialogue and discussion that one should be aware of. Dialogue is a truly open, free flow of ideas, a brainstorming, where everybody’s ideas are heard. Discussion is a kind of competition where one side tries to convince the other side of his point of view. The word dialogue stems from the Greek dialogos, which means a free-flowing of meaning through a group and the group’s capacity to suspend assumption and to enter into joint thinking in order to discover insights not attainable by individuals. Discussion has its roots in ‘percussion’ and ‘concussion’ and literally means a heaving of ideas, back and forth. It is more of a win or take all competition. Thus, in teamwork people should dialogue rather than discuss. A decision, eventually, should be based on a dialogue and then made following discussion. A dialogue can lead to a very fruitful discussion.

Needs Assessment

When an organization is first established, a decision is made regarding the type of work or service to be provided. The first main step is to do a needs assessment, which is more of an investment than an expense because a good needs assessment of the situation at hand will, in the long run, save much money, time, and efforts. There are six basic steps in performing a needs assessment:

Defining the agenda. (Why you are doing what you want to do? Why is there a need?)

Identifying the necessary data. (What kind of information is needed?)

Selecting the method for gathering the data.

Collecting the data.

Analyzing the collected data.

Putting all information into a report, a mission statement, etc.

The main method used for gathering information is conducting a survey, be it in the form of face-to-face interviews, telephone interviews, or written questionnaires.

Another method of analysis or assessment is benchmarking, which is used in the corporate world to analyze a single organizational element for an entire organization’s operation. For example, one may look at how the secretary answers the phone, and if she uses the proper etiquette, etc. First, the target unit or organization is analyzed and compared to examples of success in similar areas among other organizations. Then, methods for achieving the same results are developed. This method is also called ‘discrepancy modeling’, meaning that objectives are set in accordance with a discrepancy that has been found in a particular area.

There are three types of benchmarking:

Competitive benchmarking, which means to find out what everyone else is doing in a particular area, but without their participation or knowledge; it is usually applied in the business world.

Cooperative benchmarking, which looks at the practices in other organizations but with their direct involvement. Based on the findings, new and valuable ways of operating and/or improved training methods might be introduced.

Collaborative benchmarking, which is a means of working together with other organizations that have similar needs, leading to the organization of joint training programs, for example.

When assessing an organization’s needs, it is absolutely crucial to first clearly understand the current situation of the organization. Comparing oneself with others without having acquired this basic understanding can easily lead to a waste of resources and time. Once the problem areas have been identified, the easy, manageable ones should be tackled first. This leads to success and will set a good pace and a model for the more difficult tasks ahead.

Once an organization has done its needs assessment and written its mission statement, it needs to find the talent to help accomplish its goals. The next step is therefore the management and development of the human resource.

The Environment

The environment around an organization relates to many issues such as public relations, relations with donors, networking, and advocacy. Communication is a very important tool and there should be an open channel of communication with everyone related to the organization, be it members, clients, beneficiaries, funders, etc. Communication is a means of public relations and an important way to influence public opinion. There are many ways or techniques to get a particular message out to the community in order to inform it or prepare it for events where action is required (e.g., organizing strikes in the case of trade unions). Oral forms of communication include giving a speech or an interview, conversing with relevant actors or holding public debates. Written forms of communication include writing headlines and articles, publishing newsletters and press-releases, as well as the design and distribution of leaflets and posters for special events.

With regard to printed materials it is always important to identify the who, what, where, when and how and to include contact names, phone numbers and the date of release. The purpose should be immediately clear to the readers, i.e., the main idea or point should be right at the beginning. The text should be limited to the subject in question and cover only items that are directly related to the main theme. Furthermore, the text should follow a logical system, use concrete terms, and avoid extraneous words, too many supporting details, and long sentences that divert the reader from the message. The headline should attract the reader’s immediate attention, be simple in form, larger in size than the rest of the text, and clear in meaning.

A successful press strategy can mobilize public opinion and allow good work to be easily recognized; a properly prepared press release therefore can be very effective. It should be printed on official letterhead, indicate the release date, be precise and logical in content, easily understood and factual. Press releases should be widely distributed, be it via mail, fax, e-mail, or distribution at news conferences or any other event.