One way for companies to deal with the changing face of technologies and market advancements is to adopt an organization of learning culture. This culture entails the act of learning by employees as well as the facilitation of learning and task of learning by upper management. This conjoined effort towards innovation has reached the oil industry with open arms. Exxon Mobile and Chevron, exercising position in the top three seats of the Fortune 500 (Fortune, 2014) list, have created a structure of learning in their respective organizations in order to encourage innovative practices at all levels. This post will seek to explain what organizational learning is, some information about the backgrounds of these oil industry competitors, the different levels of organizational learning at these companies, the influence of organizational learning on company culture, how these companies have learned to learn, and the strengths and weaknesses of the brain metaphor.
What is Organizational Learning?
Organizational learning is defined by Morgan (2006) as a set of processes that include elements of corporate structure and facilitation, redundancy, variation and learning to learn (pp 99-114). Akhtar and Khan (2011) perceive that it's the outcome of admonition that provides some sort of gap in information that previously created a challenge. Senge and Wheatley (2002) agree that it is the coming together of the perspective of different people to create a solid whole. Regardless, a learning organization is one in which knowledge that has not been learned before is sought after in order to resolve future challenges for the creation of innovation. It requires a variety of different levels of thinking while seeking information in regards to the same issue. According to Mape's (2000) this variety entails the use of different snapshots of the same whole under individual points of view. Two of the top three fortune 500 hundred companies, Exon Mobile and Chevron, seem to agree with these ideals.
Background of Chosen Companies
Exon Mobile and Chevron are oil industry companies. While they both provide other services outside of the oil industry, they are most well known for their oil and petroleum extraction products. Both companies operate practices on a global platform. Both companies have also felt the resurgence of the current oil crisis and the market's desperate attempts to find alternatives before those outside of the oil industry have a chance to get a foothold on the industry. This requires that they both join in the race for rapid innovative transitions. In this regard, they have had to transform their own internal structures so that they can accommodate quick, constant changes in the market (Leveat, Raybourn and Huburt, 2002). In doing so, they have to find the best system that will foster that accommodation.
Organizational Learning in Chosen Companies
There are many different ways that the oil companies can incorporate organizational learning into their platforms. Some of the common methods include the use of directories of area experts, review and assessment databases, inspections data bases, compliance reporting databases, guidelines and manuals, best practices data bases, knowledge communities and virtual knowledge teams (Grant, 2013). While Exon Mobile and Chevron exercise similar spots on the Fortune 500 (Fortune, 2014) list, they still have differences in the way they integrate learning that make up for their similarities. Exon Mobile prides itself in the use of software to integrate knowledge management throughout the corporation for directories of experts and transfer of best management practices (Grant, 2013). Chevron prides itself in the sharing of best management practices and virtual teams (Grant, 2013). Both methods can produce promising results towards the generation of new and better products.
Here is how their programs work. Exon Mobile has an open intranet sight where different categories of tasks and functions are listed. Employees having a problem can locate those functions, read message boards and access a directory of contact information for expert employees that they can get in touch with to answer those questions (Grant, 2013). According to an article by Leavitt with help from Raybourn and Hubert (2002) this system employed by Exon Mobile works as a resource that proves expertise. Employees are finding a designated, trusted mentor in order to assist them along the duties that they need to accomplish throughout the workday.
Another oil company, Schlumberger, once underwent a bid proposal for a particular job that the sight that was making the proposal didn't have a lot of experience in. The employee contacted company experts via the directory of expert contacts and got responses from multiple employees that did have considerable experience in the task. They were able to gain advice, and add those experts’ names to the full proposal doc. The proof of knowledge gave them the bid (Leavitt, Raybourn and Hubert, 2002). At that desperate time in attempting to procure a contract, the directory system turned out in their favor.
Chevron also emphasizes a learning style through their practices of employee engagement. The company further exemplifies the best practices sharing system by having multi-locational employees meet together at regularly scheduled times in order to discuss knowledge and best practices via a virtual atmosphere where they utilize video cameras, phones, and the internet to communicate (Grant, 2013). Both Exon Mobile and Chevron also employ multiple platforms for sharing best management practices. The platforms are based on expertise as well as a system in which practices are monitored for the best outcome and then exemplified and broadcast through the intranet. Chevron also employs a best practices time clock where after 30 days the practice is deleted from the system and new practices are posted in its place (Grant, 2013). This emphasizes a level of constant improvement.
Principles of the Learning Organization
The above practices emphasize all four of Morgan's (2006) principles of the learning organization. First of all, there is a distinction between the whole and the parts. The companies utilize an intranet system that is available to all of the employees throughout the entire company. These single websites emphasize the company's values and culture. It also serves as a conduit of intelligence where employees can log in, follow news stories and links, and even access learning databases in order to increase their skills. The system also has separate portals for different work areas and different locations where organizations that are part of the corporation and that have been built to accommodate certain sizes and populations can access their own independent information; such as deadlines, special events, etc. They also show holistic teams in which different departments display different information according to the overwhelming themes of their functional attributes to the company (Grant, 2013; Morgan, 2006). So while the website is one that covers the entire organization at once, it still discovers individual images of the parts that represent the separate visions of each one of those parts.
These programs exercise redundancy by displaying best management practices for the same functions and tasks over and over again in order to enhance previous skills. They also show variety by displaying the best practices obvious from varied locations and varied departments. These departments and teams are each able to provide their skills from a different perspective according to culture, location, and experiences. This system also displays a level of minimum specifications with best management practices and timelines. The very fact that employees can access experts before bidding or finalizing a project means that teams are given the task to complete a project that is bidden for by a deadline, and whatever falls within its boundaries is up to the program of continuous learning and how far it has evolved. In this essence, employees are rewarded for learning new skills and displaying the superiority of them. They are rewarded for learning to learn (Grant, 2013; Leavit, Raybourn and Hubert, 2002; Morgan, 2006). This is an essential element of the learning organization.
One other element of these companies that display Morgan's (2006) principles has to do with the structure of their business development. Most of these companies are built through franchises. These franchises are only allowed to operate according to a specific population for a specific regional distance. Once the revenues are large enough to need expanding, a new office is built within specified boundaries, employees are moved around, and new employees hired at the old franchise while old employees begin operations at the new. This is perfectly parallel with Morgan's (2006) theory. This is because each business because a mirror image of the other business franchises, only with their own regional and cultural perspectives.
How Organizational Learning has Influenced Culture
Organizational learning influences the culture of organizations in many ways. The traditional way of doing business was by separating each individual task into its own functional department and not allowing employees to intermingle to work things out. Instead, a problem was presented to a specific superior in a scalar chain until the problems could be resolved. In these company's problem are treated much differently. Employees are working like the holographic teams discussed by Mapes (2000), such that administrative teams are there for the purpose of administrating the funds and operational aspects of the business where the teams work as though they are virtually self-employed (Grant, 2013; Leavitt, Raybourn and Hubert, 2002). If there is a question, they can consult their knowledge community to find a resolution. As Jorgs (2010) suggests, they are motivated towards a principle of constant learning through the challenge of best practices and the publicity that those practices bring (Grant, 2013). Reports, inspections, and audits are recorded into the database and cybernetics is used to measure the most efficient practices in order to update the system so that systems are constantly changing for the better (Beckfords, 2002). Systems are completely flexible and constantly changing with no hard system of control but with clear goals that are being accomplished (Ahktar and Kahn, 2011). With this kind of competition in place, employees across many different regions are encouraged to blend their cultures together so that each separate culture is influenced by these practices.
How Companies Learn to Learn
One of the main factors of creating a learning organization is the ideal of learning to learn. As Seng (2003) proclaims, it isn't enough for a manager to tell employees to learn, but that the management system has to be willing to learn itself. Management systems have to be able to adapt to new processes and best management practices as they come about. According to Morgan (2006), although it is important to set clear goals (Aktar and Kahn, 2011), it is also important to keep goals simple in order to encourage innovation. Jorgs (2010) also shows how the learning process involves a process of challenging and overcoming. This means that a management system has to be able to encourage team attitudes while still fostering competition so that employees are motivated to learn and constantly improve their systems to be better than the rest. Learning involves constant interaction between various individuals or units in order to gain from the perspective of each entity (Sengs and Wheatley, 2003). Management has to constantly create new ways for this to happen.
Conclusion: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Brain Metaphor
Every management structure has its strengths and weaknesses. A major strength of the brain metaphor is its ability to encourage creativity. Employees are constantly challenged to be the best of the best, and are rewarded when they are. Other employees are able to learn from the experiences of those considered the best and are able to enhance their own practices until they themselves become the best. Monitoring becomes a way to share information across the corporation so that different clusters are able to integrate practices at their own locations that will make them more precise. This system challenges each one to create new ways of doing things while integrating the ways of others.
However, the soft measurements used in the brain metaphor structure can create some weaknesses. Many organizations, such as in the oil industry, are under tight control through regulatory bodies in their various regions. This mean that they have to reach specific standards within a specified range. This means that the goals of the regulatory agencies may be more complex than the goals of the corporation. This same system of standardization sometimes occurs through the nongovernmental organizations that work to control consumer opinion as well. Organizations having to adapt to tightly controlled external environments have to adjust their systems of learning so that creativity can still be enhanced while these standardizations are being met. It is the integration of various perspectives and various ways of doing things that helps make these weaknesses unimportant. This is the very essence of the brain metaphor.
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