©2001 Doreen Fisher

edited 4/13/14


Many individuals question why students aren't learning and how this relates to the content of the curriculum and the increasing attrition rates of our students (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, Smith, 1990). One response to the quality and relevance of education is an educational restructuring of the curriculum; however, this approach alone has limitations. "A larger more systemic perspective is needed. Education must take leadership in co-evolving with the restructuring efforts in the other parts of society: business, health and communities" (Chawla and Renesch, 1995, p. 404).

The inability of institutions of education to transcend a narrow view of education without understanding its impact on the larger world view impacts the successful development of all workplaces. Bela Banathy, a leading systems designer in the field of education, believes that education must be totally reinvented, create a new language, and redesign from the outside in by working from the values of society to the internal functioning to support them (Chawla and Renesch, 1995, p. 406). Institutions of higher education need to be the leaders in society, changing how education is delivered and structured to foster a systemically coherent workplace.

The Penn State Berks-Lehigh Valley College has identified in its strategic plan innovative approaches to learning as a major goal for the institution. This key goal is essential to the new vision of the college to become distinctive within the Penn State system in regard to excellence in teaching and innovative learning. The problem the college faces is how to implement this new role and the approach for integration of an innovation into the organization.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the problem faced by the Berks-Lehigh Valley College in relation to the concept of a learning organization. The five disciplines of a learning organization according to Senge (1990), the seven learning disabilities that inhibit organizations, and power influences that are transcended by openness are discussed. The influence of a systemic approach and thinking is at the heart of an organization's ability to make their vision a reality and to change their future.


Penn State Berks and Lehigh Valley campuses merged to form Penn State Berks Lehigh Valley College, effective July 1, 1997, which resulted in a joint enrollment of approximately 2,500 students. To become distinctive within the Penn State system, the college has identified excellence and distinction in the use of innovative approaches to learning as a key goal. Innovative approaches to learning are already rooted in the instructional history of the Berks and Lehigh Valley campuses through technological applications, individualized instruction approach to teaching math, lab courses substituting for wet labs via computers, technology assisted learning activities in learning labs, and living-learning communities in the residence halls.

The history of the Berks and Lehigh Valley Campuses has supported the College's establishment of innovation in learning as a planned organizational change and objective. Greiner (1967) states, "It is within a historical and developmental context that we may be able to explain better why a particular 'planned' change program may succeed in one organization but not in another" (p.52). The predisposition of administration, faculty, and staff for creating and supporting an enriching learning environment will contribute to the success of this college goal.

Faculty and staff at the college were instrumental and encouraged to participate in developing the "Preparing for the Twenty-First Century Strategic Plan 1997-2002" for the Berks- Lehigh Valley College. The members of the organization supported and formulated the goal of innovative approaches to learning. "To overcome resistance to the implementation of an innovation, management must therefore share its power with those who must implement the innovation by allowing them to participate in decisions about the type of change to be made" (Gross, Giacquinta, and Bernstein, 1971, p.37).

Green (1990) comments that "change can be initiated by top leadership, but to endure, change requires leadership from the ranks," which is the organizational environment needed to foster good teaching (p. 53). The Dean of the College established a group of faculty, staff, and administrators, the "Innov8ors", to address the issue of how to achieve excellence in learning. This committee reports to the Dean and the Faculty Senate regarding their progress and impact on the future of the college.

In the Dean's State of the College address in August of 1999 and in a supporting memo in January 1999 he stated his commitment and concerns relating to this organizational problem. Former Dean Gaige began to eliminate many of the barriers experienced when organizations attempt to implement an innovation. A study done by Gross, Glacquinta, and Bernstein (1971) identify the components for a successful change within an organization as "clarity of an innovation to organizational members, capability of members of an organization to implement an innovation, availability of necessary materials and equipment, and compatibility of organizational arrangements" (p. 196-198).

Dr. Gaige clarified the innovative approaches to learning as active and collaborative methods and other forms of learning in groups, technology-enhanced learning, individualized and self- directed learning, application of information and theory gained in the classroom to life experiences through study abroad, coops, internships, service learning, other "field"-based learning, and discovery- based approaches to learning including student involvement in faculty research. The process of hiring new faculty and staff with skills in this area and establishing seminars ensures the capability of the organization's members to implement the change. The identification of institutional funding, analysis, hiring of employees and the Information Commons learning laboratories established the materials and equipment necessary for innovative learning. Lastly, the work of the Berks-Lehigh Valley College Faculty Development and Evaluation Subcommittee is defining the framework for compatibility within tile organization to achieve this organizational goal.

Institutional Problem

Introducing an innovative approach into an organization and changing the organizational culture are interesting in terms of how organizational problems of quality of teaching and instructional methods are addressed. The success of this planned organizational change is crucial to achieving the Berks-Lehigh Valley College's vision and goals. In order to achieve the goals of the college, a shift in the organizational culture and adoption of the disciplines of a learning organization are beneficial to its future.

Many of the dynamics of the merger of the two locations and the unique challenge to transform from a two-year to a four-year college has created conflict and uncertainty in the organization. Dr. Gaige, Former Dean and Campus Executive Officer, has stated,

"The Berks-Lehigh Valley College is two and a half years old. It will take the entire ten year plan to become the fully developed college, the strong young adult, so to speak, that we envision."

Although this is accurate, the history of the Berks Campus, founded in 1958, and the Lehigh Valley Campus, founded in 1912, brings a long history of two distinct organizational cultures and mature organizations to the merger into one college. Schein (1985) suggests, in the area of teaching, mature organizational cultures are not likely to want to change because the mature culture constrains innovation.

In a mature organization there is difficulty if the new innovation is inconsistent with its current culture. This can lead to foreseeable failure of the organization in the future. A strong culture really constitutes an organizational paradigm, which prescribes how to look at things, what appropriate methods and techniques for solving problems are, and what the important issues and problems are (Brown, 1978).

Institutionalization is another concern based on the authority within the hierarchy or a deep seeded tradition in the organization. The process of institutionalization is that in which a social reality between the actors in the organization results in a shared reality that is taken for granted. The shared reality of the actors impacts how they attribute meaning to actions in their respective field and operations within the organization. Zucker's study points out how this microculture or institutionalization is a matter of process, authority structure, and properties. The study of how institutions come to develop contributes to the focus "upon institutionalization as a process rather than as a state; upon the cognitive processes involved in the creation and transmission of institutions; upon their maintenance and resistance to change; and upon the role of language and symbols in those processes" (Zucker, 1991, p. 104).

A vision can provide focus but without a systemic view and investigation,successful collective action may fall short of the intended outcome. The vision of the Dean of the college, the communication network of the team of Innov8ors, and the work of the Faculty Development and Evaluation Subcommittee will be essential in the codification of this innovative approach into the organization. A definitive shared vision and a strong culture of community is essential to the success of the organization. Pfeffer (1992) indicates,

if people share a common set of goals, a common perspective on what to do and how to accomplish it, and a common vocabulary that allows them to coordinate their behavior, then command and hierarchical authority are of much less importance. People will be able to work cooperatively without waiting for orders from the upper levels of the company (p. 25).

It is anticipated that the surface structures will change in regard to this innovation and culminate into a shared language of excellence in teaching as part of the structure and culture of the college. In order for the college to address the problem and meet 'its goal, the organization must transform its culture and structures to assimilate the proposed organizational innovation. Can this be achieved by operating as a learning organization? In today's global business community there is a shift from traditional authoritarian "controlling organizations" to an organization that values learning, input, and advocacy in every level of the organization. There are three problems with a top down means of operation to get collective results and action according to Pfeffer (1992). He states, it is "out of fashion" in a time of increasing education, democratic decision making, and participative management; in order to be affective we need the cooperation of others iii all areas of the company; and hierarchical authority can negatively effect the whole organization when this single individual's leadership fails (p. 24-25).

According to Senge (1990) in "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization", a learning organization is "an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future" (p. 14). His five new component technologies of learning organizations are systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning. To become a learning organization, a shift in the organizational culture of an institution is required. Thus, organizations must go beyond survival and adaptation to engage in "generative learning."

Peter Senge's (1990) five learning disciplines are:

Personal mastery is a process where one continually clarifies w1lat one desires in life, what's important, and applies the principles to achieve established goals. Also, managing creative tension or the discrepancy between the goal desired and current reality is critical to this process.

Mental models are judgments or perceptions from past experiences that exist below our level of awareness and influence our view of the world, how we take action, and may limit our ability to change. In organizations, mental models shape the leadership's view of external conditions and organizational strategies.

Building shared visions is the power of common caring based on the collective capability of the group to establish what they want to create together in the culture and are committed to each other obtaining this vision. A shared vision provides focus, encourages risk taking, sparks energy, and is a powerful long-term intrinsic view.

Team learning is the process of collective thinking and the capacity of a team to generate productive learning, action, and desired group results. Team learning is prevented by unresolved and unproductive conflict, defensive routines, and lack of coordinated action.

Systems thinking is a conceptual framework for seeing wholes, a set of interrelated parts, understanding the interconnectedness and interaction of the parts, and seeing the larger system as parts that affect the productivity of the whole. In an organization, the institutional goals, policies, and structure are viewed as an outgrowth of the people in the organization and developing their personal mastery collectively. The emphasis on interaction is crucial to the success of the institution, just merely changing formal structures without consideration of the relationship between people and the processes does not promote generative learning. "Learning in organizations means the continuous testing of experience, and the transformation of that experience into knowledge - accessible to the whole organization, and relevant to its core purpose (Senge, 1994, p. 49).

Learning Disabilities

What type of organization is predisposed to the ideals of a learning organization? An organization must be open to change, systemic thinking and individuals interested in continual learning. Koftnan & Senge state,

"Over time, many people who are initially confused, threatened, or non -responsive to systems thinking and learning often become the most enthusiastic supporters. If they are not included, because they raise difficult questions or disagree with certain ideas, what starts as a learning community can degenerate into a cult" (Chawla and Renesch, 1995, p. 39).

Another limitation to an organization's effective learning and operation is due to the way we think and interact with each other. Senge's learning disabilities can be viewed by some as effective management skills but his concept of the skills is in relation to how they are used to avoid change within the organization. The seven learning disabilities identified by Senge are:

I am my own position is when people focus only on their position within the organization and have little sense of responsibility for the results produced -when all positions interact.

The enemy is out there syndrome is when we focus only on our position, we do not see how our own actions extend beyond the boundary of that position.

The illusion of taking charge is that we should face up to difficult issues, stop waiting for someone else to do something, and solve problems before they grow into crises but proactiveness is really reactiveness in disguise.

The fixation on events leads to "event" explanations that are true for now but distract us from seeing the longer term patterns of change behind the events and understanding the causes of the patterns to events.

The parable of the boiled frog is in relation to the maladaptation of organizations to recognize gradually building threats to survival; just as the frog placed in a pot of water brought to boiling temperature will not attempt to jump out of the pot but adjusts to the temperature and slowly dies.

The delusion of learning from experience is when our actions have consequences in the distant future or part of the larger operating system, which makes it impossible to learn from direct experience.

Lastly, is the myth o the management team because teams in business tend to spend their time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally, and pretending that everyone is behind the team's collective strategy. This just results in the appearance of a cohesive team but is a group of people that are proficient at keeping themselves from learning (Galbraith, Sisco, Guglielmino, 1997, p. 150-152).

The learning disabilities are part of the structure, political decision-making, and defensive
routines of actors in the organization.

Politics and Power Transcended by Openness

Pfeffer (1992) writes, "The concepts of power and organizational politics are related; most authors, myself included, define organizational politics as the exercise or use of power, with power being defined as a potential force" (p. 14). In a political environment there are actors that are losing power as well as those who are gaining power, this one person can impact another's fate even though they may not hold formalized positions of power. A political environment is one in which this wielding of power is supported by an authoritarian structure.

The initial step to breaking down the political nature of an organization is through open d1SCUssion, critical analysis, and challenging thinking within the group and amongst ourselves. The open dialogue and involvement of all members in the organization in developing a shared vision is the beginning to fostering a nonpolitical environment. "If a vision is put into a highly political environment it can easily get ground tip into a political objective: 'Whose vision is this anyhow?' becomes more important than the intrinsic rnerit of a vision. Thus openness is needed to 'unlearn' the habits of game playing that perpetuates internal politics" (Senge, 1990, p. 276).

Can organizations and their management be truly open or is this just a mask for another political game called "participative management?" Openness requires the elements of both participation, "the freedom to speak one's mind" and reflectiveness,"willingness to challenge our own thinking" as well as realize all ideas are hypotheses open to study and constant development. Without openness and sharing in a common vision, individuals within the organization are absolved of any responsibility for the future of the organization and they come to rely on management to make all decisions.

Charging mental models regarding top down decision making and encouraging all members of the organization to be responsible for producing results is achieved through localization. "Localness means moving decisions down the oruanizational hierarchy; designing business units where, to the greatest degree possible, local decision makers confront the full range of issues and dilemmas intrinsic in growing and sustaining any business enterprise" (Senge, 1990, p. 287). The disciplines of a learning organization support localized control, responding directly to issues and necessary changes, as well as absolving the political nature of an authoritarian hierarchy.


"In a systems worldview, we move from the primacy of pieces to the primacy of the whole, from absolute truths to coherent interpretations, from self to community, from problem solving to creating" (Chawla and Renesch, 1995, p. 17). The goals of the new college are based on Penn State's mission as Pennsylvania's land grant institution: to provide teaching, research and public service to the people of the Commonwealth, the Nation and the world. A predisposition to creating together a shared vision locally and globally is desirable and attainable through dialogue followed with collective action.

Senge (1990) writes, "You can never say, 'We are a learning organization,' any more than you can say, 'I am an enlightened person.' The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your ignorance. Thus, a corporation cannot be 'excellent' in the sense of having arrived at a permanent excellence; it is always in the state of practicing the disciplines of leaming, of becoming better or worse" (p. 11). A shift in mental models, systems thinking, team learning, personal mastery, and developing a truly shared vision, is essential to the success of the Berks-Lehigh Valley College to change, work together as a community, and introduce innovative approaches of teaching and instructional methods into the organization.


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