Some of the most useful explorations of organizations as collective and living organisms derive from the study of organizational culture. Organizational culture is “the sum total of all the shared, taken-for-granted assumptions that a group has learned throughout its history (p.29) or “How we do things around here”. Organizational culture matters because cultural elements determine strategy, goals, and modes of operating .
This new paradigm for what constitutes a healthy organization – defined by more than financial profitability but consistent with that profitability – reflects a growing recognition that businesses are indeed alive and that corporate responsibility entails recognizing and responding to issues of ecological sustainability . Definitions about the way organizations learn, self-regulate, and remain healthy go back over thirty years . Much discussed in the business world, a “learning organization” is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights . To be a learning organization, systems must be able to: 1) sense, monitor, and scan significant aspects of their environments; 2) relate this information to the operating norms that guide system behavior; 3) detect significant deviations from these norms; and 4) initiate corrective action when discrepancies are detected (p.77) . Although not always practiced, it is well-established in the world of business that healthy learning organizations provide measurable business advantages. It is also established that there is a strong relationship between the culture and people practices of organizations and the productivity and health of their people, a relationship so strong that investing in people is seen as a wise strategy for achieving and maintaining high levels of bottom-line business success .
Little has been done to apply insights about the learning organization to the mental health system or the social service system despite the fact that helping people to change – through learning – would seem to be the essential mission of all organizations concerned with the well-being of individuals and families. Discussion of many of the characteristics of a learning organization can be found in the pages ahead but for now let us just look at an abbreviated list of the common characteristics of the learning organization: 1) the presence of tension; 2) the presence of systems thinking; 3) a culture which facilitates learning . These characteristics mirror longstanding insights of how to create healthy environments that derive from the therapeutic community literature, perhaps best described by one of its originators, Maxwell Jones when he discussed the concept of “social learning” as “the little understood process of change which may result from the interpersonal interaction, when some conflict or crisis is analyzed in a group situation, using whatever psychodynamic skills are available”(p.70) .
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