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Developing the Brain Metaphor to Create a Learning Organization

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Shawn I. Butler
November 17, 2021

Administrators looking at creating or maintaining a learning organization need to consider how Gareth Morgan’s brain metaphor facilitates creating a viable learning organization. The brain metaphor described in Morgan’s Images in Organization can provide the single most potent metaphor for decisionmaking. Like the brain in a person, an organization’s brain controls the functions of an organization’s body, synthesizes information and embodies the organization’s corpus. Thus, in a learning organization, the organizational brain must absorb and react appropriately to outside stimuli to continually grow, develop and sustain itself and its employees.

For administrators to create the sense of brain-like activities in a learning organization, they must develop skills and mindsets that embrace environmental change as a norm. The principal administrator and their leadership team form the core of brain-like functions. They have to detect warning signals as early as possible to ascertain shifting trends and patterns that can benefit or create challenges for the organization. It is akin to a person touching a hot stove and getting burned. The lesson learned is not to repeat this action because of the experienced pain stimuli. Likewise, steps leading to beneficial outcomes require reinforcement along with ways to improve processes and consequences.

Learning organizations must allow themselves as a whole to utilize multiple environmental cues when predicting organizational outcomes. Decisions need to include input from cognitive intuitive, emotional and tactile sources as well. Signals come from internal and external sources that push or pull on the organization. Understanding the influences on an organization are identified through a thorough and ongoing SWOT (strengths and weakness, and opportunities and threats) analysis.

Further supporting this metaphor is the idea of quality organizations being resilient. These organizations survive because they encourage and nurture creative thinking. Organizations must also operate within the confines of set policy and procedures whereby, when mistakes occur, employees are held accountable, thus creating learning environments through ongoing training opportunities. Learning must include taking risks and making mistakes. Letting people make mistakes, as long as they are not critical, serves as a valuable lesson.

Learning from errors allows an organization’s people to operate independently within the established set parameters under the “commander’s intent.” Knowing the intent of the principal administrator develops the skill sets framed by the organization’s sovereignty. Error-based learning refines the decisionmaking abilities of the employees whereby the whole organization’s actions are encoded in all parts so that every section represents the whole.

In literal terms, if we envision an organization’s health much like that of an actual living organ through which it needs certain things to stay alive like oxygen and blood, organizations also need certain nutrients to bolster and continue their existence. One of the most critical assets of a healthy organization is to have healthy employees. Long established in the literature on organizational behavior is that employees engaged in their organizations are less likely to leave for other opportunities. Like the brain being able to sense and adjust to outside environmental factors affecting its well-being, a well-trained leadership team serves as the central system responsible for the cause and effect between employee engagement and organizational health. Leadership is responsible for developing strategies, plans and operations. These must remain living and dynamic to respond to the varying internal and external factors of the organization. The ability to constantly sense and adjust to the environmental variables through an astutely tuned leader within an organization allows for constructive outcomes.

In summary, the theory of the brain metaphor allows an administrator to contextualize and visualize the brain as something that must traverse an onslaught of outside environmental factors to learn and adapt for survival through assertive communication and decisionmaking abilities.

Comparatively, organizations must be keenly aware of and similarly utilize all available resources to create a sustainable future. They must also adapt at the speed of light to adjust to the ever-changing landscape of new technologies and the increasing needs of both those they employ and those they serve. Meaningful change must be completed through continual training, determining how to learn best and the constant process of self-evaluation and adjustment. An entity with a brain must continually assess, evaluate and act through a centralized information processing system. An organization must learn through a double-loop system whereby self-correction is an essential component of its ability to regulate and correct errors before they become terminal.

Administrators must understand their role in creating an organizational brain. Ego and self-aggrandizement do not facilitate the creation of a learning organization. Acknowledging and valuing all stakeholders is critical to creating and maintaining a healthy brain.  


Author: Shawn Butler is a retired Chief of Police for Auburn, New York with over 25 years of law enforcement experience. Shawn recently graduated with a Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership from the University of San Diego and is a past graduate of the FBI National Academy. Shawn has been very active in his community.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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