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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration – Toward New Benchmarks and Best Practices

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

Column 5: Toward a Learning and Mentoring Culture

By Siegrun Fox Freyss

Arguments in previous columns concluded that the promotion of a learning and mentoring culture might be one of the best practices to deal with the challenges of the information age. Considering how quickly the high-tech revolution creates new hardware and software for all kinds of work, employers and employees need to be in a constant knowledge-seeking and knowledge-sharing mode to make effective use of the innovations. The attention to learning and mentoring actually has to start with the job classification system, rewriting the qualifications for many classes of jobs to include the willingness to learn, as well as the willingness to mentor.

Classification systems are already undergoing substantial changes. A movement toward broadbanding is underway in governments across the country because the broader bands simplify position management and offer more flexibility than the traditional systems. Flexibility is important in light of the speed with which the high-tech economy creates, changes or destroys classes of jobs. The International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR) provides a good platform for following the broadbanding trends and other innovations.

Testing procedures also require updating to find candidates in the applicant pool who are open to change and willing to learn. Candidates with special expertise have to be evaluated for their ability to communicate their unique knowledge. Once hired or promoted, employees need to make learning and mentoring a part of their work routines, and employers are advised to foster a learning culture. Such a culture is especially salient in the public sector where civil servants enjoy job security. Webinars, workshops, training programs and tuition reimbursements are ways to encourage employees to update their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). Some professions require regular license renewal, which draws attention to the need of refreshing one’s expertise.

Freyss julyPeter Senge, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, developed a more analytical path to organizational learning. He popularized the idea with his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. According to Senge, the five core disciplines of building a learning organization are:

  1. Personal mastery — “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn.” (p. 139)
  2. Mental models — “… new insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works…” (p. 174)
  3. Shared vision — “They create a sense of commonality that permeates the organization and gives coherence to diverse activities.” (p. 206)
  4. Team learning — “The fundamental characteristic of the relatively unaligned team is wasted energy… By contrast, when a team becomes more aligned, a commonality of direction emerges.” (p. 234)
  5. System thinking — “We tend to blame outside circumstances for our problems… System thinking shows us that there is no outside.” (p. 67)

The website of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), founded by Senge, provides additional definitions of the five disciplines.

Senge has been a consultant for corporate executives for many years and the book reflects his involvement with industry leaders. He writes in a very confident and didactic style. Instead of mentoring, he uses the term “coaching.” His management advice belongs to the genre called “management by best-seller.” However, he has been a leader in conceptualizing and analyzing processes of organizational learning and that is why his work deserves attention.

The applicability of all five disciplines to the public sector can be questioned. However, I will only cover the fifth one here. Senge’s argument about system thinking may be appropriate for multi-national corporations, but not for smaller entities. Especially governments, which have geographical boundaries, may be better served by open system theory and ecological modeling.

Open system theory suggests that organizations should be understood as dynamic entities that can improve their performance when they engage with their environment in a mutual-beneficial exchange of resources and services. Ecological modeling treats organizations like living organisms that emerge, survive and grow due to a confluence of favorable circumstances. Appropriate information processing and flexible adaptation are core requirements for the organization to be successful and expand. At a more personal level, life-long learning is recommended.

Catastrophes, like the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina, were seemingly beyond human preparation. Nevertheless, the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California pulled a team of researchers and information technology specialists from the public and private sectors together to study the strengths and weaknesses of the responses to large-scale human disasters. One finding was that in a worst-case scenario, responders did not know what to do, did not know time and place and the responding network structure was unknown.

However, the research team also observed commonalities and patterns in the failures that NPS called Hastily Formed Networks. Peter Denning in a 2006 article in Communications of the ACM summarized major findings of the research. Some of the shortcomings were of a technical nature, such as incompatible equipment of responders from different jurisdictions. Other failures involved clashes between different organizational cultures, especially between para-military responders and civilian relief workers.

The research indicates that large-scale disasters need to be treated like one system, as Senge would argue, where people, communication equipment and other essential tools match seamlessly. In the end, the findings support the main argument of this column — the high-tech revolution is providing governments with a great variety of new tools, but it requires time for learning and training in how to use them (part from the cost of procurement). Contingency theory also applies. There is no one best way of managing organizations, projects or disasters. The proper action is contingent on certain conditions, such as the complexity of the job and the qualifications of the participants. (Read my fourth column for more for details).

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