On Routines and Learning

Learning for an organization is one of the most fundamental ways it can adapt to a complex and ever changing environment and could even be tantamount to its survival. In line with this, firms are veering away from traditional views of organizations, which define firm activities as rational decision making where they identify and evaluate the best alternative and implement them, towards alternative perspectives of organizations.

While the traditional view focuses on planning down to the smallest of details to achieve certain goals, the alternative view allows the firm to move according to its own volitions, while managers make small and strategic steps to put it into course.

This allows men on the ground more liberties to experiment with things they do in the routine level. For routines to work however, everyone has to participate actively. From the CEO to the janitorial staff, everyone must embody these routines so that the system would work.

An assembly man, for instance, because they work firsthand with the machines every day, are in a better position than the managers to see and spot inefficiency in their section as it arises, and suggest solutions to it.

The Japanese call this kind of system, Kaizen. Toyota in particular has pioneered Kaizen in which workers are told to stop the production line the moment they spot some defect, or inefficiency. They would talk to their supervisor, get to the bottom of it and suggest improvements about it.

According to Becker, these routines are one of the most important way of storing the organization’s specific operational and tacit knowledge. It also holds knowledge that individuals apply in the firm.

These routines are defined as “pattern of behaviour that is followed repeatedly, but is subject to change if conditions change”. What Toyota is doing therefore, is making changing the routine for the better, part of the routine. This gives dynamism to routines, enabling them to respond aptly to new challenges.

In some organizations, they even encourage their workers to make mistakes so that they would learn from these mistakes and be more vigilant against similar problems in the future. Mistakes, John Caddell said, is often caused by insufficient knowledge of the subject matter. Therefore, committing them is a fine way of educating workers in its context.

In a way, by integrating the results of these mini experiments and mistakes into everyday routine, the knowledge becomes shared throughout the organization, being part of a set of solutions that employees refer to in times of problems. Taken in aggregate, routines “represent successful solutions to particular problems”. As such, organizations are very much like a person, learning through experiences and routinizing the solutions that worked and remembering those that didn’t.

In sum, the alternative view is better because it acknowledges the firm’s dynamic nature in that it treats it as a complex adaptive system where the organization is not just an amalgamation of the knowledge of its constituent parts but also contains tacit knowledge of its own. This is embedded in the firm’s value system, social and legal architecture and its work processes.


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