[Paleopsych] Review of Business: Transforming a University from a Teaching Organization to a Learning Organization

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Transforming a University from a Teaching Organization to a Learning 

Review of Business
Volume 26, Number 3
[I'm one of the peer reviewers of this publication.]
Fall 2005 (Special Issue: Applications of Computer Information Systems and 
Decision Sciences)

Hershey H. Friedman, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York Linda 
W. Friedman, Baruch College of the City University of New York Simcha Pollack, 
The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, St. John’s University


Successful 21-century universities will have to be lean, flexible and nimble. 
In fact, Peter Drucker claims that 30 years from now the “big universities will 
be relics" and will not survive. In the corporate world, businesses are 
becoming learning organizations in order to survive and prosper. This paper 
explains why it is necessary for universities to become learning organizations 
and provides ideas as how to make the transformation.


Peter Drucker noted in an interview that: "Thirty years from now the big 
university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a 
change as when we first got the printed book" [18]. This may be an 
exaggeration, but there is no question that universities that refuse to change 
may not survive. The rise of for-profit universities (e.g., the University of 
Phoenix), decreased government support for universities, the rising costs of 
education, the globalization of education, technological change, the growing 
number of working adults who need continuing education to avoid obsolescence 
and distance education are forcing universities to transform themselves. In 
fact, Andrews et al. [1] urge academia to respond to the "wake-up call" and 
recognize that inflexibility and the failure to respond quickly and decisively 
to environmental change can be dangerous.

For colleges to change, they not only have to learn to run their organizations 
in a more business-like fashion, they have to be willing, when necessary, to 
add and shrink programs quickly. This is not easy when the organizational 
structure of today’s university has more to do with the convenience of 
establishing accounting budgets than with the demands of intellectual growth 
and education [12,14]. Edwards [9] notes that "the actual elimination of 
departments is extremely rare and usually generates a wave of unflattering 
national news, so the substitution strategy is driven toward less visible, more 
surreptitious methods."

It is becoming quite apparent that being inflexible and resistant to change in 
an extremely fast-moving environment is a prescription for disaster, whether we 
are dealing with a business or academic institution. Several

visionaries believe that the university of the future will be very different 
from the university of today: more interdisciplinary programs, and the 
substantial modification of the current prevalent academic organizational 

Duderstadt [7] suggests that the university of the future will be divisionless, 
i.e., there will be many more interdisciplinary programs. There will also be "a 
far more intimate relationship between basic academic disciplines and the 
professions." He asks "whether the concept of the disciplinary specialist is 
relevant to a future in which the most interesting and significant problems 
will require ‘big think’ rather than ‘small think’" [8]. Kolodny [16:40-41] 
asserts that the antiquated way of organizing colleges—by departments—will have 
to "evolve into collaborative and flexible units." Students with narrowly 
defined majors will have great difficulty comprehending a world in which the 
knowledge required of them is complex, interconnected and, by its very nature, 
draws from many areas. Edwards [9] maintains that "in so many cases, the most 
provocative and interesting work is done at the intersections where disciplines 
meet, or by collaborators blending several seemingly disparate disciplines to 
attack real problems afresh."

The Learning Organization

Clearly, there are great changes ahead for higher education, but changing the 
culture of an organization is a daunting task. Forward-thinking institutions 
have to consider what can be done to make their organizations more responsive 
to change. In the corporate world, many firms are recognizing that the ability 
of an organization to learn is the key to survival and growth, and 
"organizational learning" has become the mantra of many companies [3,21].

What is organizational learning? Organizational learning has been defined in 
many ways: Stata [24] asserts that: "organizational learning occurs through 
shared insights, knowledge and mental models 
 [and] builds on past knowledge 
and experience." Senge [21] writes: "learning organizations are not only 
adaptive, which is to cope, but generative, which is to create." Pedler et al. 
[20] state: "A learning company is an organization that facilitates the 
learning of all its members and continually transforms itself." Garvin [11] 
believes that a learning organization is "an organization skilled at creating, 
acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect 
new knowledge and insights."

What should we find in a learning organization? The following briefly 
summarizes what one would expect:

oAwareness of the external environment. Knowing what the competition is doing.

oBelief that individuals can change their environment. A learning culture.

oShared vision. One that encourages individuals to take risks.

oLearning from past experience and mistakes—experience is the best teacher.

oLearning from the experiences of others in the organization. Organizational 
memory in order to know what worked in the past and what did not.

oWillingness to experiment and take chances. Tolerance for failure.

oDouble-loop or generative learning. With double-loop, as opposed to 
single-loop, learning, assumptions are questioned. "Double loop learning asks 
questions not only about objective facts but also about the reasons and motives 
behind those facts" [2].

oConcern for people. Respect for employees. Diversity is seen as a plus since 
it allows for new ideas. Empowerment of employees.

oInfrastructure allowing the free flow of knowledge, ideas and information. 
Open lines of communication. Sharing of knowledge, not just information. Team 
learning where colleagues respect and trust each other. An organization where 
one employee will compensate for another’s weaknesses, as in a successful 
sports team.

oUtilization of shared knowledge. Emphasis on cooperation, not turf.

oCommitment to lifelong learning. Constant learning and growth.

oAbility to adapt to changing conditions. Ability to renew, regenerate and 
revitalize an organization. Knowledge sharing is a necessary condition for 
having a learning organization. To foster the sharing of knowledge, computer 
software has been developed to make it easy for coworkers to share their 
expertise. For instance, the AskMe

Transforming a University from a Teaching Organization to a Learning 

Corporation (http://www.askmecorp.com/) claims that it is "the leading provider 
of software solutions that enable global 2000 companies to create and manage 
Employee Knowledge Networks (EKNs)." AskMe notes on its website that creating 
EKNs helps ensure that employees do not have to solve problems that others have 
already solved, i.e., "reinventing the wheel." It also enables employees in a 
firm to quickly find the individual with the appropriate expertise to solve a 

One thing the AskMe company discovered is that knowledge sharing is difficult 
in pyramid-shaped organizations with tall organizational structures, i.e., 
characterized by numerous layers of management. Knowledge sharing works much 
better where there is a flat organizational structure with a relatively short 
chain of command. However, managers have to be willing to accept suggestions, 
ideas and answers from their employees. When information flows in all 
directions— even from the bottom of the organizational pyramid to the top—some 
managers might feel that they are losing some of the status and authority of 
their position. After all,

conceivable that someone in the mailroom might be able to answer a question 
that stumps top management. Knowledge can be found anywhere and everywhere.

The power of knowledge sharing should not be underestimated. Linux, the 
extremely successful computer operating system, was developed by the 
collaboration of programmers all over the globe.

Are Universities Learning Organizations?

Before discussing universities, it might be instructive to examine whether 
schools—especially primary and secondary ones—are learning organizations. The 
evidence, albeit limited, indicates that they are not. Shields and Newton [22] 
examined schools that participated in the Saskatchewan School Improvement 
Program and found that they were not learning organizations. Isaacson and 
Bamburg [15] also came to the same conclusion. Schools rarely have visions, 
teachers rarely share knowledge with colleagues, and schools are managed with a 
top-down approach. Many others agree that schools have not functioned as 
learning organizations [5,10]. When Senge was asked by O’Neill [19] whether or 
not schools were learning organizations, he replied: "definitely not."

Universities are not run like high schools or elementary schools and stress 
research/learning as much as (or more than) teaching. Despite this, it seems 
that very few universities would qualify as learning organizations. It is quite 
ironic that teaching organizations do not know how to learn. Most universities 
have little knowledge sharing and

Smith [23] asserts that: "Academic departments serve as organizations that 
exhibit all the segmentary politics described by anthropologists: segmentation 
for largely demographic reasons, balanced opposition among themselves, and 
unitary resistance to a superordinate entity, usually the college or university 
as a whole." Harrington [13] believes that departments encourage loyalty to the 
discipline rather than to the university. Apparently, most universities are not 
learning organizations.

Transforming the University into a Learning Organization

The following are some suggestions that can be used to help transform the 
university into a learning organization.

1. Establish a message board to function as a research matchmaking service. As 
noted above, the most exciting research is often at the interface of two 
disciplines. Furthermore, researchers with expertise in one area (e.g., 
biology) might need to collaborate with a faculty member with expertise in 
another area (e.g., computer simulation or geology) in order to write a paper. 
Universities could provide a central message board where faculty members could 
state the area(s) in which they are doing research and the kind of co-author, 
if any, they seek. This site could also be used to find ideas for research. 
Senior faculty members might be willing to provide ideas for research in return 
for a byline on any resulting article. If successful, this service can be 
extended to include faculty in other colleges. Universities have to understand 
that discouraging professors from writing co-authored papers is 
counterproductive. It is certainly not consistent with a key philosophy of a 
learning organization: sharing knowledge. Moreover, working with scholars from 
other disciplines creates a synergy that can result in truly innovative 
research. It is not uncommon in academe to find professors who continue to 
write essentially the same paper over and over with very little new 
information. There is nothing wrong with collaboration if it produces exciting 
research. One wonders whether James Watson and Francis Crick would have been as 
successful if they had worked alone. The Human Genome Project took 13 years and 
involved researchers from at least 18 countries.

2. Establish an online archive where faculty can post papers for review by 
colleagues before submitting them to journals. If the faculty at a university 
work together as a team and want their institution to flourish, they are more 
likely to provide helpful criticism. The late OpenTextProject 
(www.opentextproject.org) was an international site that allowed individuals to 
post their papers for pre-submission review.

3. There could be a Web site for every course, especially multiple-section 
courses taught by a number of different faculty. Faculty could submit their 
best ideas on how to teach the course and their best lectures. This site would 
then be a resource for students who have difficulties with the course and would 
also be a resource for faculty teaching the course. Most professors teaching a 
course have gotten useful ideas from other faculty teaching the same course. 
For instance, suppose we have a site for elementary statistics. This might be a 
course taught by 10 different instructors. Faculty teaching the course would be 
encouraged to post material dealing with statistics. This might take the form 
of syllabi, lectures, interesting examples, humorous ways to illustrate 
difficult concepts, computer programs to solve statistics problems, solved 
exercises, etc. One of the authors has a site for his corporate finance class 
and has heard that students taking the course with other instructors go to the 
site since it contains dozens of problems with solutions in the area of 
mathematics of finance. Professor N. Duru Ahanotu created a Web site 
(http://www.drduru.com/knowledge.html) for anyone interested in learning 
organizations and knowledge management.

The corporate world is learning the value of the Web for e-training. The type 
of Web site described above can be especially useful to faculty teaching a 
course for the first time. Rather than learning the best way to teach a course 
through trial and error, they can go to the Web site for a particular course 
and see how colleagues have been teaching it. Many professors do indeed go to 
the Web to examine syllabi and course material from the same courses taught at 
schools all over the country. The problem is that the caliber of student may 
not be exactly the same. While it is still a good idea to see how a particular 
course is taught at other colleges, it will often be more useful to examine the 
materials used by colleagues in the same school. Interestingly, Dill [6] notes 
that a major weakness of universities has been in the "internal transfer of new 
knowledge." This is why it is not uncommon to find that "within most 
universities there are better performing units that have knowledge about 
improving teaching and learning from which other units could learn."

4. Knowledge sharing should not be limited to a university. Knowledge should be 
shared with the public. A Web site could be created providing helpful 
information for the general public. For instance, this site could have links to 
subjects such as small business management, marketing, personal finance, ESL, 
etc. Outsiders could learn these subjects online for free. Brew and Doud [4] 
assert that work-based learning is important for students. This means that 
there has to be a partnership between educators and workplace supervisors, 
especially with professional education. This, of course, requires knowledge 
sharing between academics and practitioners.

5. University administrators have to realize that the pyramid-shaped 
organizational structure makes little sense for an academic institution. 
Information should not only flow from the top to the bottom, i.e., president to 
provost to dean to chairs to faculty. The biggest impediments to the creation 
of learning organizations are the twin fears of change and of things that are 
new. Senior faculty often resist change. Indeed, Kuhn [17] found a similar 
phenomenon in the sciences. Kuhn described "normal science," as where 
scientists who adhere to the old dominant paradigm resist the adoption of a new 
paradigm. Kuhn [17:52] notes that "normal science does not aim at novelties of 
fact or theory and, when successful, finds none." Some of the best ideas might 
originate from junior faculty who often have a new perspective. Universities 
that want to be innovative have to allow information to flow from the bottom to 
the top, otherwise they will stagnate. Knowledge-sharing software could be used 
by administrators to get fresh ideas from the entire faculty.

6. Students have to be part of the knowledge sharing for a university to become 
a true learning organization. Many faculty members resist providing students 
with e-mail addresses and brick-and-mortar office hours of three hours per week 
are ludicrous in the age of asynchronous communication. How many faculty 
members today would deal with a bank that was only open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., 
had no ATM machines and no online banking? Information about majors can be 
automated. There could be a Web site where students can find out about any 
major, including requirements for the major and opportunities in the field. 
Sites consisting of FAQs (frequently asked questions) could be provided for 
students. Expert systems could be used to advise students as to whether they 
have the necessary prerequisites for a course. When you purchase a book at 
Amazon.com, the next time you come back you are greeted by name and other books 
are recommend to you based on your purchase history. Students could also 
automatically receive recommendations for courses based on their major and 
their registration history.

7. As noted above, many futurists believe that interdisciplinary majors will be 
vital to the future of universities. Many of the newer programs being developed 
at colleges all over the country are interdisciplinary. It is often very 
difficult to get academic departments to create interdisciplinary majors when 
each department is interested in protecting its own turf. Learning 
organizations stress cooperation, not protection of turf, and this might 
require a new organizational structure not based on departments. Alternatively, 
department chairs could report to a "super" chair or dean with the 
responsibility for an entire school. The job of the "super" chair or dean would 
be to ensure that departments work together to create interdisciplinary 
programs and focus on what is best for the university as a whole, not just 
their own department. A discussion group in which faculty members could provide 
ideas for new programs could be established. Administrators could reward 
faculty and departments that create successful programs.

8. A learning organization cannot last long if members of the organization have 
no interest in learning. Unfortunately, a significant number of faculty (one 
number often quoted is 60%) never publish an article after they receive tenure 
and become associate professors. Incentives must be put in place to ensure that 
faculty continue to learn even after being promoted to full professor. Lifelong 
learning is now necessary in many professions, including medicine and law. It 
should also be encouraged in academe.


Establishing a paradigm of knowledge sharing and continuous growth through 
lifelong learning is not easy even, or perhaps especially, in academe. 
Interestingly, in these very turbulent times, many academicians are complacent 
and feel that there is no compelling need to make any serious changes. This is 
definitely a myopic way of thinking. Transforming colleges into learning 
organizations will not solve all problems, but it is certainly an important 
first step.


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