Learning organisations

Print edition : August 15, 2003

Unlearning the Fifth Discipline: Power, Politics and Control in Organizations by Devi Akella; Response Books, New Delhi, 2003; pages 273, Rs.295.

THIS book, based on the author's Ph.D. dissertation, is a contribution towards the understanding of the changing morphology of organisations of work. Granted that an organisation of work brings together a number of people with different capabilities, motivations and objectives, the question immediately arises as to what holds it together and directs it towards a common purpose. The conventional answer to this question has been that it is power that does the job. Power as the controlling factor could be seen, or so it was claimed, if one looked into early organisations: a group of bandits, an army or a guild. Work in all these forms was assigned and supervised by a leader who exercised authority and under whose command each member of the group performed his task. When factories became the typical organisation of work after the emergence of the capitalist era and the Industrial Revolution, the role of power in organisations became more explicit. It was the owner (of capital) who brought the workers together and defined the tasks and terms of work. The owner of capital also claimed the ownership of the produce, deciding, as he found it fit, what the workers should get. The best the workers could do was to resist, which they did, leading to some changes in the conditions and terms of work. Consequently, organisations came to be viewed as exercise of power on the one hand and resistance on the other, reflecting conflict as the central feature of capitalism.

Over time, some element of delegation of power from owners to supervisors was incorporated into this basic model of the capitalist organisation of work. At a later stage, ownership became somewhat diffused as claim to a share in the stock of capital, and owners tended to become sleeping partners. This led to a strengthening of the role of supervisors who effectively became managers. Some analysts and writers glorified this as "the managerial revolution". If it was a revolution, it was a limited one, limited to the manner of exercising power, leaving the role of workers substantially unaltered.

But in work, are "workers" merely passive (except when they become active as resistors)? Who, indeed, are workers? Whatever it is that supervisors and managers do, is it also work? If there is a difference between what workers do and what managers do, can it be confined to the colour of the collar? Once these questions became live issues, it appeared that the basic model of organisations as locales of power and resistance was inadequate to depict their true nature.

The next step came when the role of knowledge in the production process was recognised. Initially the role of knowledge was confined to technological change, that is, change in the tools that workers dealt with. That workers would have to have a degree of adaptability in that context was readily taken note of. But the more pertinent question was whether workers were also active agents of knowledge, and if so, what their positive role was in the process of production and thus the organisation of work?

Once the active role of workers in the impact of knowledge on organisations was recognised, it had to be conceded that the workers might have objectives of their own, not always coinciding with those of the organisation itself. Then the concept of an organisation as an entity geared to the achievement of a clearly defined, unique goal has to undergo a change too. And this image of an organisation where work is coordinated by the exercise of power must also change. In fact, the basic notion of the organisation of work as consisting of workers whose activities are drawn out and directed by owners and managers becomes questionable.

And yet organisations of work - firms and corporations in particular - do exist more visibly than ever, perhaps even more powerfully than ever. This is the context that has given rise to the notion of the "learning organisation". Devi Akella writes: "The basic characteristics of a learning organisation lie in the emphasis on a continuous learning strategy and culture, flexible rewards and structures, participative decision-making and open communications" (page 42).

This image is distinctly different from the conventional notion of an organisation of work. Elsewhere the author also mentions factors and forces that contribute to the changing profile of the organisation of work: turbulent and unpredictable business environment, stringent customers and demanding share holders, for instance.

The central part of the work consists of the author's study of two modern accounting firms (chapters 4 to 7). The thrust of the study was to find out the nature of team work among highly specialised individual members and to examine whether the managerial function of coordination is a hidden form of control which "guides" employees, through a variety of subtle ways, into falling in line with the purposes of those in command. Students of organisations will find the details in chapter 5 and 6 useful, while the general reader may find the conclusions of chapter 7 more rewarding, such as the description of organisations as "political arenas where different conflicting groups, i.e., employees and managers have reached agreements upon notions of their respective domains" (page 220).

There is much that is informative and insightful in the case studies about the nature of change taking place in the character and ethos of business organisations. The work is replete with citations and references necessary in a dissertation. However, the general reader interested in the completed work is likely to be somewhat distracted by so much of the scaffolding used in the process of construction still lying around. In addition, the reading would have been smoother if the frequency of expressions such as "in other words", "to summarise" had been reduced drastically.

On the substantive side, the study has two major limitations. The first is that while the modern accounting firms examined are perhaps examples of learning organisations, they do not have the innate complexity that, for example, firms dealing with information technology have. Failure to capture the element of complexity, however, is primarily owing to the basic method of approach. The author's main concern, it would appear, was to consider the extent to which learning organisations constitute a departure from the old model of a capitalist firm defined by authority and domination on the one hand and submission and resistance on the other.

This approach is too constricting to capture the changing profile of organisations of work. Those interested in more robust and nuanced enquiries into the phenomenon may wish to look up Robert B. Reich's The work of nations: Preparing Ourselves for the 21st Century (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), Part One (particularly chapters 4 and 6) and Part Two, and Fritjof Capra's The Hidden Connections (Doubleday, 2002 and Flamingo 2003), chapter 4.

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