Topic letter 12

Can organizations learn? 

A neuropsychological perspective

1. Introduction

The concepts organizational psychology and organizational development (OD) implicate that psychological phenomena, created for understanding human behavior, can be attributed to a system. By doing so, such a system is perceived in the same way as an individual. A lot of strategies to develop and change organizations are based on this attribution. The question however is if we can regard an organization as an independent learning and developing entity. Opponents of this hypothesis claim that man is the largest possible unit that can learn and that all change strategies should be implemented through individual members of this system. This dispute seems trivial, but on second thought has an impact on the foundations of the OD profession. Due to the fact that the effectiveness of OD projects in general is not very high, a critical analysis of one of the basic assumptions seems more than relevant. In this article I will use a neuropsychological perspective to create a theory stating that learning and developing processes do actually take place on an organizational level and that is valid to regard an organization as a learning entity.

2. The theoretical discussion

It has been more than thirty years now, that the concept of the learning organization was introduced in the literature of the OD professional. Ten years later the concept of the self steering team arose. In this perspective, both the organization and the team are seen as independent entities that can learn and even develop themselves. Systemic interventions are developed to create e.g. a stronger focus on customers, to enhance proactive behavior or to promote safety awareness. Recently respected consultants argued on congresses and in publications that there is no such thing as a learning organization. According to them, systems can only develop due to the fact that they consist of developing individuals. In their view, the individual person is the highest level on which OD interventions can be aimed for. They state that all learning can be seen as changes in the individual brain and that there is no such thing as a collective brain or awareness. From this perspective all interventions should be focused on the individual members of an organization. The question is how neuropsychology handles this topic.

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3. Neurology of learning

Neurology agrees that every act of learning always involves physical changes in the brain. Without these changes, there is no learning. The brain is a system with billions of brain cells who communicate with each other. By doing this, the brain can receive information, process it and create actions. On the level of individual brain cells, learning is facilitated by changing connections between these cells in the form of creating, strengthening, weakening and deleting them. Also the speed of communication between cells can be enhanced or reduced. If e.g. we start to learn a new language, the first step is to connect the sounds of the words to a new meaning. The more we rehearse, the faster these connections will become. If we stop practicing, the speed of finding the right words will slowly decrease and eventually we will forget the words which means we are losing all created connections again.

Four ways of learning: latent, associative, instrumental & model learning

In the level of the total brain, learning is a result of a variety of internal and external feedback processes. The brain can learn in many ways, and four of these ways explain the majority of learning activity. These are called latent, associative, instrumental and model learning. The first way of learning, latent learning, can be defined as a, usually unconscious, absorption of information. At a new year reception, we shake hands with a lot of people and without any effort we are able to remember which persons we have already wished a happy new year and which not. In just a few shots, we can recognize a film which we saw years ago. Due to this latent learning, we can absorb a lot of knowledge as soon as we start to work in a new job or in a new work environment. The second way, associative learning, is based on the creation of associations between external stimuli and/or internal experiences. The dog of Pavlov has become famous due to this form of learning. In this process meaning is attached to objects. A writer might be seen as original or an article as interesting. Not only relies the domain of marketing, image creation en public relations heavily on this learning process, it also forms the basis of routines, reflexes and perception. The third form of learning is called instrumental learning and is based fully on the economical principles of behavior. The brain strengthens behavior if the perceived positive effects of the behavior are bigger than the perceived costs. Based on this calculation future behavior will be continued or stopped. Behavior that creates more benefits than costs will be reinforced, if it is the other way round, behavior will slowly disappear. Material and social reinforcers play an important role in this way of learning. All these three ways of learning usually take place within the individual person. The fourth way of learning, the model learning, is different. For the human being (and for all animals which live and survive in groups), the creation and maintenance of social relationships is of utmost importance and intrinsically rewarding. Due to this, everybody assimilates behavior from role models in the direct environment. The more we resemble the behavior of others, the more we are accepted in the group. The higher the social status of a role model, the stronger the model learning is. Bosses, informal leaders and specialists have a high value as role models. For understanding and forecasting behavior in organizations, model learning is of utmost importance.

4. Mirror system

Despite the fact that model learning has been know for many decades in social psychology, it was only recent that neuropsychology started to understand which biological principles are facilitating this way of learning. Most higher brain processes consist of a chain of activities which resemble in some way the Deming's learning cycle: the plan, do, check and action cycle. A simplified description of a higher process can start with an intention to behave in a certain way, which eventually leads to that behavior. In the next phases behavior is being perceived by the actor and interpreted: evaluating actual behavior by comparing it to the original intention. In this last process specific behavior gets a meaning. From this point a new cycle can start in the same or a slightly adjusted way. Neuropsychology has discovered a second additional process, the Mirror system, which adds a second flow of information to the first one. This flow of information comes from an external perception of similar behavior of another person. The connection between the internal and external cycle is established in the interpretation phase. In this phase both the perception of the behavior of oneself and others arrives in the same brain cells and is handled in the same way. If you watch an injection needle going into somebody else抯 arm close to you, this perception can create the same pain feeling as if the needle went into your own arm. This effect is so strong, that a lot of people just look away for a moment, if they see an injection needle doing its job, even if it is on television. This process of a confluent information process in which internal and external information is combined, is called the Mirror system.

The Mirror system is active in many parts of the brain and helps us understand the world around us and the people involved. If we want to express something and choose our words, the perception of our own sounds helps us to evaluate whether we have spoken the right words in a correct way. Due to the Mirror system we can use this same part of the brain to understand what others say. Both our own words and the words of others are processed by the same group of brain cells, and this process of giving meaning to words is identical. Another Mirror system is active in understanding the nonverbal aspects of communication, so that we not only understand the actual meaning of the words but also the feelings that are expressed in this way. Mirror systems help us tune into somebody else抯 experience. Due to this system, the interaction process becomes a source of learning in which we can easily adopt terminology, nonverbal ways of expression, ideas and knowledge. If you want to test the strength of your own Mirror system, just try and stay relaxed if someone close to you is very angry at you. There is a tendency to immediately mirror the behavior of the other by shouting back or being annoyed and it is really hard not to do so.

Mirror systems work fast, autonomous and unconscious. They hardly use energy and seem to be intrinsically rewarding. In model learning we can distinguish a combination of attributes from other ways of learning. It is partly a latent process (fast and unconscious), it is associative (combining stimuli and an intention) and instrumental (the created social inclusion works as a strong reinforcer). This gives the Mirror system the status of a very powerful learning tool. You can test this now by asking yourself when you learned a lot. Probably your answer will not refer to a period at school, but to a period in your life in which you had the opportunity to work together with inspiring people.

The beauty of mirror processes is that they also go beyond the area of feelings and communication. Thanks to this system we can also behave and think like others, and learn from them. The Mirror system creates the biological basis for empathy, which helps us to adopt knowledge, perceptions, attitudes, opinions and frames of reference from others, like colleagues at work, even without noticing it.

It is important to notice that the basis of a Mirror process is always based on a regular process in the brain to which additional sources of external information are added. We are not able to mirror a process that does not already belong to our repertoire. So if someone is not able to feel the pain of somebody else, he is not able to have compassion. If someone does not understand the "language" of an organization, he is unable to understand the deeper meaning of behavior in that organization and will always stay an outsider who cannot resonate with the group he works with. This becomes visible when somebody is hired from another department or from another organization with a hidden agenda: to change the culture or way of working in that area. If that person is strong and really has a different mindset and behavioral repertoire, he will never be able to fully understand the new organization, because he misses some basic patterns and attitudes to do so. Such a person will never become an attractive role model for others and will not be able to influence anyone抯 behavior. In such a case they sometimes say: the reason for hiring, is the reason for firing. The same problem can occur when an external consultant is hired for a project in which personal development is involved. If that consultant has a completely different background and cannot understand why the members of that organization behave the way they do, he will never be to feel the real possibilities for change.

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5. The collective brain

If we change our focus from an internal process to a process between brains, we discover other phenomena. Not only is one brain mirroring the other, the reverse is also true. Sensitive brains are mutually connected to each other and the mutual process is so strong that it becomes difficult to explain behavior by just referring to an individual brain. The chain of brain activity jumps continuously from one person to the other, of course under the restriction that all the individual brains have a comparable repertoire and active Mirror systems.

These processes create a chain of events in and between each of the present brains, in which the results of these processes nestle as residues in each of the participating brains, e.g. in the form of experience, an eye opener, a value or a behavioral pattern. A Mirror process can create dynamics which go far beyond the individual and which can involve hundreds or thousands of people at the same time. A good example can be experienced if one visits a football match of e.g. Ajax. The real Ajax fan will enjoy a match much more if he meets thousands of other fans in the stadium. During the game, the mirror systems create collective outbursts of joy or aggression, depending on the quality of the game and the referee抯 decisions. If the same fan is watching the game alone at home on TV, he will experience similar emotions but in a much milder form. This explains the enormous popularity of public viewing, which is possible now due to the availability of huge outdoor screens. An outsider who is not interested in football but who is invited to watch a game in such a crowd, will probably be amazed of the mass hysteria he encounters. If the love for this game is not part of the system, it can't be evoked by mirror processes. Summarizing, we can conclude that many brain processes can be seen as fully individual. At the same time brains generate a substantial amount of mutually influencing interbrain processes. Most of the social processes and a lot of activities that create meaning, are regulated in this way. These interactive processes are so strong, that we are allowed to use the concept of a collective brain.

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6. The learning organization

The mutual influencing and collective learning processes based on mirroring, create an explanation model for phenomena like team spirit and organizational culture. From this perspective, we can define culture as a self reinforcing collective process in which norms, values, behavioral patterns, ideas, views and knowledge are generated and stabilized due to the fact that the members of the system continuously assimilate and distribute these to each other on an unconscious level. In this definition an organization can have a collective intelligence, an implicit and critical expertise which generates a substantial competitive advantage and which is not based on patents or on machinery, but fully on the interaction between the members of the working community. So if an organization has fully embraced the concept that surviving in a competitive market can only be realized through continuous innovation, new members will very soon start to think in terms of new opportunities and propose new products, services or markets. As long as new members enter the organization in a moderate pace, the wish to become part of the working community is so strong that the newbies adapt this culture unconsciously and rapidly and start to be a pawn in this mirroring assimilation and distribution process. There are people who state that the honeymoon period which starts when entering a new organization and which can be recognized by the astonishment about how things work, finishes six weeks after entering, meaning that most of the basic values have already been adopted in that period.

7. Collective stupidity

The downside of collective intelligence is collective stupidity. If certain problems are tackled in an out-of-date way, this way is kept in practice even if the ones who developed this way of working have left the organization. Ineffective patterns of behavior can continue to reappear, even if there is a lot of management attention to change these patterns. Without the mirror processes, some ineffective patterns would be evaluated according to the principles of instrumental learning and would fade out because the costs are too high compared to the benefits. In a very innovative organization things are never be good enough and improvements will easily be accepted, even if projects never end in time due to the constantly changing specifications. In such organization it is hard for an individual development manager to block additional proposals to improve a new product after a certain milestone. It is only because of the continuous mirroring that trespassing milestones in development projects is accepted. Without these mirror processes, an evaluation based on instrumental learning would show that the former trespassing of milestones was due to the fact that innovations were allowed after a certain point. When this ineffective behavior is more rule than exception, there comes a call for a cultural change or turn around management. This is a top-down approach to change collective behavioral patterns in organizations and can be seen as a battle against the power of mirror processes. Any approach which does not include this power and defines a general behavioral pattern as a combination of individual tendencies, will fail. Recognizing and understanding the nature of these mirror processes is the first step in changing them.

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8. Epilogue

Returning to the question whether organizations can learn, this paper states that there are scientifically proven neuropsychological processes which indicate that there are many learning processes which go beyond the boundaries of an individual brain and which have a strong impact on learning and behavior in an entire organization. Mirror processes enable mankind to live together as social animals in groups and create systems that are much larger and stronger than man himself. These systems are stable and powerful, sometimes more than some of us wish. Systems based on mirror processes are however to some extent dynamic and flexible. They can be changed if the underlying principles are clear to those who want to do this.

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9. Literature

  • Frank, L., (2009) The fifth revolution. How brain science is changing our world. Oneworld Publications.  ISBN 978𢴖51686490 
  • Iacoboni, M,. (2008) Mirroring people. The new science of how we connect with others. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.  
  • Johnson-Laird, P.N. Mental models in thought.  (2005) In Holyoak, K. and Sternberg, R.J. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. London: Cambridge University Press.  Pp. 179-212.

Juni Daalmans
Daalmans Organizational Development
October 2010