Analysing learning organizations: Boundary-less at GE !

A Learning Organization is an organization that learns and encourages learning among its members. It promotes exchange of information between employees hence creating a more knowledgeable workforce. This produces a very flexible organization where people accept and adapt new ideas and changes through a shared vision.

Need for Learning Organization
As organizations grow, they lose their capacity to learn as company structures and individual thinking becomes rigid.  It is critical in today’s global competitive marketplace for an organization to maintain its position in a rapidly changing environment. A learning organization is one that has a heightened capability to learn, adapt, and change.  A learning organization can acquire and apply knowledge faster than the competition and therefore maintain a leading edge.

Requirements of a Learning Organization
  • Shared Vision – Gives a real sense of purpose to employees
  • Team Learning – Team Learning is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire
  • Systems Thinking – Requires people to view the structural aspects of organizational performance rather than individual performance
  • Personal Mastery –  Without Personal Mastery, individuals and organizations are unable to continue to learn how to create
  • Organizational Learning – It is team learning, not individual learning, that adds to organizational learning
How to Create Learning Organizations
5 Keys to Building a Learning Organization:
  • Remember that corporate learning is “informal” and HR doesn’t own it
  • Promote and reward expertise
  • Unleash the power of experts
  • Demonstrate the value of formal training
  • Allow people to make mistakes
  • Benefits of Learning Organizations
  • The employees develop
  • Teams and groups work better
  • The organization performs better
General Electric Company & Boundary-less Behavior
General Electric Company, or GE, is an American multinational conglomerate corporation incorporated in Schenectady, New York and headquartered in Fairfield, Connecticut, United States. The company operates through four segments: Energy, Technology Infrastructure, Capital Finance and Consumer & Industrial. Its revenue for 2012 was US$ 147.3 billion. In 2011, GE was ranked among the Fortune 500 as the 6th-largest firm in the U.S. by gross revenue,as well as the 14th most profitable.

Boundary-less Organization
There may not be an exact pinpoint of where or with whom the idea of boundaryless started, but Jack Welch certainly propelled it into the world’s corporate consciousness with his Work-Out program at General Electric in the early 1990s.

The Need

Jack Welch believed that rigid, hierarchical organizations were poorly structured to compete in the fast-moving, information-centric, customer-focused competitive environment of the 1990s and beyond. He also recognized that General Electric’s people, and especially their diversity of knowledge, talents, and ideas could become a tremendous competitive weapon for the company in the new business environment. Work-Out, GE’s boundary-breaking program of the early 1990s, made GE into a boundaryless company and launched boundarylessness both as a management philosophy and a potential field of study. Boundarylessness was seen along four dimensions: vertical, horizontal, external, and geographic. Although all four dimensions are important in the boundaryless literature, the horizontal and vertical dimensions are most important for the understanding of boundarylessness at General Electric because those were the two dimensions concerned with day-to-day interactions among coworkers.

Jack Welch wanted a work environment where people could react quickly to any situation  and people together attacked problems quickly and efficiently.  Empowering people to make decisions at the lowest level and creating an environment that gave them the ability and flexibility to be actively involved in creating efficient process improvements required the removal of barriers that prevented ideas or process improvements before they could be explored. This was the need that was felt at GE during the 1980’s for the implementation of boundaryless organization.

How GE Does it ?
  • Town meetings (Recombination Labs)
In a town meeting employees from different managerial levels working on the same customer or product come together to discuss new ideas. Before the meetings a few days are spent on idea generation and at the meeting they are discussed at great length. In the end some ideas are adopted and some rejected. In this format everyone has an equal footing and thus every employee from any level can challenge or propose an idea.
Thus town meetings served two purposes:
  1. Generating and implementing ideas
  2. To educate employees to the freedom they have in making decisions and to encourage them to do so
General Electric is a multi-business company and Jack Welch tried to create an atmosphere where adapting and implementing a new idea from another area of GE or from outside is valued as much as or more than generating it. Jack Welch focussed his company on getting the maximum benefit of the diverse intellectual capital it possesses.
  • Pointing and Pushing at General Electric
1.Strong pointing and pushing
There are few instances of a pointing and pushing strategy in GE. The most notable among them is training given to employees on six sigma. As six sigma had given GE tremendous success in the past on improving quality of its products, in the 1990’s many employees were trained in six sigma.

2.Negative pointing and pushing
At GE there are several examples where employment was terminated when several employees were not following boundaryless behaviour. Employees are generally expected to keep the interests of GE as a whole as priority rather than their own divisions. Boundaryless behaviour is strictly followed in GE.

It has been seen that at GE negative pointing and pushing is prioritized over positive pointing and pushing. In positive pointing and pushing good habits and ideas are identified and employees are pushed towards it whereas in negative pointing and pushing bad iseas and habits are identified and employees are pushed away from it.

Contemporary Indian Organisation with Learning Culture

1.Tata Steel

Tata Steel became a Learning Organization by implementing KM (Knowledge Management) strategy in different phases

  • Phase1: Mainly focused on awareness, processes design, system design and launch of KM portal
  • Phase2: Knowledge communities’ kick-off & security system in KM portal introduced
  • Phase3: KM index introduced, community index introduced, “Ask expert” launched
  • Phase4: Linkage with different portals, quality index, introduced knowledge across value chain
Opportunity of knowledge transfer
This can happen during: Day-to-day operation, learning from failure, published papers by employees, Task force/consultant/Technical groups, engineering project, knowledge sharing across the value chain, knowledge generated through suggestions, small group activity, etc.
Instruments of Knowledge Transfer
  • Knowledge contribution by an individual
  • Ask Author (portal)
  • Ask Expert (portal)
  • Knowledge usage
  • Communities of Practice
  • Content Management
2. Road Map for NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation)
NTPC’s Knowledge Management imperatives are derived from its Strategic Objectives and HR vision of becoming a “Learning Organization”.
Strategic objectives
Knowledge Management imperatives
Plan and expeditiously implement power project
Improve engineering and project construction lead time past knowledge & experience
Operate power stations economically and efficiently
Reduce operations and maintenance costs and improve work practices by sharing ideas
Diversify and grow into new areas
Capture external knowledge and leverage experiential knowledge for commercial purposes
Benefits of Knowledge Management System to NTPC
  • Develop NTPC into a learning organization by creating a culture of knowledge sharing
  • Build an environment of trust & openness
  • Reduce employee effort to seek knowledge and experience
  • Reduce lead time in business processes and day-today activities
  • Reduce cost through sharing of ideas and best practices across plants


  1. “5 Keys to Building a Learning Organizations”, Josh Bersin, Forbes (Jan 2012)
  2. “Learning Organisations”, University of Edinburgh
  3. “A Primer on the Learning Organization”, Canada Public Service Agency (Feb 2007)
  4. “Learning Organizations”, Columbia University
  5. Sam Falk, 2001. Organizational Evolution in a “boundaryless” organization. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[The article has been written by Bhupesh Yadav. He is a mechanical engineer with 3 years of experience in Oil and Gas industry and an MBA from FMS, Delhi. ]

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