The idea is great and there have been several attempts to put it into practice in Estonia. Never-the-less there is plenty of room for development. The director of the Institute of Educational Sciences at the University of Tallinn Krista Loogma has written her thesis on this subject and described the major difficulties in the development of learning organizations in Estonia.
One of the core problems is financial instability. Why would carpenters want to learn as a team when they are even not sure if in three-months time they will still have work? There are many organizations that cannot count even on their nearest future. Why would teachers be interested to study together if they have been waiting since years when their school will have to be closed down? In such situations it makes more sense to learn for oneself and not worry too much about the organization. Teachers have identified themselves in this case more with the vocational union than their school.
Highly skilled specialists move easily
People who do not identify themselves with the organization they work for is also a hindrance to the development of a learning organization. IT technologists for example identify themselves not with the organization they work for but rather with the global IT specialist family that they also communicate with over the web. These highly skilled specialists move from organization to another offering various IT solutions. When leaving an organization they take with them all their know-how and abilities and as a consequence a hole is created in the company in the area of IT. In this way they undermine the formation of a learning organization.
Peter Senge is claiming that a learning organization requires the maximum level of democracy. But a production company requires first of all efficiency. Democracy is only of secondary importance. This means that in some cases hierarchies are unavoidable.
What also works against the learning of employees is that the majority of Estonian companies are subcontracting foreign companies. Here there is a lot of Fordist conveyer production where team-work is difficult to establish and instead of a learning organization people are talking about a “learning hierarchy”. When the work is very simple there is simply no need to learn, not to speak of creating a learning organization. But hierarchies are strengthened also by the so called “desperate learners” who claim that it is too difficult for them to learn, that they are too old, too untalented etc. The employer then just has to make the decision and send people to learn and this is often the case in Estonia.
Workers lack the pride in their vocation
Workers are in the most difficult situation in regard to learning at the workplace. They do not have contacts outside their company as opposed to for instance the IT specialists. Nor do they belong to any vocational union unlike teachers. Workers’ unions are still rather weak in Estonia. And as a result many workers lack the pride in their vocation which is a crucial presetting for a willingness to learn. Mostly workers feel rather like soldiers in the army. They don’t really want to learn or develop – keeping one’s mouth shut and keep serving seems to be enough.
Estonian workers have difficult time learning also because of their clinging on to their profession. A carpenter will always want to remain a carpenter, he is not interested in becoming a master nor a salesman or working in the office instead. This situation gives rise to a feeling that Karl Marx was right: the workers are being exploited. And any attempt to build a learning organization in this atmosphere is doomed to fail.
In Estonia a learning organization is first of all associated with the quality of leadership and in this area quite a lot has been done. Estonian Association for Quality (EAQ) has been founded with about hundred member organizations. The city of Tallinn is giving out an award for the educational institution which resembles most a learning organization. In South-Estonia there is a union for quality schools. Besides that there is a fast growing number of companies offering leadership trainings.
Leaders and the quality of leadership does play an important role in the possibility of a learning organization. Observations tell us that for example Estonian nurses are very willing and interested in learning. They identify themselves with their profession and unlike the IT specialist also with their working places. This is almost the prefect presetting for a learning organization. And in several organizations where the directors are also in favour of self-initiated learning the nurses have started study-groups to discuss work-ethics, learn new treatment skills, or use new medical technology. Probably this enthusiasm and self-initiation is the very reason that Estonian nurses work on a high level and fulfil several tasks that previously only a doctor was allowed to. And consequently also the salaries of nurses have risen.
On the other hand there are medical institutions where a nurse is still considered to be a tool that should be always at hand, stay quiet and still almost like the furniture in the hospital. In this type of institutions the professional development and learning of nurses is rather modest.