Becoming a learning organization

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Becoming a learning organization

Companies must prepare their employees to cope with the complexities and accelerated speed of an increasingly global economy. This action is particularly important since some national education systems are failing to arm new workers with the skills that they will require to keep pace. Companies will need to boost significantly the number of on-the-job development programmes such as job rotations.

Simply spending more on training programmes won’t automatically translate into enhanced productivity. The Business and HR leadership teams must clearly define and measure the return on investment that they expect from learning initiatives.

Managing work-life balance

As the boundaries between private and work-life blur, employees are increasingly selecting – or rejecting – jobs based on how well they can help the individuals achieve work-life balance or advance personal goals and values. In order to attract and retain highly talented individuals, companies will therefore need to offer flexible work – unlocking hr’s potential arrangements. They will also need to appeal to employees growing desire to derive a sense of greater purpose from their work. Companies should implement or improve programmes that afford employees flexible working hours, opportunities to work from home and job sharing.

Managing change and culture transformation

As companies hire workers from around the world and enter new markets with increasing speed, managing corporate and cultural change will become a critical capability. Research shows that executives expect their HR functions to develop tools and methodologies that help and guide line managers in communicating to employees the need for change – and empower them to bring about such change.

Boston Consulting Group. The Future of HR in Europe: Key Challenges through to 2015 (2007).


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Karl Marx

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Germany. He never called himself a sociologist – that word was then too new to mean anything to most people — but he was a little bit of just about everything else. He started out studying law, became involved in philosophy and history, and later worked as a journalist and political activist. Marx’s life and work were inspired by his disgust with the capitalist economic system, especially with the way it kept millions of people toiling in dirty factories and parched fields with very little to show for their work at the end of the day. He was convinced there could be a better way, and he worked to support the Communist Party, a group dedicated to creating a society where everyone shared and shared alike. This troublemaking got Marx kicked out of Germany, France, and Belgium, and he finally landed in England; he died in London in 1883.

Marx, working with his close friend and colleague Frederich Engels, wrote a lot, but much of it took decades to be organized, published, and translated. It wasn’t until the 1930s that people truly understood everything Marx was trying to say.

Sociologists consider Marx important for two main reasons: his general theory of history and his specific ideas about power and exploitation. Marx’s theory of history is often called materialism. For Marx, the most important forces in history weren’t ideas; they were basically economic forces. Every stage in history, according to Marx, was distinguished by its own mode of production, a way of organizing the production and distribution of material goods. Each mode of production (ancient slaveholding society, medieval feudalism, and so forth) has its own inherent conflicts among different classes, and those conflicts inevitably lead to the failure of one mode of production and the beginning of another.

Marx was particularly concerned with the mode of production that dominated his time: industrial capitalism. Marx wrote about a number of different class groups that he saw having roles in capitalism, but the two most important were:

✓ The bourgeois: the wealthy, powerful people who own the factories, the farmland, and just about everything else.

✓ The proletariat: the people who don’t own much and are forced to work for the bourgeois to feed their families.

Marx thought that capitalism was bad for everyone, but especially for the proletariat. The proletariat, said Marx, are especially hurt by capitalism because they are viciously exploited by the bourgeois. No matter how much profit a factory owner makes in a day, if his workers don’t have anywhere else to work, all the owner needs to do is pay the workers enough to keep them alive — the bourgeois factory owner keeps all the extra profits, earned on the backs of the hardworking proletariat.


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Emile Durkheim

The French scholar Emile Durkheim spent his life not just practicing sociology, but trying — quite successfully — to convince the world of sociology’s importance. Durkheim was born in France in 1858, studied philosophy and social theory, and ultimately founded the first European department of sociology. His life had much less excitement than Marx’s, but he was full of new and provocative ideas about society. Сompared to Marx, Durkheim had a fundamentally different — and much more positive view — of society. For Durkheim, humans are fundamentally social. In fact, thought Durkheim, our social life — at home, work, play, and worship — is what defines us, what gives us meaning and purpose. It’s what makes us truly human, and that fact is what makes sociology — the study of society — so important. In his book The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim set out his vision of what sociology is and how it should be done. Specifically, he said that the job of the sociologist is to study social facts: facts that are true of groups of people rather than individuals. Those are the facts Durkheim thought sociologists should take as their special area of concern.

Durkheim agreed with Marx that society was changing, but rather we were becoming more differentiated from one another in all kinds of ways. Earlier in history, when society was relatively simple, there were just a few different jobs people performed: hunter, gatherer, farmer, priest. Now, there are thousands of different jobs that need doing, and they’re very different from one another: software engineer, preschool teacher, screenwriter. This functional differentiation, thought Durkheim, was both necessary and — in broad terms — a good thing. Our shared social values help us work together productively and, for the most part, peacefully.

To prove the usefulness of sociology as a discipline, Durkheim chose to study a topic that would seem deeply personal, much more the domain of the psychologist or philosopher than the sociologist: suicide. By demonstrating that sociology could help us understand something so intensely private and individual, Durkheim showed the power of his newly invented sociological method. In his book Suicide, Durkheim pointed out that though any individual person’s decision to commit suicide was, of course, personal, suicides seem to have shared social causes. Durkheim observed that some countries have higher suicide rates than others. Whatever combination of factors cause people to commit suicide, they seemed to be greater in Sweden than in Spain; further, they were greater among unmarried people than married people, and greater among men than women.

In the end, Durkheim concluded that there were actually different types of suicide that tended to happen for different reasons. For example, egoistic suicides were more frequent in groups with weak social ties (for example, countries with religious values emphasizing individualism) and altruistic suicides were more frequent in groups with extremely strong social ties (for example, the military).


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Max Weber

Marx and Durkheim are easy to compare and contrast because their views about what matters in society were so strikingly different. Marx thought it was all about conflict; Durkheim thought it was all about cooperation. Marx was concerned with the material world; Durkheim was concerned with the world of ideas and values.

Max Weber (pronounced VAY-ber) is much harder to identify. Weber thought that social life is marked by both conflict and cohesion. Sometimes we fight, sometimes we get along; the trick is to understand why and when. Max Weber’s best-known book is called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism contains Weber’s argument that the values spread by Protestant theologians like John Calvin were very influential in Europe’s transition from traditional society to modern capitalism. Essentially, Calvin and other Protestant theologians argued for the values of hard work, discipline, and savings. The belief that time is money, and money is good (because an abundance of it suggests that God favors you particularly) is foundational to the capitalist economy. It’s a brilliant sociological argument, and its core insight — the connection between a rigorous religious worldview and the capitalist economic system — may have been partially inspired by the troubled marriage of Weber’s parents.

Weber’s mother was devoutly religious, a strong believer in the moral value of self-sacrifice, strict discipline, and hard work. Weber’s father, on the other hand, was a worldly, wealthy man who unapologetically enjoyed the luxuries his money could buy. Weber’s work addressed this paradox: that modern life has some of the ascetic self-discipline of the monk — you must be at your desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., fulfilling a precise list of duties — and yet it has afforded us luxuries and freedoms unimaginable to people who lived in the pre-modern era. It may be dehumanizing to work in exchange for money rather than to work growing food for your family, but now you have money that you can spend on whatever you want: maybe food, maybe a vacation. Whatever!

In The Protestant Ethic, Weber tells the story of a landowner who hires some farmers to work his land. To motivate the farmers to work harder, the landowner increases the amount he pays per acre mowed; however, the landowner discovers, to his astonished frustration, that the farmers then proceed to work less hard because they only want to make enough to live on and after their “raise,” it takes less work to do it. If we all behaved that way, capitalism would never work. We’re the “good” farmers who work harder for greater financial reward — but to what end?

According to Weber, modern society is marked by rationalization: Most things are organized according to standard rules and systems that are meant to apply to everyone, with society meant to run like a well-oiled machine. In your job, for example, you don’t have the responsibilities you have and get paid the amount you do just because you’re you — those things go with the job, and if you quit, the next person to take your job would perform the same tasks and get paid the same amount.


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Altruism refers, in a word, to generosity. When you offer a service or a gift with no thought of reward, that is pure altruism. When you offer something for a small reward (like a t-shirt or a hug), that’s still generosity — even if it’s not pure altruism. The existence of this kind of prosocial behavior may be the Achilles’ heel of rational choice theory. Of course, most people are not Mother Teresa. In many cases, when we give things away, we get other things in return. For example:

✓ A major donor to a museum or a college may be rewarded by having a building named after them, and may be given a seat on a board of directors, yielding valuable social and professional connections.

✓ When you give your boyfriend or girlfriend a birthday gift, you cause them to feel more attached to you and thus gain security in your relationship — plus, when it’s your birthday they will probably turn right around and give you a gift of comparable value.

✓ When you volunteer your time to an organization, you are gaining potentially valuable experience and the social prestige of being seen to give your time away.

Plus, you may be having fun and/or being directly rewarded with free services or products from that organization.

All this being true, it’s still the case that often people do act altruistically in ways that are hard to understand from a rational-choice perspective. People make anonymous donations, stand by loved ones for years while they fight fatal diseases, and toil at services that few see or appreciate.

In fact, some sociologists argue that living peacefully and constructively in society requires constant acts of generosity on everyone’s part. If everyone actually tried to get away with whatever they could, doing exactly what they pleased just so long as the reward eclipsed whatever punishment they might face, society would fall apart. Think about what it would be like if every storekeeper had to assume that every single customer would steal if given any opportunity, or if no one ever let anyone else merge into a crowded lane on the freeway. No police force could hold a society together if all its members were determined to act for their personal gain. So why don’t they?

According to Durkheim, it’s norms and shared values that hold society together. Society is not just about jumping on the back of the next guy so you can get higher; it’s about cooperating to achieve goals together — and joining together to celebrate those achievements. People internalize the norms of society so deeply that they regularly act in ways that would seem to be contrary to any selfish motives . . . and fortunately, this leads to a working society that benefits everyone. To understand the decisions a person makes, you have to understand the society they come from.


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