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All things Pharma

The Learning Organisation – Is the pharma industry willing to learn?

Can pharma companies be termed ‘learning organisations’? To find the answer, Dr R K Powar looks at the extent to which the industry has adapted in recent years.

This article looks at the concept of the Learning Organisation and whether the sales function of the pharmaceutical industry over the last decade can be described as a Learning Organisation. To do this, some definitions of the Learning Organisations are listed from eminent researchers in this field. The work of Peter Senge is elaborated on and is used as a cornerstone to explore how well the sales function fits within some of the criterion set for being a Learning Organisation.

Individuals learn on a daily basis. It should then follow that, as individuals are learning, so should organisations, since organisations are made of individuals. Major research into the ‘Art of Learning’ started in the 1900s, and further work in the 1970s gave the concept the name of the ‘Learning Organisation’. One of the early researchers was Chris Arygris from Harvard, with further work done by Pedler etal and Peter Senge. The concept of the ‘Learning Organisation’ has gained momentum over the years as a philosophy for modern organisations.



What is a Learning Organisation?

Some definitions

“A Learning Organisation is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.”

M. Pedler, J. Burgoyne and T. Boydell, 1997

“Learning Organisations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment.”

T. O’Keeffe, 2002

According to Peter Senge, writing in 1990, a Learning Organisation has five main features; Systems Thinking, Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision and Team Learning. The first three are individual disciplines, while the last two are team disciplines.

Systems Thinking requires a ‘shift in mind’ to see interrelationships rather than cause and effect chains and to see processes rather than snapshots.

Personal Mastery consists of clarifying and deepening our personal vision and the ability to see things objectively.

Mental Models are generalised assumptions, how we understand the world and take action. Being insightful of them can help in individual learning.

Shared Vision consists of individuals sharing the same picture, which requires commitment and working as a team.

Team Learning happens when members of the team enter dialogue, suspend assumptions and genuinely start thinking together.


Different levels of learning

Single and double-loop learning

Single Loop, Double Loop, and Triple Loop Learning is based on the original work of Gregory Bateson, and was extended by Chris Argyris and Peter Senge.

Single-Loop Learning – ‘incremental learning’, i.e. the detection and correction of error

Double-Loop Learning – ‘reframing’, i.e. when the governing variables are questioned which leads to a shift in the way strategies and consequences are framed

Triple-Loop Learning – ‘transformational learning’, i.e. when what we do is questioned.


The barriers to learning

Peter Senge has listed the following barriers to learning:

  • I am my position – This essentially means individuals focusing on their own position, where there is little sense of responsibility for the results produced when individuals interact.
  • The enemy is out there – This is a by-product of ‘I am my position’. Within all of us is the propensity to blame someone or something when things go wrong, needless to say this also exists in organisational life.
  • Fixation on events – We are conditioned to focus on events, on how one event determines another etc.
  • The illusion of taking charge – Most of us react to an event problem, convincing ourselves that we are taking charge. Peter Senge argues that true ‘proactiveness’ comes from seeing how we contributed to our problems, a change in our way of thinking.
  • The parable of the boiled frog – It is said that if a frog is put into boiling water it will jump out immediately, however, if a frog is put in water and the water is boiled, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. This sadly is the case for many individuals and organisations that fail to react to significant changes that occur gradually.



The pharma sales industry

On examination of the industry’s sales function one can argue that the different levels of learning do exist. For many years the pharmaceutical industry worked on the principle that call rates and coverage frequency translates into sales. During this time, has compared call rates and coverage frequency against the set standards – single loop learning. Any shortfalls were detected and corrected. One could argue that double loop learning has existed in the form of periodically questioning the set standards of call rates and coverage frequency. Finally, triple loop learning would exist if the need for measuring call rates and frequency were queried.

Whilst there has been a strong correlation between call rates / frequency and sales, with the increasing competitiveness in the industry, the generation of ‘noise’ was simply not enough. The quality of the calls as perceived by doctors gained importance, which alongside relationship based-selling gave birth to the key account model.



The key account model

It can be argued that this model represents a total mind shift of the needs of customers, where the key account manager has total autonomy alongside responsibility for their actions. Whilst selling will always be the primary function of any model, this model also concerns itself with providing an invaluable service to the customer. The salesperson has ownership for their territory and therefore needs to see the interrelationships that exist and the results of their actions, beyond the mindset of just seeing X number of doctors per day.

How the salesperson applies the discipline of Personal Mastery and Mental Models will be dependant on the skill of the person concerned to see things objectively and how they can use their worldviews to achieve success.

As the disciplines of team learning and shared vision are not individual disciplines what is achieved from them is dependent on the structure that exists within the key account model and how they are applied.

From the perspective of the barriers that prevent organisations from learning, the key account model limits the negative affects of the first three barriers. The success of eliminating the affects of the last two barriers again is dependent on the skill of the key account salesperson.



It appears the sales function of the pharmaceutical industry has some of the features to be considered as a Learning Organisation but lacks in others. Building Learning Organisations requires excellent communication, relationship building, conflict resolution, time and total commitment. The changes that are required are at odds with the conventional management and wisdom that exists within most organisations. A skilled facilitator could be employed to help an organisation become a Learning Organisation.

Today the need for Learning Organisations is greater than ever before, as businesses become more complex and need to compete in a global environment. For this to happen organisations need to acquire more knowledge and understanding of the dynamic environment in which they function. This ongoing improvement can only be made possible through ongoing learning.


Dr R K Powar has over ten years experience in the pharmaceutical industry and specialises in helping organisations become Learning Organisations. She also provides a range of tailored programmes to develop staff to help an organisation improve on their Softer S’s skill base. She can be contacted on r11osyconsultants@yahoo.co.uk. For further information visit www.r11osyconsultants.co.uk

Further reading

  • PEDLER, M., BURGOYNE, J. AND BOYDELL, T. 1997. The Learning Company: A strategy for sustainable development. 2nd Ed. London; McGraw-Hill.
  • O’KEEFFE, T. 2002. Organizational Learning: a new perspective. Journal of European Industrial Training. Volume 26 (2), pp. 130-141.
  • SENGE, P.M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. London: Century Business.
  • ARGYRIS, C. 1999. On Organizational Learning. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
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