The Learning Goes On

David McAra

Learning: easier said than done!

This has been fascinating. I hope this publication reflects a fraction of what I’ve learnt from compiling it. Our small editorial team – to whom I am highly indebted – has striven, with some difficulty, to be a learning organisation. I’m not sure we’d even agree what it takes to be one.

Isn’t it hard enough to learn as an individual? We must perceive our experience before we can think about it. We must articulate our own implicit explanation before we can compare it with the theories of others or test it in life. Meanwhile, our perception, interpretation and communication are often critically flawed and our conclusions wildly off the mark.

How much more difficult it is for an organisation to learn. What’s to perceive? The share price is falling. Customers are restless. Quality is an issue. Is clean perception even possible, before we start bringing our diverse theories to bear on cause and effect? Who senses? Who needs to act? Are we listening to each other? Do we share a common interest in the outcome?

Organisational learning vignettes

Interspersed between the articles you will find a series of vignettes or short sketches, compiled by the editorial team as we explored the concept of organisational learning in pursuit of our own understanding. In these we describe:
• organisations where it has been easier or more difficult or indeed, impossible for individuals to learn.
• cultural obstacles to individual learning, and their removal.
• instances of collective learning, where the role of individual learning is almost incidental.
We hope you will join in with this exploration in our O&P Dialogue discussion pages. A brief introduction to each article follows. Full members may download individual articles or the whole journal.

Learning Organisations or organisational learning?

When I read Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline in the early 90s I was thrilled by his model of the Learning Organisation with its emphasis on connectedness and shared sensing, exploration and learning. Two decades later, I set out on the task of compiling this journal with a sense of disappointment and frustration. Why hasn’t this great thinking had more impact on the world?

How exciting it has been to receive, via Graham Robinson, a contribution from Arie de Geus, grandfather of the idea and to hear his concerns about the coining of the term, ‘Learning Organisation’. His own concept was ‘organisational learning’ and his argument is that all organisations learn, although not always fast enough to survive. For him, the term, ‘Learning Organisation,’ implies an unhelpful, binary distinction between organisations that learn and others that don’t. His big fear was that, with its capital letters, it would turn out to be just another, short-lived fad.

Happily, the fear was unfounded and the concept remains alive and well. Graham has drawn from his conversation with Arie a broad sweep from the ‘prequels’ of Chris Argyris and Arie himself, through the fascinating work with Shell and on into a cautiously optimistic view of the future. I was much intrigued by the correspondence between planning and decision making and learning and between learning and play. To think of these ideas being explored at Shell – one of the least playful working environments I have experienced – heightened my interest.

Looking back, I recognise that my arrival at Shell in 1989 coincided with the twilight of this creative period. There were still some glowing embers but they were soon extinguished. I suppose we stumble here on some of the obstacles to organisational learning. If my client can’t grasp my concept, there’s no point feeling hurt or angry or frustrated. The responsibility remains with me. For Arie, at Shell, computer simulation arrived which made the notion of ‘play’ appear more grown up and therefore, more acceptable to some of the more resistant senior managers of the day.

Do Corporate Universities educate Learning Organisations?

Lindsay Ryan provides a useful history of the origins and development of corporate universities. This seems to have been a response by large organisations, public and private, to better align the learning and development of their employees with their strategic goals. I’d heard of such institutions associated with Motorola, MacDonald’s and Disney but I had no idea that there were so many more.

Dr Ryan’s main theme is the importance of aligning learning and development with the strategic goals of an organisation. He discusses the evidence that the corporate university approach helps while still acknowledging that 80% of learning happens in the workplace, “clarifying an issue with a colleague or discussing a situation with a mentor”.

So, while organisations will make huge investments in pursuit of learning with high relevance, they still haven’t fully resolved the challenge of transfer, application and the harvesting of a return. The ‘soft’ skills necessary to develop and sustain a culture of shared visions and team learning continue to prove elusive, in our western culture at least. In our private correspondence, although not in his article, Lindsay refers to a very successful Indian institution whose curriculum addresses this area explicitly. Perhaps we may look forward to a future article on the evolution of management education and organisational learning under the influence of Eastern cultures.

Thinking about thinking

Two of our contributors are long term exponents of the thinking of Dr W Edwards Deming. Gordon Hall writes about the need to examine the underlying worldviews or theories which govern what we perceive and how we make our interpretations and respond. Habitually, he argues, we don’t even notice that we hold theories, believing instead, we simply understand how the world really is.

If we didn’t ‘know’, for example, that people are ‘obviously’ motivated by incentives but recognised instead, that a theory of sorts, some assumptions about people and human nature, lay beneath this ‘knowledge’, we could examine our thinking rather than just respond to it by reflex.

Once we uncover these assumptions and become curious, we may be amazed by the quantity of evidence in the literature and in our own environment of the negative consequences of rewards and bonus schemes.

Gordon discusses a number of examples illustrating how extraordinarily blind we can be to information which would contradict our prevailing worldview. His particular challenge is for managers to transform their profession from a ‘craft’, where the knowledge is tacit into a science with a more soundly based understanding of cause and effect. When managers improve their ability to learn, the prospect of organisations learning to learn becomes more conceivable.

The blinding flash of the obvious

It occurred to me, as I read John Seddon and Brendan O’Donovan’s article and pressed them for more examples, that the basic idea of systems thinking is obvious when you grasp it. The trouble is, it’s by no means easy to grasp. Many counter-intuitive ideas follow. For example, if you focus on the parts to drive down their individual costs, you drive up the cost of the whole. This is perhaps why the notion of organisational learning has been so slow to spread. Many managers have a low tolerance for counter-intuitive ideas.

Managers should concern themselves less with managing resources and activities and instead pay more attention to the flow of services and information and to the effective resolution of an inquiry in a single transaction. Then they would find quality and service improving at the same time as costs falling. In the predominantly ‘command and control’ paradigm of today, the cost of ‘failure demand’ as they term it – the unnecessary work created by a failure to provide satisfaction to the customer at the first opportunity – is severely underestimated.

A case study from Portsmouth County Council Housing Services illustrates how the improvements in performance that follow from a shift in thinking of this sort can be significant. For example, average time to complete a repair fell from 24 days to 7 while costs also fell and contractors improved their profits.

Some see a shadow side

We take a cautionary tone now. Deborah Booth and I wrangled hard over her article because Critical Management Theory was completely new to me and I was slow to see what she was getting at. My introduction to systems thinking involved a paradigm shift for me. I can still see myself sitting there, with my mouth open, drinking it in. “Now this makes more sense!” At that moment, my picture of the world changed forever. It never occurred to me that systems thinking might have a ‘shadow side’.

Deborah’s account suggests that Arie de Geus’s fears about the Learning Organisation being misunderstood were well-founded although perhaps not for the same reasons. She suggests that we enthusiasts for the concept have been taken in by the masters of capitalism. The implicit humanistic values can be seen to pay a return when a compliant, trusting, engaged community of humans is needed – to provide high quality goods and services to customers, for example. When bigger profits can be made faster in other ways, business leaders seem to feel less inclined to invest in their people.

So systems thinking never took root in the minds of the powerful. It simply enabled a more effective exploitation of the workforce at a particular point in history. While I feel this may contribute to our understanding of why the predominant paradigm of management remains untransformed, it leaves intact the validity of systems thinking as a value-free way of achieving a more accurate grasp of what is happening and why.

The restless search for transformation

John Burgoyne brings another long term perspective to the topic and reminds us of the significance of labelling. He suggests that anything with ‘learning’ in the title will end up in HR (the kiss of death, surely).

Knowledge management, a natural development from organisational learning was more closely associated with IT (not much better). It’s interesting that our aspirations to integrate systems thinking should founder on our habit of managing the parts. In more contemporary terminology he suggests ‘dynamic capability’ is a concept from economics. Perhaps this will make it easier to keep the whole in view.

John also alludes to the ‘shadow side’ to which Deborah Booth had alerted me in the preceding article and the charges of “naivety about power” and “lack of obvious concern for the moral and ethical aspects of organisations”. He points out that, with knowledge workers, “the ownership of the means of production” rests with the workers (engaged in “mentofacture” as opposed to manufacture – with their minds rather than their hands) so leadership, as opposed to management, is required. At the same time, he observes that enthusiasm for leadership may be waning, “even as all these Leadership Centres have been set up”. What next?

His concluding paragraphs are wonderfully upbeat as he corrals together all the creative forces emerging into contemporary thinking about organisations, reminding us that there is a lot going on and that there are plentiful grounds for hope.

We hope that you will find these reflections stimulating and that you will join our O&P Dialogue discussion pages on our AMED website.

Biographical Note

David McAra is a recovering engineer and presently Learning Consultant for Petrotechnics in Aberdeen where he tries to help the organisation and its oil industry clients understand why their software works so extraordinarily well. (They think it’s because it gives managers control. David believes it’s because it helps them to learn.)

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