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The Learning Goes On - Editorial by 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
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
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
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
Do Corporate Universities educate Learning
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
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
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
’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
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
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
discussion pages on our AMED website.
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