(How) Do Organisations Learn?

By Contributor Eric Gandy

During my professional life evaluating a wide range of government bodies in Sweden, I was often told by way of introduction that “we are a knowledge-based organisation, you know”. My response was often “and how do you learn?”, which often led to a few raised eyebrows. Here are some observations about organisations and learning.

Learning from information coming into the organisation

Information that flows into an organisation, both regular and irregular, can be used to develop knowledge within an organisation. That is, if this information is seen as a useful tool for learning. This is not always the case:

One percent of Swedish GNP is devoted every year to international aid. The agency responsible finances hundreds of aid projects around the globe. A condition placed on those who receive aid grants is to send in a final report from their projects. These reports contain, at best, information on the operations carried out, how the money assigned has been used and what has been achieved in relation to specific goals. As such they should provide valuable information for the follow up and evaluation of projects. One of my colleagues asked the aid agency:

“What do you do with the project reports?”

“We tick them off”, the agency replied.

“What happens then?”

“They are filed in the archives.”

“Does anyone read them?”

“Not as far as we know.”

The title of my colleague’s report was “Does the aid agency learn?” Perhaps “When will they ever learn” would have been more appropriate.

Neglecting a vital source of information – and learning – is common. And it has got worse, as information flows have increased enormously with computerisation. Masses of data are accumulated and stored in gigantic databases that few have the energy or inclination to tackle.

Incoming information which is sporadic and from unknown or irregular sources, such as whistle blowers, citizens or pressure groups, can be of vital interest for an organisation to follow what is happening “out there”. Sadly, information from theses sources is often regarded with scepticism or downright suspicion. There are seldom safe routines or systems for handling this kind of information. Another source of learning has been lost.

Learning from the experience of people outside the organisation

An organisation can of course learn by buying knowledge and experience, for example by recruiting “experts” or purchasing wisdom from the endless flock of consultants and advisors.  Recruiting experts may have some short-term benefits, but very soon their expert knowledge is dated. Example: chemical companies bought up the staff of monitoring bodies to obtain information and expertise on how to get necessary permits for chemical processes. After a year these recruits were no longer of any use, as their knowledge was out of date.

Sending staff on courses and workshops to “hone their skills” is a conventional method of importing knowledge into the organisation. Naturally staff, appreciating time away from the office, willingly put their names down for courses in statistics, languages, computer programmes and the like. But of course, teaching doesn’t always lead to people learning. In one of his cartoons Charlie Brown is standing by the dog kennel, where Snoopy Dog is stretched out on the roof, fast asleep as usual. Charlie is boasting to his sister: “I taught Snoopy to fetch the ball.” She throws the ball and calls out “ball Snoopy”. There is no response from the kennel roof. “He didn’t fetch it!” she says. “Nope,” said Charlie, “I said I had taught him, not that he learned how to.”

Back at the office after their training courses, staff often find that what they have learnt is not useful or applicable in their daily work. Or that they, like Snoopy Dog, didn’t learn anything at all. After a week or so, most is forgotten – except the free food and wine. Training courses as a way of improving the knowledge of an organisation are “here today, gone tomorrow”. Why? Because the people who design training courses and workshops want to sell these to a wide range of customers. So one size fits all – or none!

Plato (ca. 427-ca. 347 BC)

Business and professional conferences delight in staging award ceremonies with examples of excellence to inspire our knowledge-based organisations. Those who did not receive a stamp of approval duly applaud the winners and are expected to go back to the office and be “inspired”. Such examples may in fact have the opposite effect. On one such occasion I heard the following response from a member of the audience: “they’re so clever, we’ll never be as good as them, it’s not even worth trying”.

Perhaps it is emotionally easier to learn from other organisation’s mistakes, rather than success stories. But this is seldom the case – mistakes are often denied and quickly buried, rather than being presented at press conferences or awarded prizes at quality conferences.

Learning from colleagues within the organisation

“The best way for young people in our organisation to learn what the job is all about is to work alongside Jack!” That was how one head of department I met looked at staff training.  She was right, if there were enough “Jacks” to go around. But not everybody has the right attitude or approach to be a “Jack”. And “Jacks” are often to be found hidden amongst the silent veterans rather than the vocal young bulls in an organisation.

What our departmental head did not see, were the many barriers to learning that existed within the organisation. For a variety of reasons, learning from each other’s successes and failures within an organisation is sensitive. People often prefer to keep this kind of knowledge to themselves. It takes more than an afternoon to create a positive and open atmosphere, where reflection and the exchange of ideas and information within an organisation is natural. But it can be done. Here are some common barriers – and what can be done to encourage learning from each other.

Free agents

Many organisations usually have a couple of staff members who spend most of their time chatting with workmates, skulking in the corridors or drinking coffee in the kitchen. They are not very productive and are usually first in line when it is time for cutbacks. But these “gossipers” are invaluable in helping people in an organisation to learn from each other. As they float about, seemingly with no particular aim insight, they spread information and ideas, often inadvertently, and establish valuable contacts.

Dave was a typical free agent in a government department. Scruffy, office overfull with stuff, untidy, a free thinker who spent most of his time chatting to other members of staff. He had contacts everywhere, on all three floors. One day when Dave was pretending to read the Daily News over a cuppah, Barry came bustling into the kitchen, threw a file of papers on the table and made for the coffee machine. “Anything wrong Barry?” asked Dave. “If,if,if” said Barry, slamming his cup down on the table “I just can’t get my head around this digital questionnaire. Got to be ready Friday!” “Tough game Barry” replied Dave with a nonchalant sigh from behind his newspaper. “You should talk to Janet.” “Janet Who?” demanded Barry. “Works upstairs, been here a couple of years, blonde, good at digital stuff.” said Dave in his offhand manner. “Which floor?” asked Barry. “Try the fourth” said Dave, returning to his paper with a slight grin. Barry rushed for the stairs, almost forgetting his file.

Lesson for improved learning: First, people who isolate themselves in their offices know less. Second, people who move around and talk to others know more. Third, splitting organisations between several floors in an office block creates barriers which cut off contacts and the spread of information within the organisation. Floors and doors are barriers to learning. If you can’t physically knock down walls, put some effort into creating meetings between staff on different floors. Invite people in for coffee, tell them about your latest project – and get them to tell you about theirs. Rotate staff and management. Talk to each other, encourage gossip – and whatever you do, don’t sack the free agents!

Debriefing and reflection

Knowledge-based organisations in the public sphere often work with projects which run for a limited period. If you look at the activity level of a project, it is often low at the start-. The project group is trying to fathom out what they are doing. The project quickens up when they have arrived at a plan for the project, dips a little, gradually gets up to speed again, dies down when data collection is over, then gets going very quickly as deadline and report date approach. When the project has been completed, everyone loses interest, in particular the project group themselves.

This is an excellent time for the organisation to learn from projects by way of organised debriefing. A project group should be given the task of reflecting over what they have done, by answering these questions:

  1. What was most successful in the project? Why?
  2. What didn’t work, what failed, what problems did you encounter? Why?
  3. What would you do differently if you were to run the project again? Why?

All other members of staff should be invited to listen to the reflections of the project group and discuss what they could learn from the project for future use.

Finally, my earliest memory of a learning situation

At weekends my father worked in our garden, or with the hens, wearing his working clothes and heavy boots from the chemical factory. He grew potatoes, carrots, lettuce, rhubarb, blackcurrants, loganberries and strawberries on the lower half of the garden, next to the henhouse. The rest of the garden was mother’s department, for growing her roses.

One spring morning, when I was about six years old, he decided to dig over the vegetable patch and spread manure from the hens. I still remember the cold, damp air. We shivered as we marched down the garden path, Dad with spade over his shoulder like a rifle. I marched along behind, swinging my arms. The vegetable patch was covered in wet foot-high grass, after the mild damp winter. Dad started in one corner of the square plot of land. I can see his boot resting on the spade, the sharp edge glistening in the pale morning sun. Dad leaned over on his right boot and the spade sliced quickly through the turf and down into the soil. He bent and pushed the spade handle down, lifted the sod, and turned it over in one smooth movement. The soil was black and shiny, looking almost naked against the green grass. Fat worms were writhing where the spade had cut through the turf.

Dad continued along one length of the patch, then turned and carried on in the other direction. Sometimes he rested his foot on the spade, removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow. He asked if I wanted to try Dad showed me how to hold the spade and put all my weight on one foot. It didn’t work – the spade was too big and heavy, and I was not heavy enough. With his help I did manage to turn over a few sods, then got tired like most six year olds and chased the hens instead.

Today when I fetch my spade to work in the garden, the skill learned from Dad’s digging lesson is automatically recalled. It is as though I am back there, six years old. In the brain, my ability to turn over the soil is closely linked to the emotional feeling about that lesson from a Saturday morning many years ago.

Eric Gandy