Can organisations learn?

I repeatedly hear 3 phrases in my organisation: 'We've done that before', 'what's the problem we're trying to solve?', and 'who shall I ask?' I hear each of them several times a week and have tended to treat them as discrete items. But maybe I'd be better reflecting on them as a collective in order to tackle the challenge I have this coming week of facilitating a session on learning organisations.

A 2011 article on learning histories that states that 'The essence of a learning organization is that it actively identifies, creates, stores, shares, and uses knowledge to anticipate, adapt to, and maybe even shape a changing environment. The driving concern [in doing this] must be reflection, communication, and collective sense making for action across its personnel'. It seems obvious to suggest that if we are to achieve our target of 'business transformation' we need to become a learning organisation.

The learning organisation is not a new management studies concept: Peter Senge was the 'guru' of it when I first came across the ideas. In 1990 he published The Fifth Discipline explaining the term and the thinking behind it. At that point helping organisations becoming 'learning organisations' was taken up by any number of consultants. HBR had an early article on it in 1993 and published several over the next couple of decades. But then the idea seemed to fade from agendas.

What strikes me about the three questions I hear is that:
a) it's very hard to find answers to the question on what has been learned from a past experience of doing whatever is proposed now, there's no collective knowledge capture, no 'lessons learned' database and people involved have moved on. We are not storing or sharing knowledge.
b) in constantly looking for a 'problem' it is possible (likely) that opportunities for learning get missed – surely learning organisations should be on the alert – looking curiously, anticipating, thinking ahead. I don't think a mind-set of only problem solving is sufficient for learning and adapting. We need to do more reflection and collective sense-making.
c) looking for someone to ask also seems to me to be a recipe for non-learning as it shows a cultural risk averseness. Most organisations will talk about learning from failure, but as Rita Gunther McGrath has noticed 'Strangely, we don't design organizations to manage, mitigate, and learn from failures…. . Executives hide mistakes or pretend they were always part of the master plan. Failures become undiscussable, and people grow so afraid of hurting their career prospects that they eventually stop taking risks.'

I wonder if the concept of a 'learning organisation' is unrealisable in practice as some of the research shows (and the fact that it faded from the agenda suggests) and that in thinking we can become one we are setting off on a fool's errand. But rather than being defeatist could we view the three questions and statements/questions that I think mitigate against us becoming a learning organisation as a cultural transmission challenge on the lines of malaria and measure success when we hadn't heard them for three years? (The length of time to be declared malaria free from the last reported case).

I prefer the latter approach. We'll aim for eradication of the conditions that encourage being a non-learning rather than a learning organisation. How do we do that? Well 10 ideas are put forward in an excellent paper 'Working with Barriers to Organisational Learning'. In the same way that mosquitoes are being used in the drive to eradicate malaria the authors explain that 'barriers that seem to limit quality of learning … are worthy of attention, as their existence may explain some of the 'stuckness' around organisational learning. A deeper appreciation of these barriers and defences and some initial pointers for how to work with them, may free up energy for the 'radically different approach' that is called for.'

I have circulated the barriers paper and look forward to seeing if the tips in it help unstick us. What are your tips for becoming a learning organisation? Let me know.

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