The Myth of The Learning Organisation

John Atkinson is a founder of  The Phillips Kay Partnership Ltd

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline captured the story of The Learning Organisation and described how it might come about. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook is full of tips and tools that practitioners have used and found helpful in pursuit of this. For a few years I was caught up in this. I worked with global organisations building their capacity for learning. I saw local successes, plenty of them in fact. I saw the energy and enthusiasm you release when you set people free to learn about their work, change it and improve it. I thought that here, working at this level, might be found an answer to the negativity and organisational melancholy that sets in when people are faced by a slow and suffocating bureaucracy.

This never happened. The local highs that arose from success came and went as part of the rhythm and ritual of organisational life. The practices got subsumed into the bureaucracy and turned back into parodies of what they were meant to be. Over a quarter of a century many of those businesses disappeared. Some had their heyday, others were consumed in scandals or economic disasters. Many were simply overtaken by changes in their market environment and have slowly dwindled into a twilight where the brand is defined by past success more than hope for their future.

It would be easy to conclude that The Learning Organisation is a fantasy. Global financing and market pressures will never allow such a concept to really happen. Shareholders will always take the short term return, strangle the business, and then switch their capital elsewhere. In other words, its all the fault of someone else, someone faceless and intangible.

To conclude that would be to miss something that is happening everyday, before your very eyes. Each day people turn up at work, in sub-optimal offices and workplaces, not designed that way, but simply how they have grown to be with each iteration of the company’s progress. They work within a bureaucracy of process and procedure, designed in response to past events to ensure a brighter, safer future yet in reality limiting and constraining every individual’s capacity for creativity and humanity. As they do so they find that today is not just the same as yesterday. A new problem needs to be solved, a subtle change in market conditions asks a new question of us. Nothing major most days, but none the less, a small conundrum to be overcome to keep the organisation working. And each and every day people learn a way to get past the limitations of their processes and working conditions to get their job done. The organisation is continually learning, every single minute of every single day. It is learning how to continue to be itself.

This is driven by a deep almost innate sense of organisational identity. More powerful than the agency’s branding or the consultants’ carefully crafted vision and strap-lines, this is our sense of who we really are. It has been created over the life of the organisation through each and every interaction. It has been created in how we have responded as our environment changed and how we made sense of it in all the conversations that explore that. Conversations by water-coolers, notice boards and photo-copiers. Conversations as shifts come on or off, as we leave formal briefings, as we do our machine change-overs. Here in this unplanned informal dialogue, sometimes spread over decades, is where we make sense of who we are, shape it and decide our responses. This is where the organisation has learned what it is. This is where it really creates identity. 

Everything the organisation learns, every day, in order to achieve its tasks, acts to consolidate, perpetuate or preserve this identity. The organisation is already a Learning Organisation. It is learning how to continue being itself.

So when markets change, technology advances or economies crash, the organisation takes that information, filters it against what it knows itself to be and tries to perpetuate its identity in the face of the change. This is why you read all the stories of glaring business errors, Kodak rejecting the digital camera, the Swiss turning down electronic watches, IBM nearly missing the internet. The response of those organisations to the change was coloured by an inability to recognise information that didn’t perpetuate the organisational identity, to reject it as a fad, something that would never last, a flash in the pan that could never impact on such a global giant.

This isn’t arrogance, this is normal. This is how we all react, even as individuals to changes in our environment. Living things act to preserve their own identity. But there is a corollary. Living things will rapidly change to preserve their identity.

The challenge for ‘The Already Learning Organisation’ is not ‘can you learn?’, but ‘can you learn something new?’ Can you learn something that goes against the internal dialogue, formed and reinforced over all those years and decades? Can you learn how to change your identity?

If the organisational identity has been formed over time in the internal networks of its people (just like a sense is formed between the networks of cells in our own nervous systems) it is there that a new organisational identity needs to emerge. Networks are reservoirs of knowledge and know-how. They contain what we know about our work and how we can use what we know to get stuff done. The filter of our current identity decides what, amongst all the knowledge and know-how that they store, is appropriate in this instance. If we cannot disturb this, then nothing changes. 

You can re-structure and you simply breakdown the existing networks only for them to re-form slowly and clumsily in the only way they know how, in defence of their identity. You can introduce new practice and procedure and the internal networks will consider it and apply it in congruence with their sense of who we already are, turning it back into a newer version of what went before. You can re-brand , re-vision, and launch a new five year strategy and they will simply be consumed in perpetuation of the existing identity.

If you really want a Learning Organisation you must build the capacity to change the internal dialogue. It is dialogue that has created who we are and only a change in our dialogue will change that. To change the dialogue means much more than changing the topic of conversation, you’ll rarely manage that over any period of time. (Networks will decide on their topic of conversation based on their sense of identity.) Instead the route is to change the relationships within and between networks, across silos and across the organisational boundary. This is not the crude and crass ‘cut and paste’ of organisational restructures. This is a qualitative change in how people are in relationship with each other, how they decide what matters, how they respond to new information and new people.

When you are prepared to embark on this you rapidly uncover deep learning. Kurt Lewin said that you never really understand a system until you try to change it. As you begin to try and change things, you provoke a reaction from people’s sense of organisational identity that tells you where the real work lies. Your first attempts at change are never successful in anything more than pointing you at where you really need to do your work. Too often at that point we step away feeling our job is done. This is never short work and nor is it for the faint of heart. (That is why large advisory companies and strategy consultancies never follow such processes, the real work takes place over time, within the organisation, not amongst an army of paid hired-hands.) But it is the route to lasting and sustainable change that can create an identity capable of adapting in symbiosis with a changing environment. If you want a sustainable organisation then qualitative change in the internal dialogue is the way to grow it.