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Awkward questions about organisational learning


[This post was originally published as part of the ASK blog at]

New Zealander Stephen Billings has been publishing a series of interesting and thought-provoking items on his blog – Changing Organisations – exploring the difference between organisational learning – people learning in an organisational context, and learning organisations – where the organisation itself is seen as being able to learn. Maybe we could argue that learning organisations are more in the realm of Knowledge Management than L&D, and let ourselves off a thorny little cluster of hooks, but the supposed appeal of learning organisations is too tantalising for that, surely? And Billings is explicitly asking if ‘learning organisations’ (in his definition) are even possible – and not allowing himself to duck the question.

Some previous writers have cut themselves considerably more slack. Here’s John Denton, in the introduction to his book, Organisational Learning and Effectiveness:

Many previous works have used the terms organisational learning and learning organisations interchangeably. We will follow this convention here. Thus we are saying, in effect, that a learning organisation can be defined as an organisation that practices organisational learning. Conversely, organisational learning is the distinctive organisational behaviour that is practiced in a learning organisation. Thus the two terms are effectively synonyms, but there are differences of nuance that should be pointed out. A learning organisation is an entity, while organisational learning is a process, a set of action: organisational learning is something the organisation does; a learning organisation is something the organisation is.”

For Billings, it’s just not that easy. In his post Can Organisations Learn? He logically points out that learning organisations require not just processes but a metaphysical transformation:

After all, an organisation has no physical body (an organisation is only a convenient legal construction) and no mind of its own. The decisions of the organisation are made through interaction between people, such as debate amongst the senior managers. So, to me, saying that an organisation can learn, i.e. “Let’s create a learning organisation,” amounts not only to saying that an organisation is a thing in itself, but to anthropomorphise the organisation – to give it the characteristics of a human being.”

I’m not decrying Knowledge Management (KM), which has become an increasingly widespread practice over the last 25 years, as Bain & Co’s introduction to it as a management tool shows. One of my favourite blogs is about it, and one of its recent posts What do we talk about when we talk about work? points in a direction that might illuminate thinking on this particular little knot. Indeed, let’s requote its quoting of David Weinberger:

The promise of KM is that it’ll make your organization smarter. That’s not an asset. It’s not a thing of any sort. Suppose for the moment that knowledge is a conversation. Suppose making your organization smarter means raising the level of conversation. After all, the aim of KM was never to take knowledge from the brain of a smart person and bury it inside some other container like a document or a database. The aim was to share it, and that means getting it talked about.”

Which is all true and good and inspiring, except I want to wave my arm about frantically like the child at the back of class and shout ‘But Sir, there’s more … !’. There’s a difference between smarter and wise that’s the same difference as the one between data and information: the former is a raw ingredient of the latter. And – when it comes to organisational performance and leadership (which is our focus here, rather than KM itself) – simply being smarter isn’t the whole story. Clever people still do stupid things, often on a regular (or worse, repeated) basis. Wise people, on the other hand, change their ways.

So if making the real difference isn’t knowing or understanding but doing, is it really even ‘learning’ we’re talking about, or is it developing? And if behaviour is as important as knowledge, how do we codify behaviour and invent Behavioural Management systems to sit alongside their KM software cousins? Is that even such a good idea?

Between 1994 and 2004, The Learning-Org ran an online debate on the whole notion of the learning organisation. A lot of soul-searching and ontological headscratching ensued, as participants responses to the question “Why a Learning Organisation?” demonstrate.

But one participant’s posting I particularly liked asked the following awkward questions (the original poster, Winfried Deijmann, is Dutch and his English is quoted verbatim below):

Allow me to add my one cent thoughts on the issue.

Can organizations think?
Do organizations have a will?
Can organizations feel?
Can they act and look around?

We human beings need our physical body to interact with each other and be aware of ourselves. We need our brains to think, our eyes to see, our senses to be aware and to feel. Without our body we are……. nowhere?  Do we have a non physical existance beside our vissible existance? Has any of you ever seen a dead body learn something?

Without access to my nerves and senses, without a proper rythmical working blood- and breathing system, without my limbs and metabolism system I cann’t learn. If one of these three systems fail I die! Who came up with this ridiculous concept that learning and remebering is solely an activity of the brains and the senses? Where does the expression ‘learning by heart’ in that case come from? Just a metaphor, or is there a lot of forgotten ancient wisdom hidden in it?

And to take something to heart, you do have to have one. Stephen Billing was right – these aren’t easy questions, are they?

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