• Ian Gibbs

Why Organisational Learning Doesn’t Work For Everyone

Organisational Learning is the process of creating, retaining, and transferring knowledge within an organisation so that the organisation improves from the gain of experience and knowledge.

It sounds fine, doesn’t it?

Who wouldn’t want their organisation to improve?

Well, once you scratch the surface, quite a lot of people.

The key question is ‘What do we mean by improve?’

The answer depends on who you are - managers, employees or shareholders. All have different (sometimes contradictory) ideas about what constitutes an improvement.

Let’s take the example of Sarah who’s new in finance. Everyone wants Sarah to improve by learning how to do her job better. But do her coworkers want her to learn how to do her job so well, it makes them look incompetent?

Probably not.

Everyone wants Sarah to learn how to make finance run smoothly. But does her boss want her to learn how the department could be restructured so that he wasn’t necessary any more?

Probably not.

Everyone wants Sarah to help guarantee the financial future of the company. But does everyone want her to cause a major shift in strategy which spooks investors and causes the share price to drop 10%?

You know the answer already, don’t you?

Thus, a certain amount of learning is desirable, but enough is enough. We don’t want to upset the status quo too much.

This is where the oxymoron part of ‘Organisation Learning’ is revealed. An organisation, by definition is controlled by the organisers: The people in power. And the one thing we know about people in power is they are very reluctant to lose it.

Thus, Organisational Learning is the stuff the organisation wants you to learn, but not the other stuff that rocks the boat.

This is why OL isn’t for everyone. It risks turning learners into sheep, following the system, learning what you’re told and not asking uncomfortable questions.

Unfortunately, for a company to survive, occasionally someone does have to kick the hornets’ nest and ask uncomfortable questions to learn a few uncomfortable truths.

I’m sure the employees of Blockbusters were following their OL program.

I’m sure the researchers of Nokia were well trained in hardware development processes.

But prescribed learning only works well when the people who dictate it are right.

Sometimes, however, what is needed is more like disorganisational learning.

Rather than prescribing what should be learnt, we should listen to the rebels and answer the uncomfortable questions we’d prefer to avoid.

Innovation can ruffle a lot of feathers. Learning to do things differently that challenge the balance of power within a market, a company or a department can be bad - for some, but keeping people on a chain and only allowing them to learn what the organisation deems acceptable can be much worse in the long run.

So if you’re in an OL environment, cast a critical eye over things and ask yourself ‘What am I not being encouraged to learn that could make my job better? And why not?

The answer might be important.