Bogus learning organizations

One of my subscribers asked me the following today:

Would you spare some minutes then to share your views on a learning organisation? Is it a myth or fallacy? In your experience, which major companies have you seen successes and failures in its implementation and why?

Large organizations that "think large" cannot learn. They can perpetuate themselves and fortify their defenses, but not really learn. This has been labeled "arrested development", "pseudo learning", "bureaucratic stagnation" or "organizational learning disabilities". It's been mythologized as the frog that gets boiled alive by the very gradual increase in the water temperature that overrides the instinct to leap out of boiling water.

Large organizations that "think small" can learn. They do what successful entrepreneurs do. They learn from customers, employees, rivals and suppliers. They learn from their successes and failures. They regard their happenstance as their teachers. They assume they don't know how to stay in business, to keep up with the times or to replace their current success with a new approach. They operate with "eyes of wonder that are clear of fear".

Most large (and many small) organizations cannot put this kind of learning into practice. The management hierarchy "shoots the messengers" who deliver bad news from customers, employees, suppliers or rivals. Getting close to a source of bad news is a "kiss of death". An advocate for the "lesson to be learned" is viewed as a traitor or saboteur of the mission -- not a teacher, guide or scout. The lessons are threats to dismantle, not opportunities to rethink, reinvent or renew. "Learning is for sissies". It's always time to fight back and to insist on being right. "Outsiders cannot tell us how to run our business".

"Learning organization" is too big an idea. It's most popular with enterprises that cannot learn and need a cover to "look like they are trying". Peter Senge was amazed how popular his book (The Fifth Discipline) became in academic circles. He was still thinking his first book would lead to change. He later realized that book mostly led to "talk of change" and needed a sequel to engage the "dance of change".

Academia is especially ironic in this regard. Institutions of higher learning are supposedly dedicated to learning. Yet they do not learn from their students, their 50% dropout rate, the employers of their graduates or the alumni who "got a diploma without an education included". I've blogged about that irony extensively at Clues to the College Blues.

Rather than get distracted with talk of "learning organizations", I recommend creating a balance between discovery and delivery systems. Learning is disruptive to the zero defect, quality-controlled production. Consistent, reliable delivery systems are lethal to the questioning, exploring, changing, and growing that discovery systems introduce. Many organizations rely on occasional retreats to rethink strategy, learn from experiences and recognize emergent resources. A discovery system operationalizes that into weekly conversations, blogs and wiki.

When an organization is as good at learning new things as at reliably producing the same things -- the learning becomes informal, spontaneous and contagious. Unlike learning from SME's and formal instruction, the learning is modeled, imitated, shared and supported. Learners learn from learners. It's unstoppable.

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