It was Reg Revans, the begetter of action learning, who asserted that ‘for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be equal to or greater than the rate of change in the external environment’. The observation is as pertinent now as it ever was; but apart from a period in the 1990s, when Peter Senge introduced the idea of the learning organisation in his (temporarily) influential The Fifth Discipline, it has never really fired the corporate imagination.
One reason is that it seems abstract and difficult. Senge wants managers to become systems thinkers, for a start; and while children instinctively ‘get’ systems thinking, managers schooled in solving problems by mechanistically reducing them to their smallest components and then putting them together again, just start looking for the exits as soon as it is mentional. Yes, of course it’s necessary to learn, but we’re busy – can't it wait till tomorrow? As a result the learning organisation is today’s management equivalent of the Higgs-Boson: while its existence is proved in theory, no one has never actually spotted one.
It’s not least of the merits of Donal Carroll’s new book, Managing Value in Organisations (full disclosure: I wrote the foreword), which is shortlisted for the CMI’s 2014 management book of the year award, that among other things it resurrects the problem of learning. Carroll’s contention is that alongside a business model, every organisation, whether consciously or not, also has a management and a learning model. While the three are interdependent, it is the way and degree to which the organisation learns that decides whether it will observe Revans’ law – that is, survives.
Carroll makes the essential and often ignored point that the issue is not one of learning or not learning. Everyone learns at work; the question is what. Unfortunately, in the absence of consciously positive ones the dominant lessons that people pick up in most organisations are negative: how to avoid attracting unwanted attention (not rocking the boat), why change is impossible (learned helplessness), at worst covert resistance (as in the case of the airline pilot who noted, ‘I can raise their costs faster than they can reduce my pay’) – compensatory feedback, in Senge’s terms. In effect these are non-systems-thinking, non- or anti-learning organisations in which individuals learn to survive but not the organisationas a whole.
These learnings are mostly unspoken; their visible manifestation is the cultures of disengagement and apathy that characterise so many workplaces, particularly larger ones. Often non-learning organisations are the result of egregiously flawed work designs. For instance, learning is often linked to feedback. But feedback, as the late Peter Scholtes pointed out, is a systems term, referring to a loop in which one part of the system relays information to an antecedent part (such as customer to supplier) so that the collective function can be improved ie, the organisation learns. By definition managers can’t give feedback in the strict sense because they aren’t antecedent – they are further away from the customer than the frontline worker. This is why in practice targets have such disastrous consequences: being set by managers they impart false feedback that prevents the organisation learning from its proper teacher, the customer.
Paradoxically, while it is thus essential for an organisation to think about its learning model, the most effective one is where, like Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman who doesn’t realise he is speaking prose, people do it in the course of their job. This happens in production and service designs where the work is closely coupled to customer; iTunes allows Apple to learn about your taste in music, Toyota’s famous production system learns how to build better cars to order, in days.
As Carroll rightly warns, however, the way the organisation learns (if it does) is not independent of its management and business models. By definition, a company that is outward-facing enough to learn systematically from its customers can’t be managed in the traditional top-down command-and-control manner, and the closer it gets to the customer, the more it moves from a business model of ‘push’ (make the product, then sell it by advertising and price promotion) to ‘pull’ (basically making it easy for the customer to take the value they want, as in iTunes).
At a time when arguably the most urgent task for management is unlearning what passes for conventional wisdom, the learning-management-business model frame is thus a potentially fruitful starting point for reexamining many of the perennial business issues around creating energy, engagement and purpose. Carroll scores too by using appropriately fresh new examples – start-ups, social enterprises and public sector institutions – as test-beds for his ideas. As he would be the first to point out, awareness of the models is the start of the journey to make them useful in the daily practice of management, not the end. But if learning in organisations was easy, they would be doing it already. As Einstein is supposed to have said, ‘If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research, would we?’