Why (Most) Companies Don’t Learn

I’ve been thinking about and researching the topic of organisational learning for some time now. Last year, I presented on the topic at LESS 2011, but realized it was time to take some time and write about it. So this is the first post of a series to explore the topic, which I’m also hoping will help me clarify my view on the subject.

Organisational learning. Should anyone care ?

My hope is that this goes without saying, but I guess that the first question to be asked is why should anyone care about learning? Some businesses make money staying still, while the world keeps moving. Full stop.

While this could be true for established business in the past, it’s something that is not so clear anymore. Gary Hamel makes a good point in his “Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment” presentation: Change is changing, and it’s much faster now than it has ever been.

The world is changing, and faster than ever, so (every) company has to adapt, not only once but constantly.

Why is it so hard ?

A company has to learn. If this was an easy task, it wouldn’t be so rare, but creating a learning organisation is one of those things that gets harder the more you try and control it. If you want to form a learning organisation, a few questions you might think of are:

  • What does my company need to learn ?
  • If I had to setup the body of knowledge necessary to run my organisation, what would it be ?

While these could have been easy questions to answer 50 years ago, nowadays, in this ever changing (specially IT) world, whatever you write as being essential today might not be useful at all in one year’s time.

And the big issue is that most companies are not setup to deal with this problem. Instead of an evolving structure, modern organisations still have a very hierarchical structure based on top down control, with the vision of a CEO (put any other senior role here) that drives the strategy while most of the company just follows.

They have Project Management Offices that dictate how to deal with projects, architecture teams that say what can and cannot be done and common policies that dictate behaviour for everyone. Bjarte Bogsnes  has a good tale about how companie’s policies try to establish control over the employees:

“A friend of mine works at SAS. Even if he is trusted to fly planes around the world, if he wants to change his shirt more often than what the policy states, he needs a written authorization”

So the common alternative to evolution in this kind of structure are the well known “Change Programs”. They try to implement a top-down approach to change, that can be explained in two simple steps:

  1. Senior people decide how to move forward
  2. They teach the rest of the company how to do it

While step 1 is always a success, step 2 is usually more troublesome that people would like to think. And it’s not hard to understand why, since the whole idea of a change program is quite an unfair proposition to the affected employees, which could be described like this:

“You have to embrace change, but only the change we want”

As expected, people resist. Peter Senge has a quote that explains this situation quite well – “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed” – It’s natural that most employees will doubt and resist something that they haven’t been asked about. I would, and I’m quite confident that most people would too.

And as a result, money is spent, time and most importantly people are consumed through the process, and not much is learned in the end.

So is there an alternative to this situation ? Do you agree with this view ? Let me know what you think

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