Learning as a foundation for engagement (part one)

Four organisational capabilities support internal and external stakeholder engagement – leadership, organisational learning, communication and adaptive capacity (or change). This post examines the strong links between organisational learning and engagement.

The discipline of organisational learning has been around for a long time, but does not appear to have gained much traction. I suspect, as engagement practices become more mainstream, organisational learning will receive renewed interest.

The emergence of organisational learning

Bob Garratt, in his book The Learning Organisation provides a “personal history of the development of the learning organisation concept“. He traces its beginnings back to thinkers such as Reg Revans, Fritz Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) and Jacob Bronowski (author of the BBC Series The Ascent of Man) at the end of the Second World War. Bob Garratt positions organisational learning as part of the softer side of management theory, paralleling the more hard-edged analytical management theory. 

(image of Bob Garratt from http://geniusmethods.com/about/panel-of-specialists)

The concept of organisational learning is hard to pin down, but should never be over-complicated. I regard it as the ability of an organisation to create a culture to enable it to learn from its stakeholders.

Key ideas

Learning about organisational learning theory in the absence of practical application can make it unnecessarily complex. So here, we will look at a few more key ideas about the learning organisation. These will make more sense as you apply them to your experience. The ideas here are adapted from Bob Garratt’s The Learning Organisation. Note that he first wrote this in 1987. I am impressed that the ideas he expressed align nicely with Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s research described in Supercorps (more about this later).

1. Organisations are complex adaptive human systems – not mindless machines. 

“It is first essential to break the predominant managerial and directorial mindset that human organisations are rational emotionless data-logic driven machines which stay resolutely on carefully planned and pre-determined tracks regardless of the changing environment…” (page 12)

While the physical sciences accepted Einstein’s relativism as representing a more complete picture of our universe, the management mindset seems to stick with a more clockwork Newtonian view of the world. Perhaps it is because rational systems are easier to manage than human dynamics. Bob Garratt refers to biology’s complex adaptive systems as a guide for working with people and organisations. Peter Senge reinforces this, stating that we need to “stop thinking like mechanics and start acting like gardeners”.

2. Organisations driven more by processes than structures. 

The hierarchical structures developed to facilitate production in the industrial age often hinder information age companies. Departmental structures often become silos that hinder necessary organisational processes, especially flows of communication and knowledge.

3. Learn from your learning and understand our learning processes

Often we are so busy that we fail to integrate reflection and learning into the process. Managers that do this often implement knee-jerk actions in their desperation to fix things. Another trap that organisations fall into is making universal changes, that, of necessity, require a huge investment in their success. Bob Garratt advocates taking small steps and learning from those actions. This is the basis of “action learning” – we will look at that in more depth later. As with other organisational learning writer’s, Bob Garratt acknowledges the importance of double loop learning articulated by Chris Argyris. This website provides a clear explanation of the concept.

4. Creating a learning culture 

In a culture that encourages learning, people feel safe about sharing information, confident there will not be unfair retaliation. And it goes further than that – people know that their ideas are valued, and they, when they make suggestions, they are truly heard, not just being patronised. The culture has specific practices to foster learning and to guard against undue defensiveness.

5. External adaptation

Edgar Schein identifies that how organisations adapt to the external environment, shapes the culture. Organisations that learn effectively are highly adaptive and rather than develop a siege mentality, are actively engaged with stakeholders. Thus, threats can quickly be reframed as opportunities.

6. Embracing lifelong learning 

Learning has to be encultured at all levels of the organisation, from new hires right through to the board. Bob Garratt (also the author of The Fish Rots From the Head) emphasises the need for board members to engage in learning, rather than seeing themselves as a “completed work”. A “humble posture of learning” is required at all levels.

The link between organisational learning and stakeholder engagement

By now, the link between organisational learning and stakeholder engagement will be very clear to you. Contrast an organisation who has a defensive leader, who even struggles to trust his closest advisers, to an organisation that strives to have clear lines of communication from its “central nervous system” out to an ever-expanding network of stakeholders. A metaphor might be the difference between a fence post in the ground (treated with chemicals to resist decomposing organisms, and, on the other hand, the root system of a vigorously growing tree, whose rootlets are weaving its way ever-more deeply and broadly into the soil (see the post Fence post or tree – a metaphor for engagement).

The concepts of organisational learning, first articulated over half a century ago, diverge beautifully with many other aspirations for effective organisations that honour their stakeholders. Organisational learning therefore, shouldn’t be regarded as a narrow discipline, but rather, should be regarded as a set of principles that integrate into expressions of good practice.

To conclude this topic, here is a video of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, talking about her book Supercorp. While it does not specifically talk about organisational learning, how do you think it relates to some of the concepts discussed here?

Peter Bruce