When Will They Ever Learn?

I remember in the sixties hearing Pete Seeger singing his composition “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  All five verses of the song finished with the plaintive question;
“When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
It is a very good question. In this essay I want to explore learning in an organizational context.

Richard Barrett is the founder and chairman of Barrett Values Centre. He is an internationally recognised author, speaker and consultant on leadership, values and culture in business and society. I have been influenced by much of his work. Many of us who are involved in organizational change interventions talk about organisational transformation. Barrett cogently points out that organisational transformation doesn’t occur without the transformation of the people in the organisation. He says, “Organisations don’t transform. People do!” And importantly people don’t transform without learning.

One of the most prominent advocates of systems theory and the necessity of bringing human values to the workplace, is Peter Senge. It was his 1990 book  “The Fifth Discipline”  that brought him firmly into the limelight and popularised the concept of the “learning organisation”. Learning organisations are able to adapt to their changing environments and maintain a good “fit” enhancing their competitiveness by their nimbleness and capacity to learn. But in line with the assertions of Barrett, organisations don’t learn. People do!

The American humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers had some very perceptive views about learning. His views have been summarised as follows:

“Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning. Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is perceived by the student as having relevance for his own purposes. Learning which involves a change in self organization in the perception of oneself is threatening and tends to be resisted. Those learnings which are threatening to the self are more easily perceived and assimilated when external threats are at a minimum. When the threat to the self is low, experience can be perceived in differentiated fashion, and learning can proceed. Much significant learning is acquired by doing. Learning is facilitated when the student participates responsibly in the learning process. Self-initiated learning which involves the whole person of the learner – feelings as well as intellect – is the most lasting and pervasive. Independence, creativity and self-reliance are all facilitated when self-criticism and self-evaluation are basic and evaluation by others is of secondary importance. The most socially useful learning in the modern world is the learning of the process of learning, a continuous openness to experience and incorporation into oneself of the process of change.”

Both organisations and individuals grow by learning. In the dynamic environments of today and of the future, learning is the key to survival. Individuals can only maintain their relevance in organisations by learning. Organisations can only maintain their viability by learning, and just like every other organisational issue, the organisation’s capacity to learn is dependent on the learning capacity of the individuals who comprise it.

Real learning is largely experiential, and experiential opportunities are only created by confronting different environments, different ideas and different technologies. Therefore real learning is not advanced by seeking comfort and familiarity! Unfortunately good learning environments are challenging, demanding and often for those who are not psychologically robust, can be threatening.

Indeed, as a consequence, it is a truism that effective organisations – ones that can grapple with the emerging issues and manufacture effective futures – are often rather ‘uncomfortable’ places in which to work. On the other hand you can rest assured that organisations that are comfortable are treading water as the world passes them by. As a result they lose their “fit” reacting against change and avoiding having their assumptions challenged.

It is the robust individual, secure in his or her self-knowledge and self-acceptance, who will be most open to ongoing learning. The psychological self-defence mechanisms of the insecure will prevent learning occurring until there is a major conflict between their internalised assumptions and beliefs, and their perceived world.

Similarly with organisations. Those that have created a culture of ongoing learning will change and adapt to the varying demands of business. Those that hang on too firmly to the past, in the mistaken belief that stability is the ultimate virtue, will only change under the pressure of great trauma.

Thus we see that in the long run, both individuals and enterprises are best served, and less traumatised, by pursuing continual learning.

Many among us believe that learning is a simple transaction occurring when someone with knowledge (the teacher) communicates that knowledge to a receptive individual (the learner) who assimilates it and is thus able to modify his or her interactions with the world to accommodate this new learning.

Oh that it were so simple!

Learning, in the final analysis, is about changing our minds.

What we have already learned about the world has been gained through a
considerable investment. We are unlikely to modify these beliefs easily because we have such a vested interest in what we believe in. We see the world through the paradigm filters that have been painstakingly built on the platform of our earlier experiences of the world.

Thus, we are unlikely to accept those new bits of information that we receive that are at odds with our current paradigms. If we have an existing construct that adequately explains our experience of the world to us, then we are most unlikely to countenance a new construct at odds with our present rationalisation.

Hence, a major obstacle to overcome in learning is merely getting the new information through our own individual paradigm filters. This is a difficult lesson for the rationalists to learn where they believe, rather naively, that the power of logic will prevail. When a person has invested time and, more importantly, emotional energy, in making sense of their personal reality, logic is not particularly persuasive! The intellect serves the purposes of the will in the defence of current paradigms, that is, ‘you cannot accept that which you cannot afford to know’. It is only when existing paradigms no longer allow us to deal effectively with the anomalies and inconsistencies in our lives that we surrender them up to a new and more effective paradigm.

Learning is essentially about developing meaning structures to enable us to make sense of our world. It is about having maps on which to plot and with which to explain our experiences. Consequently, if we are not having new experiences and our environment does not change significantly, then there will be little incentive to learn.

The genesis of learning is normally a state of incongruence between the outcomes we experience and that which our cognitive maps predict. Either the experience is new and outside the scope of our map, so we have to extend it; or it is different, suggesting our map should be modified.

Real learning seems to occur only from experience. Knowledge derived by rational thought or through the observed or related to experiences of others is normally not accepted into our domain of learning until we have tested it against our own experience.

If it helps us make sense of our experience then it becomes part of our embedded meaning structure. From such experiences we may abstract general laws and theories; we continue to test these against our experience.

The development of the self within each individual occurs in this way; each individual tests knowledge and theory against his or her unique experience.

This seems so inefficient when we observe that the great body of literature from which we can learn. There are so many conferences and seminars we can attend; there are consultants and experts we can learn from. Yet, in the end, unless we can relate this knowledge to our personal experience it will have little effect.

In his book  “Why Don’t People Listen” , the Australian psychologist and social researcher, Hugh Mackay outlined his 10 Laws of Communications.He touched on the issue of experiential learning in his seventh law. ‘People are more likely to change in response to a combination of new experience and communication than in response to communication alone’.

Much of this embedded meaning structure will be subsumed unconsciously by the individual. Not being generally accessible to our conscious mind, modifying our meaning structure will be very difficult.

Similarly, the shared learning of organisations is embedded in their meaning structures. American psychologist and Emeritus Professor at Harvard Business School, Chris Argyris is one of the world’s most respected authorities on organisational change. He once wrote that in fact it is very difficult to understand organisations that are static, because many of the basic meaning structures are implicit. Seeking to change the organisation brings the meaning structures to the surface, making them explicit. We often only start to understand what the underlying beliefs are when we attempt to change organisations.

What kind of things can we do to facilitate real learning?

We need to provide a rich variety of relevant and stimulating experiences for all those working in the enterprise. This requires a continuing and sustained effort by management to manufacture and take advantage of learning opportunities.

It requires experimentation and risk taking.

It requires imagination and trust.

In order to paint the picture a little more clearly, outlined below are some of the characteristics of learning organisations.

The first principle of a learning organisation is that it is tolerant of diversity. Such an organisation focuses more on strategies and goals and less on procedures and plans. If we insist that there is only one way of doing things, learning opportunities are minimised. Of course there are activities where, because of the risk involved, we may have to prescribe rigid procedures and enforce their implementation. There are however many areas of our business where the risk to the business in doing things differently is small and the potential gains of a conceptual breakthrough are great.

Second, we need to ensure that we maintain some dynamism in our organisation and do not allow comfort and complacency to displace stimulation and experimentation. In order to achieve this, we must ensure that employees are continually exposed to new roles and new rolemodels. We can facilitate this using staff rotations, formation of ad hoc project groups, sharing staff between workgroups, and creating strategic alliances and partnering arrangements.

Third, managers must be seen to be actively sponsoring experiments and trials. They need to create a climate where experimentation is seen to be a normal part of business. The difficult part of this is that many experiments will fail. Managers constructively handling such failure will help to create a culture supportive of organisational learning. It is important not to apportion blame but to ensure that we benefit from failures. Our failures are often more instructive than our successes.

Fourth, it is important to keep an eye on the world. Many enterprises suffer from becoming too introspective and parochial. We must ensure that we learn all we can from other enterprises. It is also a mistake to believe that we can only learn from those in the same or similar businesses. Some of the best ideas come from taking ideas from other environments and synthesising them for our own. We need to foster visits to, and staff exchanges with other organisations not only to hear their success stories but more importantly to observe them or join them at work.

Fifth, we need to understand that continuous improvement, while important, is not enough. Continuous improvement enables us to refine and improve our business processes. It creates the ‘mountains of small miracles’ of Kaizen and Total Quality Management. However if we concentrate only on refinement we may end up being in the wrong business or forced out of business by enterprises that make major breakthroughs. It is just as important to devote resources to strategic processes that will enable us to make the occasional quantum leap as well as to ongoing incremental improvements.

Sixth, we will often learn by teaching others. When we seek to impart knowledge to others we are forced again to make sense of our own experience.

Finally, it is essential to nurture the creativeness that resides in our organisations. We will do this by providing forums for our innovators to express their creativity and create opportunities to seed their imaginations by exposing them to innovative thinkers from the wider world.

I suspect that two good indicators of an organisation’s ability to learn are a sense of humour and humility. An organisation that takes itself too seriously, putting inordinate store in its institutions and history, is unlikely to be able to learn and change.

Similarly, the greatest block to learning is not wanting to admit you don’t know. But again, as we said at the start, this is a manifestation of the lack of psychological robustness of individuals and consequently the resistance to change of the organisations they make up.

It is obvious then, that so much of the required flexibility of organisations is dependent on the personal adjustment of its members. The pursuit of learning, and every other desirable organisational attribute, is derived from the psychological well-being of individuals.

(Some of the above material has been adapted from Chapter 16 of  “The Myth of Nine to Five”  which I co-authored with Dr Phil Harker.)

16 Replies to “When Will They Ever Learn?”

  1. Hello Ted
    I have often heard you speak about this in our informal chats but this is an excellent “essay” on the subject and very timely for me as I sometimes sit in front of decision makers in organisations discussing their learning and development needs. The one sentence I have remembered from way back is that “organisations don’t transform, people do.” This is a powerful argument that supports the need for one on one (and where appropriate group) coaching in organisations. This is not a one way teacher/learner relationship but one where there is mutual trust. Real learning leads to meaningful transformation and this can’t take place without a process of “undoing”; a period of “sorting out”; space for reflection, transfer and application; a further time of “unsettling” where the valuable and the valueless, the meaningful and the meaningless are central to the thought processes and learning. And finally mutual trust (which also brings shared interests, outcomes and solutions) is a period of achievement where the learning is consolidated resulting in consistent thoughts and actions.
    I can only hope that our leaders and organisational decision makers will understand that when learning is based on mutual trust relationships, there will be real learning and that real and lasting transformation will occur. (Imagine this happening at all layers of the organisation – from the mail room to the board room)! Even more important is that those who call themselves “coaches” understand that they too have to go through the transformation process and are honest with themselves at the deepest level of knowing that they are “one with” in the teaching/learning relationship.

  2. Biggest barriers to a learning organisation today are, statutory compliance, total risk management and process/policy control. All the stuff that seems synonymous with the lean and efficient modern day corporation. Through this total control of every aspect of the business function an organisation can achieve zero non-compliances, optimal cost control and no project failures right up to the point they ever so slowly go broke. The bigger and older a business is the more at danger they are because they have more to lose and are better able to control their people. Bill Gates was asked once if he lay awake at night worrying about Oracle or Apple. He roughly indicated that he did not. He was more concerned about some kid in a garage developing some new idea than he was with mega-corporations…. Wise man… well you can’t deny his success. The kid in the garage has nothing to lose and everything to gain, he has nothing to fear. He doesn’t even know he is learning, he is just having fun. I don’t see to many businesses these days that seem to be having fun.

  3. Wow Ted. This one hit the spot for me. You have said in so few words what so many OD books spend so much time on. This should be a mantra script for leaders in all organisations large and small. The elimination of fear of failure is the first step towards real OD growth in any business. Experiental learning ,surrounded by some trust and faith in your team is a wonderfully fulfilling feeling.

  4. Thank you Edward and Greg. It is great to get responses like these from caring people like the both of you are.

    Your comments about coaching are very pertinent Edward. And you are so right about the importance of the trust relationship. In my experience this is essential to the learning process. Trust reduces risk for the “coachee” and as I explained above the more secure you can make a person feel the more responsive they will be to the learning process.

    But the wonderful thing about coaching is that it is a two way process. Whoever comes to me for coaching always brings knowledge and experience that is different to my own and one of the counterintuitive benefits of coaching is how much the coach can learn from the client!

    It seems to me that there are always three learning processes in play. The coach can facilitate greater understanding by the coachee. The coachee can transfer the benefits of his/her knowledge and experience to the coach. And one of the more delightful learning experiences is where there is a knowledge deficit in both and they can in fact learn together. This is what makes coaching such a satisfying process.

    And Greg you are very perceptive. I share some of your concerns. Compliance compells conformity and to a large degree uniformity which is an anathema to learning. Now sure there are certain areas where the dangers are so high that we cannot afford to risk people’s lives and adherence to agreed practices is useful and sensible. But the compliance umbrella is growing larger and larger to the extent that whilst it keeps the rain off us it doesn’t let any sunshine in either.

    Considered risk taking is an enabler of learning.

    And of course your closing comments reflect my own experience. What’s wrong with a bit of fun?

    The Harvard academics Kotter & Heskitt argued that appropriate organisational culture was the determing factor of long-term organisational achievement. Here are the characteristics of such a culture:

    People feel significant, able to make a difference to the success of the organisation.

    Learning and competence matter. Appropriate diversity is allowed. Leaders view mistakes as opportunities to learn.

    People feel part of a community

    Work is often stimulating, fascinating and fun

    People are motivated to do the work and don’t just passively comply with work directives

    The second last point gives credence to your point of view Greg.

  5. Sorry Craig your comment came in while I was composing the above reply. You were a great exemplar of someone who had trust and confidence in their teams and as a result got great loyalty and effort in response!

  6. Enjoyed your essay Ted. I recall a conversation I may have initiated when working for an organisation some years ago where I set out the key principals for the Un-learning organization. If I can find them I will post. You may guess at my view on which the organisation was.

  7. “When will I ever learn”, Father Robin? Unless I have been mistaken I have been learning all the while. To tell the truth I might even have learnt something from you!

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