How can we learn as an organisation? (part I)

How can we learn as an organisation? (part I)

Tom Van den Steen
Tom Van den Steen
Programme Advisor Planning, Learning & Accountability

I hear colleagues ask this question more frequently than that they are able to satisfactorily answer it. In fact, it is not so much about being able to answer the question, but to put it to practice. In this four-part article series, we’ll dive into some key insights and building blocks that can help your organisation to take learning to the next level and share some of our own experience.

Learning is no rocket science – and even if it were, most people would be able to master it, given the time to do so.

Think back for a moment to the last time you learnt something. It doesn’t matter how big or small, whether it was learning a new formula in Excel that automatised a task that would have otherwise taken you hours of repetitive handlings, or discovering after the fifth ‘why’ question of your 5-year-old daughter that you were not able to explain why gravity actually makes the apple fall down from the tree.

Once you have your last lesson in your mind, analyse it a bit further: what happened? What made you learn that specific lesson? Why did you come to learn it in the first place?

In answering those questions, you will recognise most, if not all, of the following key aspects of learning:

1. Curiosity

We learn when we are faced with an unknown situation or a challenge that requires a new skill. We learn because we are eager to learn, because it triggers our curiosity. We want to figure out how to overcome the hurdle that impedes us from reaching our goal. We learn because it gives us joy to better understand the world we live in.

2. Failure

Every success story is preceded by failure. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: when you don’t know how to get from A to B, you need to figure out a way to do so. You try 10 times and maybe you will fail 10 times. But the eleventh time you will find the answer you were looking for. Or maybe something you were not looking for, yet proves to be very useful nonetheless – like a post-it.

The key is not to give up, to appreciate failure not as a proof of your inability to get there but as a proof of how not to get there. You actually learnt something and you are wiser than before, for you know now what doesn’t work and that you shouldn’t try that again.

Unfortunately, most societies stigmatise failure, consider it something to muffle away under the carpet. When people stand in the spotlight, they rarely talk about the failures or the missed steps they put in order to make it to the top. Rest assured – they all did:

If you only scored 100% on all your tests, can you really be sure that you have fully mastered that subject? Or did you just learn to excel at answering the questions to the satisfaction of the teacher?

We should embrace failure and encourage each other to make mistakes, for it is only by making mistakes that we figure out more about the workings of the world around us. Only in so doing, we can really be sure that the path we took leads to the desired destination, and that we didn’t get there in spite of what we did or without acknowledging other forces at play.

3. Reflection

As we find ourselves back at the starting point of a search after yet another setback, we should not rush into the next attempt. We should make time to reflect upon what happened: why did we not succeed? What caused the setback and how can we prevent this from happening in the future?

In this reflection, it is important not to get lost in splendid isolation. You were most likely not the first – and you won’t be the last – to make this or that mistake. How did others go about the same setbacks? How do our attempts compare to theirs? What did they do differently? This practice (called benchmarking in organisational lingo) can accelerate our learning process and prevents us from seeing a tiger in the mirror, when in fact we are just a little kitten.

4. Sharing

When we learn something, sharing this new knowledge or skills gives us joy, as we help others avoid making the same mistakes in their development process. It is only when we make our lessons public that others can benefit from our experiences and learn from our setbacks. What good is it to learn when this only served to rewire some neural connections in our head?

Let us celebrate setbacks the same way we do with success: award the most brilliant failures and share them publicly, destigmatising the most vital learning process of all: trial and error. Only in so doing will we able to encourage friends and colleagues to share more about how they truly mastered the road to success.

To borrow the words of a friend at carpentry class: I am so happy that we’re in this class with 10 people practising at the same time, for we each make different mistakes that we can learn from collectively. I would never have this much learning opportunities if I was doing this on my own.

Surely, there is more to learning as an organisation than learning as an individual. But come to think of it, the basic principles are the same. In part two and three of this series, I will address the two elephants in the china shop of organisational learning, before sharing three simple building blocks and Rikolto’s own learning practice in the fourth (and final) part.