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

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

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

In the elusive quest for the Organisational Learning Grail, there are two aspects that are often overlooked or muffled away: complexity and wholeness.

Complexity is the thread that life has woven in the fabric that binds the four key components of learning (see part I). Complex environments are characterised by the absence of proven cause-effect relations. However, this absence does not mean that the cause-effect relation is not knowable; to the contrary, we can implement a series of trials that will allow us to master this relation following several errors encountered on the way.

Once we have found proof of a mechanism that connects a cause with its effect, the situation is no longer complex. Take the example of vaccines: before discovering that injecting people with a small dose of a virus that boosts our immune system to the point of preventing us to succumb to this virus when it invades our bodies in full force, hundreds of thousands were dying from the flu. Today it is just a matter of vaccination to prevent us from dying due to yellow fever or tuberculosis, while we are still figuring out which vaccine can remove the complexity from HIV or ebola and prevent their fatal impact.

As soon as we know how to get from point A to point B, it becomes a matter of implementing this mechanism – either ourselves, if this mechanism is knowable to all, or by specialists, in case the mechanism requires expert knowledge. The former domain is referred to as complicated in the Cynefin framework, whereas the latter is simple/obvious.

It is surprising that this framework has not found a greater entry yet in our line of work. [If it’s the first time you hear of it, read more about it here, here and here.] The Cynefin framework is a very helpful tool to analyse the context in which you find yourself, not only as an individual, but also as an organisation. In fact, its added value lies in allowing colleagues and partners to exchange their perceptions of the same context while using a common lens.

As you will quickly discover, people have different understandings of the same reality, whereby one will consider it to be obvious, another one complex and a third person sees it complicated. In contexts that require these three people working together, whether as colleagues or partners, these different understandings matter a lot, for they determine their intentions (what they contribute to improve the status quo), their expectations (how they expect others to contribute) and their attitude (your level of engagement in monitoring the respective contributions). This last point – attitude – is decisive in succeeding to find answers to complex problems or ending up in crisis or conflict.

Take the following examples: when we have our car repaired at the garage (the specialist will take care of it) or put the cake in the oven for it to be baked (we followed the recipe, a proven formula for the desired outcome – not taking its taste into account here), we can sit back and relax until the car is fixed and the cake baked. However, we don’t have the same attitude when raising a child, do we? This is a prime example of a complex situation, without a proven recipe that assures us our daughter will be happy or will become an astronaut, scientist or fire-fighter. Instead of laying back, we continuously sense for indications that our children do well and try to reinforce those impulses, while trying to mitigate negative influences.

Going back to the three people from above: if they have a different understanding of the same context in which they work together, their attitudes will be incompatible with one another. Inevitably, their actions will not fully account for all the dynamics at play, which are bound to clash at some point and erupt in a crisis that was not anticipated by at least two of the three people involved (that is, the ones who considered the situation to be obvious or complicated).

As I explained this in one of our regional offices, a colleague gave a very fitting example to illustrate his understanding of complexity seen through the Cynefin lens. They were trying to figure out how to increase the number of containers that one of their partners could export, as this would increase the revenues of coffee farmers. Assuming a complicated situation, the colleagues hired a consultant to study the problem and provide a solution: improve the quality of the beans and you will be able to export more containers in formal markets. Confiding in the proposed solution – after all, it was an expert opinion (which is all you would need when facing a complicated challenge) – they concocted a plan together with the cooperative to improve quality and redrafted their business plan. Based on the production figures of the members, they were all set to export 24 containers of 19.5 tonnes – now that would make for a grand income!

Come the year’s end, the cooperative had to scrape the grates of the drying racks to be able to fill… one (!) container. Astonishment abounded. What had happened? Upon some enquiries, it turned out that the coffee farmers had incurred several debts to finance the inputs and investments needed to grow coffee in the first place. These debts were to be repaid from the harvest. The need for cash to pay for the education or the healthcare of their children and unforeseen expenses pushed another part of the harvest into the hands of intermediaries offering a quick buck instead of the higher price offered by the cooperative (yet not always available upon delivery of their beans). Summing this up, not much was left for the cooperative to sell through formal export – the long-term answer to provide farmers a decent and stable income.

Could this situation have been anticipated? Sure, with hindsight it is easy to claim that our colleagues may have been a tad too naive. However, this is exactly the kind of reaction that follows an unexpected crisis in an environment in which people did not acknowledge its complex nature. Trusting in the expert opinion, our colleagues did not bother to sense for alternative dynamics that might influence the expected outcome.

If you think of it, this kind of situation is quite common in our everyday lives and work environment. Which begs the question: what could have they done differently? As I pointed out above, in any kind of situation where the outcome of your actions depends on the interaction with different people and on their respective engagement, it is paramount to align their understandings of the situation in which you are operating. This will broaden your understanding of the best course of action to take and which attitude to adopt as you follow up on the action’s implementation.

I had not yet fully finished my answer or another colleague objected: “We did engage with our partner in a participatory planning exercise, but the farmers never mentioned this at that point in time. They always mention these aspects when an evaluation takes place, but never at the start!

This objection brought me to the second, oft-overlooked key to organisational learning: wholeness.