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

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

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

Stepping into a bath tub was not part of a premeditated plan to discover how to calculate volume, yet this is how Archimedes solved the riddle that kept him awake many a night. Would he have realised his discovery if he were not looking for a formula to calculate volume? Perhaps. In any case, it certainly helped that his mind was predisposed to spotting the answer should it present itself.

Countless plans and policies for organisational learning have been written, only to be taken out of the shelve and dusted off the year after, in an effort to redynamise the proposed processes. Who were we kidding anyway? Our own experience tells us there is no such thing as the perfect plan that details how learning should take place. To quote Stalin:

Only bureaucrats can think that planning work ends with the creation of the plan. The creation of the plan is just the beginning. The real direction of the plan develops only after the putting together of the plan.

Instead of wasting your efforts in getting all the nuts and bolts of your organisational learning plan in place, you are better off investing in three basic building blocks that will predispose your colleagues towards recognising solutions when they present themselves, and that help you to capture and share them so that you can learn as an organisation from individual (or team) experiences.

  1. Define what learning means to you and why it is important for your organisation.

  2. Offer your colleagues means and opportunities to learn.

  3. Keep track of what you learn and how much you have learnt.

At Rikolto, we collectively defined learning as “creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and modifying our behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights” (Garvin 1993). Learning as an organisation is key to harness our impact, for it allows us to respond quickly to an ever-changing environment, ensure the relevance of our interventions, improve the effectiveness of our work, and optimise personal and professional performance.

For each component of our definition of learning, we have identified tools and practices that could nudge our colleagues towards collective learning. We can create knowledge by planning for learning, sharing the lessons we learn, or conduct strategic learning assessments, for example. Practices such as trainings, knowledge cafés, benchmarking and learning journeys can help us to acquire new knowledge, while virtual fora, communities of practice, or the WhatYouCanLearnFromYourColleages (#WYCLFYC) webinars help us to transfer knowledge within the organisation. Most importantly, we modify our behaviour by translating this learning into our intervention strategies and capturing these updates in our intervention frameworks.

These frameworks also include a few straightforward sections inviting colleagues to determine learning objectives (often related to the complex dynamics in their context of intervention), and to write down what they have learnt with regard to these objectives and how they came to learn this particular lesson. The learning sections attempt to strike the right balance between limiting the burden of input and keeping track of learning.

Finally, we have in every regional office a colleague who takes up the role of supporting his/her colleagues in planning, learning and accountability. We meet live annually and have a virtual exchange platform to propose user-friendly solutions to the latest challenges we encounter in our daily work environments and discuss strategies to improve learning dynamics – including the vision and tools exemplified above – that encourage personal and professional development.

Does this setup make us a learning organisation? You can probably answer that question yourself by now: unless our colleagues use the tools they have at their disposition, it will not.

No matter how often you turn it upside down and inside out, learning remains subject to the willingness of individuals. As Plutarch phrased it aptly, “the mind is not an empty vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” Yet, having the above structure in place certainly makes for a good flint stone.

Embracing complexity and encouraging the wholesome development of your staff are two other key factors that will determine how much of a learning organisation you can become. As these practices make you leave your comfort zone, the safe space in which you know how to operate already, you will need to define the level of risks you are willing to accept as an organisation. You will encounter setbacks as you progress, which warrants the question which losses are acceptable and which ones aren’t. Good ways to identify these can be a crazy ideas brainstorm, in which colleagues should leave trodden paths as much as possible and think out of the box, or a premortem analysis, in which colleagues imagine several ways in which the project that is about to be implemented will fail.

Combine these approaches with a culture that destigmatises failures (given they are accompanied by a learning attitude that is geared towards improving yourself and your work), and you will come a lot closer to seeing the spark of collective learning lighten in your organisation.