Call us: +44(0) 1291

Posts on Jan 1970

Why Learning Organisations Fail


The literature on contemporary leadership and management is brimming with exhortations to learn and adapt. Laudable as this approach is, however, it is often flawed. First, in both business and public service, it is often based on an oversimplified understanding of learning, which confuses learning with training, ignoring the distinct value of education. Second, education (planned learning through reading, listening, observing, thinking and discussion) is often seen as inferior to action and hands on experience. Nobody has the time to sit back and think about what they do and how they could do it better, because they are too busy doing it.

This is not a plea for education for education’s sake however: it is a plea for a proper understanding of education and its place in organisational learning. An understanding which recognises that learning is a combination of education, training and experience, which work together synergistically: the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. A synergy, whose product, might fittingly be described as wisdom.

In the first place, it is important to note that training and education share a number of similar characteristics, not least of which is that they are both planned learning. Yet, for the purposes of clarity, it is useful to think of the two terms existing on a spectrum, with education at one end and training at the other. A colourful illustration of the difference is to ask a parent to consider their reaction to the provision of sex education in their child’s school, and then ask them to consider the provision of sex training…

Suffice it to say that training is concerned with the mechanics of how something is done, while education provides a broader understanding beyond the purely practical.

Training has narrow goals and concerns the right way to do something. It is a planned and systematic effort to modify or develop knowledge, skills and attitudes. Its purpose in the work situation is to enable an individual to acquire abilities in order that he or she can perform adequately a given job or task. Fundamentally, however, there is no choice about how it is done. Training is learning for a specific purpose or end. An individual can speak about being ‘well educated’ without specifying what they have learned, but to be ‘trained’ is to be trained to do or to be something specific.

So, while the benefits of intellectual development in support of specific tasks or functions is without doubt, a system based solely upon narrow functional expertise and uniformity is counter-productive in an environment that requires flexibility and adaptability.

Likewise, the benefit of hands on experience goes without question, but as Frederick the Great observed, if experience were all a great general needs, then the greatest would be the mules who carried the army’s baggage. Frederick’s point was that thought, and the faculty of reflection and learning, is what distinguishes people from beasts of burden: a mule who has carried a pack for ten campaigns will be no better tactician for it.

It is also well understood that humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to us. We package our experience into objects and events, assemble these into personal theories and propositions, and then use them to understand and deal with our real and imagined worlds. These personalised interpretations pick out some aspects of the situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple and often inaccurate ways.

Experience, therefore, cannot wholly replace education either. Without education individuals and organisations will not reap the full value of their combined experiences, and worse they may draw false conclusions. Some individuals, a brilliant few, may not require the benefits of formal education, their genius allowing them to escape the restricted perceptions of the majority, but to get the best out of the rest of us it is necessary to teach us how to think and give us the time and space to reflect on our experiences. This is not about telling us what to think, that is training or at worst indoctrination, but how to escape the bias, subjectivity, and bounded rationality of our environment.

Not wishing to get bogged down in definitions of education, for our purposes I will describe it as threefold. First, it is the means by which individuals are provided with the intellectual underpinning required of their position and specialisation (think of the difference between sex education and sex training). Second, it is an aspect of socialisation that initiates individuals into the prevailing culture. Third, and at the same time, it provides a healthy scepticism toward the proscriptive nature of training, the bounded rationality of experience, and the dogma of prevailing culture.

In short, education is pre-eminent in developing social power and insight; what the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker has described as a counter to our ‘instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world.’ It is a capability that allows us to overcome our bias and prejudices, and look upon problems and situations with a forever new and untainted eye. Thereby enabling the flexibility of mind required to learn and adapt.

While it is through experience that our collective catalogue of ‘certainty’ grows, thus shaping the development of our training programmes, each positive experience only prepares us meet the same challenge next time, it doesn’t necessarily teach us to handle anything different. For most of us, it is only when we make mistakes or experience negative results that we learn and develop other courses of action. Yet, as Otto von Bismarck famously observed, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others,” and such vicarious experience is provided in large part by education (planned learning through reading, listening, observing, thinking and discussion).

Read More