How and how well do organisations learn?

19 October 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

There’s a lot of emphasis on being a learning organisation nowadays. But how and how well do organisations learn in practice? Based on my experience of consulting to funding organisations in Europe and North America, I draw insights on 1) how staff understand learning and what opportunities they have to learn; 2) how well staff actually learn and 3) what senior managers can do to improve learning among their staff.

How is learning understood and what opportunities are there to learn?

Staff within organisations broadly interpret learning as the acquisition of knowledge or a skill aimed at improving one’s own practices. Learning is ongoing but also happens through deliberate and structured processes. Although learning happens on one’s own, it is more effective when done with others through conversation and interaction. Learning is also political. For example, creating and funding space to learn means that it needs to be a priority, which in turn requires senior management approval, to, for instance, set in motion particular processes and release funds. This challenges the traditional idea that learning is a technical process that takes place within individuals’ heads or in organisational systems and structures.

Learning is more likely to happen during specific times when people had opportunities (often with others) to examine and discuss information (including experiential, research-based and practice-based knowledge) and consider what it implied for their work. I group these opportunities into five categories:

  • Mandatory processes, which include requirements to produce inception reports, completion reports as well as mid-term reviews and evaluations.
  • Regular corporate routines, rhythms and spaces, such as individual learning plans (often as part of appraisal processes), regular team meetings, annual organisation wide meetings and organised but informal coffee breaks.
  • Ad-hoc or discretionary (but intentional) processes, which included one off workshops, meetings and lunchtime seminars.
  • Unintentional and informal processes, which included chance meetings in hallways, in stairwells, over watercoolers and during mealtimes and breaks.
  • Formal information management systems, including intranet systems which aimed to collect, store and disseminate various information.

Some opportunities could give rise to others. For instance, informal social interactions among staff might on occasion lead to more structured/intentional interactions later on.

How well do staff learn?

The most pressing challenge to learning that staff generally face in funding organisations is extreme time pressures. This meant that learning is often dropped for more pressing organisation-wide priorities which often includes ‘getting money out of the door’. This is partly shaped by external political pressures on organisations to communicate success, particularly around quantitative targets and cost effectiveness.

Ad hoc, discretionary and informal spaces, places and processes tend to be more conducive to learning than mandatory and routine corporate processes. For instance, working groups set up to further knowledge on a specific issue tend to generate rich discussions. Ad hoc meetings set up by grant-makers for their grantees, exchanges around the margins of formal meetings, and one-to-one conversations were also considered fruitful.

Formal routine spaces on the other hand tend to be filled with routine agenda items where the focus is on quantitative reporting against indicators and targets. During such meetings, people find it hard to admit challenges and difficulties openly (which is key to learning and improving), due in part to an aversion to risk across organisations. Given the pressure to disburse funds, there’s also a tendency to talk about future priorities and plans, rather than looking at the ‘here and now’ and identifying key lessons.

Within specific units and divisions, when learning takes place, it often happens on a project-by-project basis rather than across a portfolio or collection of projects. In some cases, this is encouraged by requirements, as mentioned above, to produce certain documents at various stages of the project cycle, such as a project inception reports and evaluations. Grant-makers spend a lot of time completing such documents. But such documents tend to primarily serve as an accountability tool, emphasising what funds are being spent on, rather than as a learning tool, emphasising how funds are being spent. Once reports are filed, they are unlikely to be accessed voluntarily by other grant-makers through internal information management systems.

Nevertheless staff do their best to learn across portfolios. But they do not always have the support to do so. This might include being given resources to hire a consultant to help them synthesise information, or to hold an away day to aid reflection and learning amongst a team.

Various people up and down the hierarchy in organisations have varying levels of capacity to shape learning processes. These range from 1) top level managers who can issue specific mandates and facilitate knowledge exchange among different units across the organisation, 2) managers of specific units who have the authority to provide the formal space for those immediately below them in the hierarchy to acquire knowledge and put it into practice, 3) grant-makers who manage the organisation’s grants and relationships with grantees and 4) those responsible for coordination and operations. People who could provide important perspectives aren’t always part of key conversations that informed people’s learning.

On some issues, staff tend to receive formal mandates from top leadership to learn, while on others, they did not. It’s unclear how effective organisation-wide mandates to learn about specific issues are, given learning happens most effectively when it is learner-driven.

Those in charge of specific units and divisions (often middle managers) tend to have some influence in encouraging learning (on certain issues) – despite corporate pressures. In some cases, they might ask staff to focus on delivering implementation plans at the expense of learning, while others might encourage staff to create space and time to learn. In some cases grant-makers’ own commitment to learning might see them ‘bend the rules or go an extra mile to help them and their team to learn from their work.

In most organisations, staff tend to spend a lot of time in their own units or divisions. Routine and mandatory spaces where people can interact across unit/division boundaries tend to be limited. They subsequently struggle to connect with and learn from staff beyond their unit. This has been exacerbated by Covid related restrictions which has taken away those informal opportunities to connect with colleagues in physical spaces (where this happened). When collaboration does happen successfully across units, this tends to happen because of good personal connections among individuals. Smaller, regionally located hubs, which bring together staff across units and divisions offer sites where people can come together to exchange information across boundaries. The heads of these offices can therefore play a helpful role in convening staff and creating space for discussion.

What organisations can do to improve learning

Given this learning about how people learn in organisations, I suggest senior managers in organisations consider the following questions:

  • If staff tend to learn better in discretionary and informal spaces rather than more formal, mandatory and routine ones, what can senior managers do to alleviate some of the constraints so that learning is more likely to take place in the latter?
  • If the quality of learning is shaped by the people who are involved in the conversation/interactions, this raises the question of who is involved in important conversations, who is not, and what impact does this have on the quality of learning that emerges? What can senior management do to promote higher levels of inclusion during learning processes?
  • Some individuals and groups tend to do better at learning from their work than others. One might consider them as ‘frontrunners’ who are learning despite the constraints they are under. What can senior managers do to showcase the work of these ‘learning champions’ as an encouragement to other staff? What can be done to bring together staff who are interested and curious about how to learn more skilfully and adaptively, and to engage in dialogue about how they learn?