Organisational Learning

For schools the concept of a learning organisation should make perfect sense, after all learning is our core business, or it should be. Perhaps that almost three decades after Peter Senge identified the importance of learning within organisations the idea is only now gaining traction in schools tells us something about the approach taken to learning and teaching within schools. With an increased focus on the development of professional learning communities as a response to the complex challenges that emerge from a rapidly changing society, it is worth looking at what a learning organisation requires for success.

As this quote from IDEO CEO, Tim Brown shows, "The traditional way we've thought about leadership—which I would describe as leading from the front, this idea that someone is at the top making all of the decisions—is not the most effective way of unlocking the creativity of an organization, whether it's a traditional design organization, like an Ideo, or a company that's trying to be more creative in the future," he says. "The pace of change, the level of volatility, and the level of disruption across every industry requires that all organizations either constantly evolve, or they get out-competed by someone that's fitter than they are." (Read More)

The concept of a learning organisation can be extrapolated from what it means to be a learner or even what it means to be intelligent. If we see intelligence “the somewhat general capability for and tendency toward complex adaptive knowledge processing in response to or in quest of novelty” as David Perkins describes it in King Arthur’s Round Table we have a broad definition with a focus on our attitude towards problem solving. Intelligence requires in this definition a disposition towards learning as it is in approaching problems as a learner that we uncover new solutions. This definition requires also that we see learning as a process within the control of the individual and as much more than knowledge gathering. Unique and novel problems will not be solved through models of learning which emphasise rote knowledge acquisition but this model should equally fail to satisfy our ideals of intelligence.

A learning organisation is like our individual intelligence because it is able to solve complex novel problems through a process of learning. A learning organisation should have the capacity to cope with novelty and continue to function effectively when confronted by change. Unlike traditional highly managed and policy driven organisations which struggle to adapt to changing circumstances the core strength of the learning organisation is its adaptability. This adaptability relies upon the collective intelligence of the organisation. A simple summing of the individual intelligence within an organisation will fail to provide a reliable measure of this collective intelligence. Many factors will contribute to this measure including the experience each member has with a learning organisation, the quality of the interactions between members and the degree of autonomy and purpose experienced by members.

Certain conditions are critical for the establishment and success of a learning organisation and there are parallels here to the practices of effective pedagogy in an inquiry based learning environment. If our goal is to have every member of an organisation contribute to the learning that occurs then we must establish a culture that allows this to occur. Feelings of safety, acceptance of diversity and risk taking must become parts of the culture. In our classes we establish the conditions where our students feel safe sharing their ideas even when they do not conform with the majority. We establish a belief that there are often multiple correct answers and in doing so foster creativity. The same conditions are required in our learning organisations.  Nurturing a learning organisation is a little like nurturing a garden and Tim Brown echoes this sentiment ""It's about nurturing the conditions in which creativity is most likely to happen, That's really about culture, environment, rituals—the sorts of things that give people permission to explore, that encourage open-mindedness, collaboration, experimentation, and risk taking."

In our classrooms we aim to ask open ended questions and to allow our students to find questions of their own to explore. In our learning organisations the same conditions must exist. Not every problem confronting an organisation requires the deployment of learning organisation. Where the solution is known and there is no need for alternatives to be explored a management approach of communicating the required actions will serve the organisations needs most effectively. Only when the problem is complex, the solution is unclear or there exists a desire to uncover a new way of approaching it should a learning organisation approach be taken. Often though this is not the case. Damage can be done to the culture of a learning organisation when it asked to offer a solution to a problem that has already been solved and for which only the single answer already known by the teams leadership will be considered. This ‘guess what I am thinking’ approach is common in traditional classrooms and beyond checking student knowledge results in little real learning. This approach when applied to a learning organisation damages morale and trains creativity and innovation out of teams.

Learning is a process which demands mistakes. If you are not making mistakes you are not trying anything new. This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of learning organisations for schools. We do not have an option to prototype with anything other than real learners and while each student spends many years at school they get but one turn at each year level. There is an expectation that we will get it right and yet real learning will see us make mistakes along the way. Being certain of our foundational principles and ensuring that we develop in every student the resilience and growth mindset that allows them to bounce back from less than ideal situations will minimise the negative impact of our mistakes. A shift away from a lock-step progression of content based learning moments will further lessen the impact of an isolated experiment gone wrong.

For staff the prospect of a learning organisation should be a positive one. It allows us all to play a part in the decision making processes and to have ownership of it. There are consequences and these need to be factored into the planning and implementation phases. Developing a learning organisation takes time and the decision making process requires more time. Real discussion must be facilitated and collaborative conversations require delicate management. Decisions can not be forced and feedback must be given in ways that encourage ongoing participation. There are new levels of complexity to be negotiated between the individuals and groups that comprise a learning organisation, after all such organisations are made of people and constructed by conversations and dialogue. There are assuredly benefits to becoming a learning organisation but success in this journey will demands careful planning.

by Nigel Coutts