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  • Andy

How Organisations Can Learn To Learn

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Recently, I delivered a talk called ‘The roles of learning and emotions in systems change.’ (If you’re interested in watching the recording, you can do so here.) For me, it was very much an ‘exploring aloud’ talk – I have developed a few ideas and I wanted to test them with other people. This was the third time I have delivered the talk, and each time the discussion seems to be getting better and better.

My reason for writing this talk in the first place was an intuition that the vast majority of workplaces are ‘getting learning wrong’ – if they’re doing it at all. Being a part of the Human Learning Systems Collaborative, a network of organisations arguing and actively demonstrating (among other things) that we need to make learning a central focus of work, I wanted to dig into more detail about what exactly we thought this thing called ‘learning’ was.

In a nutshell, I think learning plays three roles in systems:

  1. It helps us learn and adapt to the ever-changing complexity of the world we are trying to navigate

  2. It helps us to build deeper, trusting relationships with others (this is shared learning), and

  3. It is a fundamental need both of individuals and entire systems, therefore learning is a vital ingredient of good health.

And I think that if learning is an essential component of a healthy system, then perhaps emotion (rather than reason) is the thing that can get us there.

I’ll explore this in more detail in future blogs. But right now, I’m less interested in what I think than in what I heard from others yesterday.

The first thing that jumped out to me was Sam Spencer (find him on Twitter at @rethinkingserv) making the point that “You can’t delegate learning – and yet we do.” His point was that so much of our learning comes from the experiences we have. The people who are truly driven by the need to overhaul our current systems of support are the ones who have seen and felt the harm being done to people by the present arrangements. It is this emotional experience that creates in them an understanding that ‘We must change this.’ This experience is not something we can neatly translate into words and share in a written report. And yet this is how so much of learning is currently structured – senior leaders ask others to investigate something and report back to them.

The problem with this sort of delegated learning is the assumption that all learning is about knowledge and it simply is not. As Sam said, much of what he has learnt has come from the experiences he has had, and the only way for other people to learn those things is to go through the same experiences. This is a deep, deep structural problem. The more levels there are in an organisational hierarchy, the further the senior leaders are from the reality of what happens at ground level, and the less able they are to understand that reality unless they take steps to immerse themselves first-hand in that reality – to give themselves that experience. There are many initiatives trying to cut through these insulating levels – Poverty Truth Commissions and CEO sleepouts are two that immediate spring to mind – but even they don’t get close to Sam’s point that you can’t delegate this kind of learning. And yet this is how so much of learning is currently structured. Senior leaders – the people who have power or influence in the system – ask others to investigate something and report back to them, and consider that learning sufficient.

Another participant said, “All our ‘reviews’ seem to come up with exactly the same ‘lessons learned’ which makes me wonder if there’s a problem with the term itself – we clearly have learned nothing at all from those ‘lessons’ if we keep doing the same things wrong.” For me, this observation built on Sam’s point. We tend to think of all learning as being about knowledge – as being about things we can express as clear sentences. Sam’s point was that some learning is about experiences. This second person says that there are some things we know, but we don’t want to claim we have learnt anything because nothing has changed as a result. This made me think that sometimes learning is about behaviour change, or about the development of new capabilities – if someone claims to have ‘learned their lesson’ but their behaviour never changes, we want to say they haven’t really learned anything.

So what I think I learned in this session is that most organisations tend to think of learning as knowledge, as things that can be expressed in words. This is one type of learning, but only a small and perhaps more superficial type. As well as this, there is learning that can only come from having certain experiences, there is learning that can only be said to occur if certain behaviours change, and there is learning that only happens when new capabilities have been developed.

None of these three types of learning can be delegated. So, organisations need to start thinking very differently about how they ‘do’ learning. Learning is so more than the accumulation of knowledge – let’s give our approach to it the nuance it requires.

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