Can organisation's learn?
Fortune magazine's Thomas Stewart recently took a key quote from a Harvard Business Review article by Royal Dutch/Shell's head of group planning Arie de Geus' (Planning as Learning, March/April 1988), which says that "The only competitive advantage the company of the future will have is its managers' ability to learn faster than their competitors."

Managers, OK. But what about organisations. It's a fashionable phrase, right: Organisational Learning. But what does it mean?

Some people, Stewart says, dismiss the whole idea of organisational learning. Knowledge requires a knower and learning requires a learner and knowers and learners are people, not organisations. Organisational learning is a term worth killing, they say. Bureaucrats like it because it allows them to appear trendy without actually changing anything. Best to rubbish the whole idea and get on with conventional education and training.

Hold on, though. What about innovation? We know that some companies are quick to innovate, change, and adapt, while others are not. (The scientific term for the latter group is clueless, Stewart says). Organisational learning may be a bit new age, a bit business magazine trendy, but there's truth that some companies are quicker studies than others.

'Why' is an interesting question. I agree with Stewart, who seems to be saying that the ability of organisations to learn is cultural ('on no', I can hear you saying, 'not another Harvard business Magazine trendy term' bear with me).

Politicians instinctively understand 'culture'. If you are dealing all the time with the way things are, and working for change at the margins, you quickly learn to deal with culture: all the unwritten and often unspoken rules and beliefs and practices that control the actions of an organisation that define 'the way things are'. Some cultures are almost impenetrable, some are obvious as soon as you open the door. Ignore or misunderstand the importance of culture, and initiatives for change will at best go no-where, at worse cause real harm.

The next interesting question: Can cultures be changed to improve organisational learning? Yes, but not easily. The main influence on the speed of change will be the maturity of the existing culture. Long-established, well-entrenched cultures strongly resist change. Culture is also one of those things that cannot be managed directly. You can't get results just by saying, 'Let's change our culture', any more than you can spread joy by saying, 'Don't worry, be happy'.

So if organisational learning is a cultural thing, can changing an organisation's culture make learning easier? Think about how you might change how work is done, removing the old ways, and providing ways to help people get their new work done. Apply cheerleading, counselling, training, the use of new equipment, and the traditional management tools carrots, sticks, and firecrackers.

And the third question: does this matter? If competitive advantage is important to your organisation, then your culture, and your ability as an organisation to learn and innovate, are central considerations. It matters, if survival matters!

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