True Learning Creates Sustainable Futures

“Change is the end result of all true learning” – Leo Buscaglia

Let me guess. You’ve read a hundred or more articles on the importance of learning to you and your organisation.

So, why is organisational learning so important that people like me keep writing about it?

LEARNING IN A RAPIDLY CHANGING WORLD

Organisational learning is important simply because the world in which we live and work is changing. It’s changing rapidly. Products and services that were once distinctive, elite even, are becoming commoditised (e.g., mobile phone, education).

Driving much of the commoditisation is the digital revolution. Information and communication technologies are ever cheaper, ever smaller, ever more powerful, and ever more creative. They influence almost every aspect of what we do and how we live.

That influence now extends and permeates through social media. Its impact on organisations in all theatres of human life is mindboggling, as is its prodigious growth in such a short space of time.

Facebook and LinkedIn are both a little under 14. Twitter is 11. Instagram is 4.

Facebook has 2 billion monthly active users. LinkedIn has 467 million members. Twitter has 328 million monthly active users. Instagram has 800 million monthly active users.

Their reach has embedded and reinvigorated globalisation. Markets in all products and services are global. Almost no facet of human life and work is untouched by globalisation.

Sadly, globalisation is not just about growth, it’s also driving inequality. This is in part driving social, religious and political turbulence. This is either starting, accelerating or sustaining conflict. There are 58 active conflicts worldwide in which millions of people have died.

And commoditisation, social media, globalisation and turbulence feed off and interact with each other. In turn, the acceleration of each of these forces is the result.

So …

DISRUPT AND SURVIVE

In the context of a changing world, if you don’t disrupt (adapt, innovate or change) to match what is going on as your world changes, your organisation might stay stable. But it is more likely to fail.

Failure, like bankruptcy, occurs in two ways: gradually, then SUDDENLY!

How to survive, even thrive? We need to take lessons from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline.

LEARNING AS DETECTING AND CORRECTING MISTAKES OR POTENTIAL MISTAKES

We’re not good at detecting and correcting errors – the weak signals of impending crisis. We occasionally ignore the blindingly obvious. Why so? Because we don’t or we aren’t willing to ask good questions that enable effective learning (to detect and correct errors or potential errors).

Not asking good questions means we don’t acquire the knowledge we need to identify issues or risks, or to come up with options to address them.

Not asking good questions often means that the information needed to identify issues and risks and to address them is poorly distributed.

Not asking good questions means that the interpretation of information on issues and risks is often biased. It is also often laden with assumptions.

Not asking good questions also means that we either ignore organisational memory, or put far too much stock in it.

FAILING HISTORY 101: ADAPTIVE (SINGLE LOOP) LEARNING

Organisations tend to focus on incremental improvements, building on their history. The questions they ask focus on present issues. They don’t question their fundamental assumptions about the way they work.

History is littered with examples: Blockbuster video stores; Eastman Kodak; Polaroid; Blackberry; Nokia; Borders.

Companies that adaptively learn are learning to cope.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF WHAT MATTERS: GENERATIVE (DOUBLE LOOP) LEARNING

The forces of disruption in the world demand rather more than coping.

To respond to change and growth, organisations have to ask good questions. They need to ask questions about how they define and solve problems.

We need to ask questions that question. We need to ask questions about how we acquire knowledge. We need to ask questions about how information is distributed or communicated. We need to ask questions about information is interpreted. We need to ask questions about “how we do things around here”.

In other words, we need good questions that enable us to examine what, why, when, who and how across every aspect of our organisations.

This is of course a recipe for chaos, and the words learning organisation are not loved by all, but I think that there is a means of conquering the chaos.

We can negotiate order. There is a source of good questions. We can create our future.

CREATING YOUR FUTURE: LEARNING FROM BUSINESS MODELS

What I’m arguing for is what Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO) calls Change by Design (also the title of his great book). Change by design means you deliberately set out to ask REALLY good questions.

There are many different ways that you can approach this. Over the years I’ve used many of them. The best of the bunch by far in recent years is Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation.

In essence, following this approach demands that we ask a series of good questions around customer segments, value propositions, channels, customer relationships, revenue streams, key resources, key activities, key partnerships, and cost structure. Using the answers to these questions we can use design thinking to pull apart and then redesign an organisations business model.

This is true learning at its very best.