Reviews, Process Analysis and Organizational Learning
Is Your Organization Learning Disabled?
Organizational learning is a critical success factor. Learning disabilities get in the way of improving performance and contribute to repeating the dysfunctional behavior that leads to project and performance failures.
Stages in Learning
David Kolb authored one of the many adult learning cycles back in 1984. The model posits that there are four stages in learning each flowing from the other in a cycle: Concrete Experience is followed by Reflection on that experience. This may then be followed by the derivation of general rules describing the experience, or the application of known theories to it (Abstract Conceptualization), and then to the construction of ways of modifying the next occurrence of the experience (Active Experimentation), leading in turn to the next Concrete Experience.
While Kolb’s theory was applied to individual adult learners, I think it makes a great deal of sense in the context of projects and organizational learning.
Process Improvement – Learning from Experience
Process improvement is all about learning from experience. Sometimes it is one’s own experience and sometimes the experience of others, derived from bench-marking or from the application of theories which generally come out of experiences studied by theorists.
Organizational learning begins with performance. Process or project performance represents the concrete experience that starts the learning cycle. Every organization has concrete experience. Learning organizations utilize their experiences while learning disabled organizations simply go from one experience to the next with little or no reflection, analysis (abstract conceptualization in Kolb’s model) or experimentation.
Reviews – The Venue for Learning
Reviews are the means for reflection. They enable groups to reflect on their experience and the experience of others. Reviews (whether they be post project, in-process or operational reviews) of course take time and effort, rare and valuable commodities. They also require getting past blaming and fear of accountability and transparency. The learning organization makes sure the time and effort for reflection are available. The learning disabled organization does not prioritize reflection and organizational learning and therefore does not allocate the time and effort, breaking the learning cycle.
But, don’t start congratulating yourself because you hold reviews. The next step, analysis or abstract conceptualization, is crucial if learning is to take place. In this step the causes of the experienced behavior are identified. Every outcome is caused by something. That something is a process (a set of steps in a particular setting executed by one or more actors). This step requires that more time and effort, in this case by experts who have the capacity to abstract the rules of the process and the applied theories that express them. The learning organization recognizes that everything is caused by something and that unless they analyze the causes underlying their experience they will not be able to intentionally change the way they operate.
But, again, don’t congratulate yourself just yet, because, unless you take the fourth step you are wasting your valuable time and effort. Active experimentation implies changing behavior. Using the results of your analysis, you change the way you approach the next occurrence of your experience. The learning organization recognizes that standards, procedures, tools and methodologies are all subject to change as experience and the processing of it lead us to make modifications based on the analysis of the causes of both effective and ineffective behavior.
Cure Learning Disabilities
Organizational learning disabilities are curable. The cure requires an understanding of the value of continuous learning and the improvement it implies and then taking action to open to the new.
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