Organisational Learning

Organisational learning, in which leaders and managers give priority to learning as integral to the practice of an organisation, is increasingly recognised as critical to making development organisations work better. In order to make it a priority, we need to understand how and why learning occurs in organisations, why it is an important part of a healthy organisation, and how it can be promoted.

How and why does organisational learning happen?

There are a number of theories on how and why we learn within organisations. One perspective, argued by Huber, assumes that learning happens through the effective processing and interpretation of information that an organisation finds useful. This has been criticised by Easterby-Smith and Araujo for assuming that people and organisations behave according to rational considerations, and ignoring the political agendas that influence organisational behaviour.

A more social perspective, argued by Cook and Brown, recognises that learning emerges from social relationships and interactions, is a political process and is dependent on the culture of an organisation. This leads to a focus not only on formal structures and learning processes, but also on informal exchanges and relationships between staff, and the value placed on learning and knowledge within the culture of the organisation.

An important theory of organisational learning, first developed by Argyris and Schön, is double-loop learning. This involves reflecting on experience and knowledge, and using this reflection as a basis both for action and for critical questioning of the underlying assumptions that previous strategies were based on. Double-loop learning highlights the importance of collective reflection within organisational learning: the need to reflect together on and challenge our deeply ingrained assumptions about how the world works, and challenge them collectively.

As noted by Eyben, undertaking the critical reflection entailed by double-loop learning can be challenging to participate in and to facilitate. Participation risks exposing one’s own mistakes, or appearing to be disloyal to colleagues and friends. It can also threaten existing hierarchies if, for example, junior staff are allowed to reflect on the actions and decisions of senior staff.

Power relations within organisations shape learning processes. Not everyone’s learning or knowledge will be equally valued, and some learning or knowledge might challenge those in power. Individuals and organisations may not wish to reveal knowledge from which they perceive they derive their power; particularly as information generation and exchange is becoming increasingly important in development projects. This raises the possibility that important knowledge is not shared or imparted for fear of the loss of power this may entail.

This has implications for the structures which facilitate organisational learning within an organisation. These structures need to be both formal and informal, encourage trust amongst staff, allow staff to learn collectively, and support staff to engage in free and honest conversations. Learning processes also need legitimacy, so organisational learning needs to be supported by strong and engaged leadership.

Roper and Pettit acknowledge that much of the organisational learning literature is aspirational, as individuals and organisations struggle to ‘unlearn’ dysfunctional behaviours which undermine supportive institutional structures for learning. This highlights the challenges of initiating and sustaining organisational learning processes.

How to can learning be promoted?

If organisations are to create an environment that is supportive of double-loop learning, they need to be able to ask how and why an intervention has been successful. This requires understanding the complex set of factors that led to a particular outcome, and the assumption on which interventions have been based. Methodological innovations, for example the Most Significant Change tool developed by Rick Davies and Jess Dart and the Theories of Change tool used by the UK Department for International Development, offer ways of building and articulating such an understanding.

The internal structures, rules, procedures and culture of organisations create strong incentives or disincentives to learn. For example, the systems and structures of an organisation mediate the ability of staff to interact, collaborate, and communicate with each other. If these are integrated, Preskill and Torres argue, they can create opportunities for mutual learning, but traditional organisational structures often create silos, which may lead to disincentives for cross collaboration and learning.

Integrated management systems can go some way to address this by creating incentives for cross-team working. However, such systems need to be reinforced by the culture of an organisation. For example, an organisational culture that rewards staff for disbursing funds can create incentives to act quickly and manage multiple projects, leaving little time for learning, unless learning is equally rewarded and recognised.

The capacity of an organisation to be open and confident enough to encourage a culture of critical self-reflection and dialogue is intrinsically linked to institutional incentives. These should not be confined to formal structures and approaches, because learning happens both formally and informally.

Recognising that learning often happens informally has led to the development of learning methodologies such as ‘open spaces’ and ‘unconferences’ – attempts to formalise informal learning and also provide safe spaces to discuss issues people feel less comfortable discussing in more formal or structured settings. These sorts of informal spaces could form part of the institutional structures and incentives that support learning through monitoring and evaluation.

Hailey and James have argued that the single most important incentive for organisational learning is a learning leader, someone with a positive attitude towards learning, and who practices it themselves. Learning leaders form a critical part of a learning culture which creates incentives for staff to take risks.

The value an organisational culture puts on learning is closely related to their attitude towards mistakes. Organisations evaluate their mistakes in different ways. If an organisation regards mistakes as failures, the incentive for staff is to hide their mistakes away and learning at the organisational level will not occur. However, if an organisation regards mistakes as sources of learning, the incentive is for staff to reflect on, discuss and learn from mistakes and be less fearful of taking risks.

Learning for accountability

The purpose for learning within an organisation will be affected by power relations. Development organisations can be accountable in different directions. Accountability may be upwards, to donors; horizontal, to partners; or downwards, to beneficiaries. But many development organisations have distorted upwards accountability, so that they are ultimately accountable to donors, but not the communities they work with. This can result in learning systems that do not address downwards accountability as well as they address upwards accountability. The distorted incentive appears to value the knowledge and learning that donors demand, rather than the knowledge and learning that other stakeholders value or require, which would lead to more bottom-up learning being captured.

This points to the importance of the quality and nature of the upwards accountability relationship in providing the incentives to learn from the bottom up. It also suggests that upward accountability needs to be balanced by horizontal and downward accountability, with systems that build sufficient trust to be able to give honest feedback – often difficult when hierarchy and resource dependence makes honesty difficult.