Until the 1990s, the concept of learning applied mainly to individuals. Since the 1990s, the concept has expanded to include organizations. As put forward by Peter Senge and others, it has provided a fruitful path of inquiry in management science. [Senge 1990] The ability to learn provides organizations the tools they need to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing world.
Not all successful organizations are learning organizations. Certainly there are some that do well even though they don't satisfy all of the elements of the definition of a learning organization. One interesting class of organizations includes those that aren't learning organizations, and which would benefit from enhancing their ability to learn, but which steadfastly and intentionally refuse to enhance that ability. [Brunsson 1998] I call these entities learning-averse organizations.
In this short post I explore in a very preliminary way some of the attributes and patterns of behavior of learning-averse organizations, and the conditions required for their survival.
I begin with a bit of terminology.
- Learning intentionally
- Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge. When learning is intentional and serious enough, we call it study. For organizations, as for people, study is most effective when combined with practice or experience. To learn intentionally, one must begin by acknowledging that there are some things to learn. Following study, a period of practice and integration incorporates the new knowledge into the learner's knowledge base.
- Learning-averse organization
- A learning-averse organization is one whose people believe there is little of value that they don't already know. Its employees believe themselves to be superior; the organization hires only the best. It has deployed practices and procedures that effectively control the flow of knowledge into the organization.
Although learning-averse organizations can still learn, they cannot do so intentionally. When learning does occur, it is often the result of events beyond the control of the organization.
Learning avoidance strategies
The learning-averse A learning-averse organization is one
whose people believe there is little of
value that they don't already knoworganization is selective about knowledge it accepts for entry into the organization. Permissible knowledge is consistent with — and usually replicates or re-enforces — what the organization already knows or believes. When deprecated knowledge does appear, the organization deploys procedures to limit its effects. Opportunities for training and professional enrichment of staff are limited, and those opportunities that are offered are carefully screened for consistency with established thought within the organization.
Intentional learning cannot occur at the organizational scale, but some individuals do learn intentionally. Those who do so cannot apply what they learn within the organization unless it is consistent with organizational knowledge. Because applying something new places their positions at risk, those who engage in intentional learning tend to experience frustration, and then exit the organization voluntarily.
The cultures of learning-averse organizations include a widely held belief that their people and especially their leaders know all they need to know. When compelled to explain why organizational practices differ from the "best practices" of the world at large, the people of learning-averse organizations hold that the world has it wrong.
One scenario that typifies the learning-averse organization is its treatment of capable new hires. The organization believes it hires only the best, and it actually does try to do so. Trouble arises when new hires discover that their competence is valued only as a trophy, rather than as a personal and organizational asset to be used for achieving the organization's objectives. New hires who advocate approaches or ideas that differ from those with which the organization is familiar encounter stiff resistance, because the organization, through its leaders, experiences these ideas as criticism or worse — as an indictment of the leaders' incompetence. Consequences for capable hires who don't "fit in" can range from delayed career advancement to sidelining to termination.
Learning-averse organizations must confront and solve problems, as all organizations must do. However, their approach to problem solving focuses not on resolution but on preserving the state of their knowledge. If possible, they repeatedly defer solving problems, often in new ways each time, rendering the pattern of procrastination difficult to discern.
Learning-averse organizations might adopt the latest terminology to describe their operations, which makes them seem to be aligned with current management thought. But the operations themselves remain largely outmoded despite tracking a range of management revolutions through changes of vocabulary.
Rapidly changing market forces can threaten and destroy organizations that are unable to learn and adapt rapidly enough. Those who believe in the power of today's dynamic markets might be forgiven for wondering how learning-averse organizations could possibly survive.
But some do survive.
Truly unique circumstances are required for learning-averse organizations to survive. For example, a learning-averse unit of a larger company can thrive as long as that parent company is willing to provide adequate resources. Captive business units that provide nonfinancial benefits to their parent organizations provide one such arrangement. Privately held companies in early stages of development can also survive as long as the patience and resources of their owners or investors endure.
Another common structure that supports learning-averse organizations is the protected revenue stream. A stream of revenue from past achievements, combined with a highly regarded institutional pedigree, provides a configuration that enables survival of learning-averse organizations. In the commercial sector, such revenue streams can arise from long-term royalty agreements. The endowments of foundations and academic institutions are noncommercial examples of revenue streams that can support learning-averse organizations.
If your employer seems particularly and irrationally reluctant to adopt innovative approaches to its operations, your employer might be a learning-averse organization. How many of the attributes and indicators described above apply to your organization? Top Next Issue
Is your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Organizational Change:
- Change How You Change
- In the past two years, your life has probably changed. Do you commute over the same route you did two
years ago? Same transportation? Same job? Same company? Same industry? Change is all around, and you're
probably pretty skilled at it. You can become even more skilled if you change how you change.
- Outsourcing Each Other's Kids
- Outsourcing is now so widespread that it has achieved status as a full-fledged management fad. But many
outsourcing decisions lack the justification that a full financial model provides. Here are some of
the factors that such a model should include.
- On Beginnings
- A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to
letdown when our hopes or expectations aren't met. How can we handle beginnings more powerfully?
- Letting Go of the Status Quo: the Debate
- Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere
in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations,
the decision to let go involves debate.
- The Restructuring-Fear Cycle: I
- When enterprises restructure, reorganize, downsize, outsource, spin off, relocate, lay off, or make
other adjustments, they usually focus on financial health. Often ignored is the fear these changes create
in the minds of employees. Sadly, that fear can lead to the need for further restructuring.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info