Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 12;   March 24, 2021:

Learning-Averse Organizations


A learning-averse organization is one that seems constitutionally unwilling, if not unable, to learn new and better ways of conducting its operations. Given the rapid pace of change in modern markets, one wonders how they survive. Here's how.
Don't tell me anything I don't already know

Don't tell me anything I don't already know

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 know
organization 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.

Last words

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? Go to top Top  Next issue: Way Too Much to Do  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs 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!


[Senge 1990]
Peter M. Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Back
[Brunsson 1998]
Karin Brunsson. "Non-Learning Organizations," Scandinavian Journal of Management, 14:4, (1998) 421-432. Back

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