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The seven ways that the most successful organisations learn

By pa360, Jan 20 2015 06:22AM

Learning is an empowering, enabling and enriching activity for any organisation. When organisations are able to perfect their approach to learning, they know better, can adapt quicker and improve faster than those whose approach to learning is less sophisticated and nuanced. Organisations learn every time they go through a new experience, when they triumph over adversity and when they demonstrate resilience in the face of disappointment or failure. They also learn remotely, by observing those around them such as market leaders and innovators or when they 'live their experiences' vicariously through the actions of competitors and other entities.

For any business learning is not just an important mechanism to ensure sustainability, it is also a critical survival skill. What an organisation acquires through learning can be exploited to create opportunities to diversify, consolidate and compete. The need to learn reveals a fundamental truth about organisations, which is that they do not know it all - whether they think they do or not. That said, how do the most successful organisations learn? What are their habits, traits, customs and practices? Well set out below are seven of the most effective ways.

1. They work on the presumption of ignorance

To learn, an organisation must first be open to learning, but to be open to learning it must accept that it still has something to learn. Sounds straightforward doesn't it? Well yes and no. Sometimes an organisation's need to be right is the biggest barrier to its learning and development. I remember many years ago working in a particular organisation, where the aversion to correction was almost pathological. The entire culture, predicated on the need to demonstrate how a small coterie of 'leaders' were fundamentally right, only served to prove how they were all fundamentally wrong. By contrast, in healthy and self-reflective organisations, learning starts with the presumption of ignorance, not the assumption of rightness. In these organisations the presumption of ignorance is not evidence of stupidity; rather it is an acknowledgement that learning starts with how little you realise, not how much you know.

2. They practice the art and science of educated guesswork

Before learning comes discovery and before discovery there is educated guesswork. In simple terms, an educated guess is an informed judgement based on objective reasoning and common sense. Given the dynamic nature of consumer preference and behaviour, no organisation can ever have a monopoly on knowledge and insight. As such, an organisation's ability to make an educated guess can empower it to probe its operational environment, explore alternatives and learn. The most successful organisations have mastered the art and science of guesswork. They understand that without empirical evidence to guide their decision-making, the likelihood of an outcome may just as easily be determined by plausible probability as hard fact.

3. They have access to a 'mixed-economy' of knowledge products

Healthy organisations subsist on a diet of learning that is varied, balanced and rich in knowledge. They don't just have a hunger for knowledge derived from the same sources, they are also discerning enough to appreciate knowledge derived from different sources. When an organisation seeks or acquires the bulk of its information from the same place, no matter how reliable, it runs the risk of creating an echo chamber that will only serve to confirm biases and preconceived ideas. However, an organisation that learns successfully cultivates a mixed-economy of knowledge products. By so doing, it is able to create a richer picture of its operational environment and make better informed decisions.

4. They understand the difference between linear and lateral learning

In a previous blog, I focused on the distinctive difference between linear and lateral 'momentum'. However, the same spatial constructs also apply to learning. Linear learning is the ability to process experience and insight from where you have come from as well as what you see in front of you. Linear learning is probably the most common type of learning style for most organisations. However, the most successful organisations are also effective lateral learners. Lateral learning is the ability to make connections between events occurring in the peripheral vision (ie: on either side), away from direct line of sight (what is front) or experience (what is behind). Therefore, lateral learning provides organisations with a much more reliable set of reference points to safely navigate their operational environment. Organisations that adopt the lateral learning model will be just as keen to gain insight from those who are not even their direct competitors, as those who are.

5. They assemble the sounding board

Successful organisations are adept at learning because they have worked out not just how best to learn, but also who best to learn from. Specifically, these organisations understand the importance of seeking the views of those who hold contrary opinions, whose judgement they respect and whose input they value. Operating within this space, these organisations are able to draw in a wide range of perspectives by bouncing their ideas off trusted others. One of the unique aspects of the way in which these organisations learn is that they drawn insights from both external as well as internal sources. They recognise that leadership for learning can come from anywhere across the their organisational hierarchy as well as from customers, competitors and interested observers.

6. They sift and sort

For the most successful organisations a basic rule of thumb is that not everything that can be learnt is worth learning about. An organisational 'scatter-gun' approach to learning creates clutter, which needlessly crowds the decision-making space. By contrast, a successful organisation applies the 'need to know' approach to the 'need to learn'. They are therefore able to 'sift and sort' that which is desirable from that which is essential and that which is essential from that which is critical. In addition to enhancing decision-making capability, the application of this approach ensures that skill and knowledge assets can be targeted, economically, efficiently and effectively.

7. They question exhaustively and relentlessly

In the most successful organisations there is a tacit acknowledgement that nothing can be learnt until everything has been questioned. These organisations are innately curious and have a strong aversion to assumptions, even if those assumptions are based on evidence of what has worked before. In addition, these organisation are both forensic and relentless in their approach to learning. They weigh, test and measure available information. By doing so they are able to narrow the margin for potential error in decision-making, anticipate the likelihood of risk and focus their efforts to produce the most desirable results.

In conclusion, learning is how an organisation approaches the need to know. For the most successful organisations this approach is multi-faceted, dynamic and adaptive. As such it is much more likely to create a richer and ultimately more productive learning environment. Any organisation with designs on mastering the art and science of learning must first and foremost know what kind of learner they are. Are they the sort of organisation that acquires information on the basis of what they want to hear or what they need to know? If it is the former, then such an organisation will likely stumble from crisis to crisis, struggling to correct unproductive or harmful behaviours and all the while nourished by the vanity of its own ego. If it is the latter, then such an organisation will approach learning as though it were a vital organ, which needs to be protected and without which it cannot expect to survive. If there is an overarching message from this blog, it is the fact that an organisation only knows what it knows, the rest it has to learn.

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