Why most Organizational Learning initiatives don't work.

For most of my career I have been inside of large organizations.  

I went back to school to get my MBA in the 80’s and joined Xerox during the ascendancy of the Quality movement. I was an executive at a large telecommunications company during the rise of the Internet and the complete disruption of that industry.

 I worked at Ford when the American auto industry was at risk of disappearing and then began to find its way back.  More recently I provided internal consulting to a major change initiative at the University of Michigan, and served in the executive suite of a much smaller privately owned company.  

From the very beginning of my fourth career arc (the first one was as a schoolteacher, the second as a professional musician, the third in the financial services industry – more on the impact each of those careers has had on my understanding of organizations at a later date)

I was interested in how people found their way to personal fulfillment on the job.  Unfortunately, the obvious conclusion was that most folks were not fulfilled most of the time, and in fact were suffering at work and often hated many aspects of their jobs.  

Even when considerable resources were allocated to the development of individuals, teams and functional groups,  my experience was that fear and anxiety were pervasive and prevented real joyful learning (real learning is usually joyful in my experience) from occurring. 

This led me to a deep and ongoing interest in Organizational Learning and Development.  Why, apart from the obvious dysfunctional behaviors, is there so much stress and anxiety in organizations? How do people learn in organizations?  How do organizations learn?  Can organizations learn?

Why most Organizational Learning initiatives don't work.

In the 80’s the idea of Learning Organizations was not yet widespread.  Organizational Development was often little more than Training catalogues and development plans.  These days there is widespread agreement that Organizational Learning is critical to the success of most businesses. And yet, there is little understanding or agreement about what Organizational Learning is, or how to accomplish it, and most efforts to establish a “Learning Organization” have fallen far short of their goals, or have faded away after an initial spurt of enthusiasm. Why is this so? 

It has been our experience that the failure of most Organizational Learning initiatives has been the inability to understand the relationship between the people in an organization and the structures that allow the organization to function in a repeatable, measurable, accountable way. If the “organization” is going to learn, then first its people need new insights, skills, and competencies.  But since the structure of the organization reflect and supports the current understanding of the environment, as people’s understanding changes the structure of the organization must change as well. 

This is why most Organizational Learning initiatives don’t work.  

In these columns over the coming weeks, we will provide an overview of what the components of a successful Organizational Learning approach are, and describe the tools that can be used to understand your organization, and provide powerful interventions that will accelerate your team and organization on the path towards becoming a true Learning Organization.