A case study of a failed learning system
When lesson learning failed in the Australian Defence Force, they blamed the database. But was this all that was at fault?
Here’s an interesting 2011 article entitled “Defence lessons database turns off users”. I have copied some of the text below, to show that, even thought the lessons management software seems to have been very clumsy (which is what the title of the article suggests), there was much more than the software at fault.
“A Department of Defence database designed to capture lessons learned from operations was abandoned by users who set up their own systems to replace it, according to a recent Audit report. The ADF Activity Analysis Data System’s (ADFAADS) was defeated by a “cultural bias” within Defence, the auditor found. Information became fragmented as users slowly abandoned the system”.
So although the article title is “defence lessons database turns off users”, the first paragraph says that it was “defeated by cultural bias”. There’s obviously something cultural at work here ……
“Although the auditor found the structure and design of the system conformed to ‘best practice’ for incident management systems, users found some features of the system difficult to use. Ultimately it was not perceived as ‘user‐friendly’, the auditor found. Convoluted search and business rules turned some users against the system”.
….but it also sounds like a clumsy and cumbersome system
“In addition, Defence staff turnover meant that many were attempting to use ADFAADS with little support and training”.
…with no support and no training.
“An automatically-generated email was sent to ‘action officers’ listing outstanding issues in the system. At the time of audit, the email spanned 99 pages and was often disregarded, meaning no action was taken to clear the backlog”.
There needs to be a governance system to ensure actions are followed through, but sending a 99-page email? And with no support and follow-up?
“It was common for issues to be sent on blindly as ‘resolved’ by frontline staff to clear them off ADFAADS, even though they remain unresolved, according to the auditor”.
Again, no governance. There needs to be a validation step for actions, and sign-off for “resolution” should not be developed to frontline staff.
“Apart from a single directive issued by Defence in 2007, use of the database was not enforced and there were no sanctions against staff who avoided or misused it”.
There’s the kicker. Use of the lessons system was effectively optional, with no clear expectations, no link to reward or sanction, no performance management. It’s no wonder people stopped using it.
So it isn’t as simple as “database turned off users”. It’s a combination of
- Poor database
- Poor notification mechanism
- No support
- No training
- No incentives
- No governance
- No checking on actions
It’s quite possible that if the other items had been fixed, then people might have persevered with the clumsy database, and it’s even more likely that if they built a better database without fixing the other deficiencies, then people still would not use it. A
What they needed was a lessons management system, not just a database.
So what was the outcome? According to the article,
…..establish a clear role and scope for future operational knowledge management repositories, and develop a clear plan for capturing and migrating relevant existing information ….. prepare a “user requirement” for an enterprise system to share lessons.
In other words – “build a better database and hope they use it” Sigh.
Tags: failure story, learning from experience, lessons learned