Is it possible for an organisation to learn?

Can organisations learn, or can only people learn? Some thoughts on the subject.

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We often hear about “organisational learning” but is learning something that organisations actually can do? Or is learning the province of people and animals? (Let’s put machine learning aside for the moment – that is another discussion).

There is a school of though that learning is a human attribute- that only humans are able to learn. After all, learning  requires a memory in which new knowledge can be stored. Humans  have a memory, but do organisations?

You could argue that organisations have two memories – one if the collective memory of the individuals in the organisation, often reinforced through stories and “shared experience”

The second memory is held in “the way we work” – the processes, procedures, doctrines, structures, norms, behaviours, organigrams, and the stories that are told. As one project person said to me – “our standard process is made up of all the lessons we have learned over the years”.

The first memory comes and goes with the people, and the effect of this can be observed in the cycles of unlearning you see in some organisations, where the same mistakes are repeated on a 5 to 10 year cycle as the older staff retire. The second memory is potentially longer-term, and survives the changeover of staff, but is also slower to build up and slower to respond to events.

However I would argue that this deeper slower memory is where real organisational learning can take place. An organisation, through activating learning activities and learning cycles, can steadily but surely change the way it operates, in response to events and to new experiences.

So, yes, organisations can learn. Organisations can modify their behaviour as a result of experience, and that, surely, is a form of learning. Maybe its more mechanistic than intuitive learning, maybe they don’t learn as fast or as well as a human does, maybe they learn more like the way a dog learns.

However I believe that organisations can learn if they develop a structure for learning. The bigger question is why don’t they learn better, and more often?

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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