What I have learned about learning in organisations

This year, 2015, Framework (the consultancy collective I work in) celebrates its 30th birthday. As well as being a time for celebration, an anniversary is also a good time for reflection. I have been a member of Framework for 15 of its 30 years and during that time I have worked with dozens of organisations. Many of those organisations have asked me to work with them on issues related to organisational learning and knowledge management.

Last week I was asked by Save the Children UK to give a brief presentation to around 70 of their advisers on the subject of ‘Becoming a Learning Department’. The time was short so it was difficult to know what to cover. Preparing the talk really made me think about what I could say that would be of practical use and wasn’t simply a few sweeping generalisations. To try to make it relevant I focused part of my presentation on how learning relates to Save the Children’s theory of change. I also introduced the ideas of planned and emergent learning and motive, means and opportunity from my INTRAC paper Organisational Learning in NGOs: Creating the Motive, Means and Opportunity.

After the morning’s event with Save the Children I walked along Euston Road to visit one of my favourite places in London – the Wellcome Collection. It has a great cafe and bookshop and over coffee I was thinking about my experience earlier that day. It is some time since I wrote the MMO paper, and the discussions following my presentation prompted me to reflect on some of the nuggets I have learned over the past few years about learning in organisations. In his book, Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance, Atul Gawande writes about how he makes five suggestions to his medical students. The fourth suggestion is “Write something … You should not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself …Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.” Whilst I was browsing in the Wellcome bookshop after my coffee, I came across Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned at Architecture School. At an early age I hoped one day to become an architect and I love books that encourage visual thinking so I quickly became absorbed. I could see how the format – a graphic and a few sentences or paragraphs of accompanying text – was liberating for the writer – no need to develop a well-argued narrative structure, just get the ideas out! I decided right then to try writing my own version – exploring learning in organisations.

So I have set myself the challenge to write about things I have learned concerning the reality of learning in organisations. Most will be ideas that have emerged from my experience of working with thoughtful and dynamic individuals in the organisations with which I have consulted. Others may be new perspectives on topics I have written about before, that seem to have stood the test of time. Some I hope to be able to illustrate – using the format of the 101 Things series. All will focus on the demands and realities of organisational learning in the real world … and there may even be the occasional rant. I’m about to start writing the first one now.

The illustration in this post is by Tamsin Haggis. You can find more of her wonderful work at http://tamsinhaggis.blogspot.co.uk


One thought on “What I have learned about learning in organisations

  1. Here’s a few for you:
    –Anyone can identify what’s wrong. It takes much more skill and courage to identify what’s right, what’s possible, and where change feasibly can occur.
    –Even when there are systems for feedback in place, my experience is that funders especially are often ill-prepared and ill-equipped to hear it, let alone, respond to the feedback.
    –Whether or not one has a clue about “local realities” depends not on their location, but on how often they ask this question and how they conceive of and conduct their roles.
    –The ability to display warmth and quickly establish rapport with people may be considered a “soft skill” but I think it’s probably the most challenging and most important skill for people to build.
    –It’s not abstract metrics that help people – especially grassroots leaders – understand their relationship to improving the well-being of the people they serve. One can monitor through data, but also through dialogue.

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