Open in new window - Learning Agenda on Local Capacity

Partners Learning Agenda on
Local Organization Capacity Development
The Capable
Guideline Series
#10: A Brief Primer on Organizational
In the last twenty-five years or so, organizational learning has come to occupy a significant place
in the thinking of business corporations. Influenced by the theories of Chris Argyris, Donald Schon
and others, and later by Peter Senge, businesses began to see that change would have to become a
normal part of their organizational culture, if only because resistance to change in a rapidly
evolving world could and would mean falling behind the competition.
Learning is a continuous process that involves the will to improve, reflection, knowledge sharing
and risk. It is a holistic, not a linear approach. The goal is to encourage a culture and knowledge
development systems that will help the organization 20 years down the road, not just tomorrow,
next week, or a year from now. For example, being open to change, willing to make mistakes and
try new combinations helps with succession planning and intergenerational knowledge sharing. In
many ways the process is more important than the result.
Organizational learning involves all levels of the organization, not just top management.
Information has to be used, actions taken. There is little point in conducting evaluations, hiring
people to write research reports when the information gleaned sits on a shelf. Information is meant
to drive internal improvements, not simply to satisfy external expectations.
There are libraries filled with books, stockpiles of research, theories and models to support
organization learning. This Guideline provides a brief primer on some ways in which USAID can
enhance itself as ‘learning organization,’ and help others along the same path.
Among several guiding ideas for effective organization learning is the concept of single and double
loop learning.
Single loop learning is where attempts to solve a problem remain within the framework of the
problem itself. For example, when East Germans during the Cold War wanted to leave the country
and go to the West, this presented a problem to the government. The response was to build a wall
to try to solve the problem. That is a single loop learning type of response: a linear, narrowly
rational way of thinking – people are leaving; we don’t want them to leave; so build a wall to stop
Double loop learning is where the governing variables around the problem are themselves
questioned. Had the East German government questioned the values, assumptions and policies that
led to people leaving in the first place, they could have sought to change parts of their system
rather than build a wall around it. Of course given their view of the world, their stakes, and their
position, a double loop approach would have been (and was) impossible to consider.
However painful or exhausting, double loop learning is a fruitful approach to change. It does not
require a direct switch from one view to another; rather, it provides a willingness to consider
alternative views.
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Obviously incorporating double loop learning and thinking is easier said than done, and as the
above example suggests, involves an element of political will, but the first step is to think
systemically, to recognize that all the elements in an organization, however much they may be
separated by the boxes in the organigramme, are part of a system tied together by underlying habits
of mind, assumptions, and values and that these are worthy of being questioned and thought about.
Thus the concept of what Schon calls “reflective practice” – thinking about what you are doing
while you are doing it. Put another way, it means regularly asking the question “Why are we doing
things this way?”
Schon, in Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987) posits a contrast between what he calls
“technical rationality” in which “professional competence” is the “application of privileged
knowledge to instrumental problems of practice.”1 This is how many institutions (especially
universities) and organizations work, and in turn how professionals in many fields work. In
contrast, he posits a more real world view where uncertainty, conflicting and multiple sources of
information, and complexity, confront practitioners daily – a situation, characterized by what he
refers to as “indeterminate zones of practice.” Incidentally such “indeterminate zones of practice”
mark the development endeavor perhaps more than any other. Pretty much everything we attempt
in development work is fraught with uncertainty, unique contexts, value conflicts and competing
interests. To respond to this reality, Schon argues for the “artistry of reflection-in-action.”
While he directs his critique primarily towards professional education (which for our discussion
would also include the schools that train professionals for work in the development field), as
suggested above, it applies very much to development organizations. As a way to help think about
‘reflection-in-action’ Schon proposes that we look to the way in which artists, designers, architects,
dancers, athletes and crafts-people are trained, all of which rely on coaching, mentoring and
learning by doing. Considering these arenas of learning can help an organization re-think its
approach to learning.
Take the example of a baseball player, with a coach alongside him who watches and comments.
The athlete gradually learns to observe himself, and begins to experiment with different ways to
hold the bat - position the knees, torso, elbows, forearms and hands. At each try there is feedback
(the ball is hit, the ball is not hit, the ball is hit high, the ball is hit low, etc.). The external coach
also gives feedback and begins to see when his feedback has an effect and when it does not and
adjusts and adapts accordingly. The whole process thus evolves to embody ‘reflection-in-action,’
with a resulting improvement in the practice of batting.
When we talk then about learning, and a higher order of capacity development to foster learning,
we need to let go of the conventions of traditional teaching and training. As John Dewey put it, the
Donald A. Schon, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987.
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“…has to see on his own behalf and in his own way the relations between means and
methods employed and results achieved. Nobody else can see for him, and he can’t see just
by being ‘told,’ although the right kind of telling may guide his seeing and thus help him
see what he needs to see.”2
There is no inherent reason why a variation of reflective learning cannot be at the core of a
development organization, whether a small CSO/NGO or a bilateral development agency.
Reflective learning enhances organizational learning not only by opening channels for
development, but also helps verify or validate one’s understanding of others. The ultimate test,
however, is not in the mind but in practice. Regardless of theory, effective reflections are
determined when used appropriately and fine-tuned in daily interactions. Reflective learning takes
skill and practice. As Thomas Carlyle, the English essayist wrote, “Doubt of any sort cannot be
removed except by action.”3
Barriers to organizational learning are often attitudinal and/or structural roadblocks whose impact
on learning is frequently negative. They thwart problem-solving efficiency and increase distance
between people and groups.
Common barriers or roadblocks are:
 Fear of failure, or of being seen as failing
 Resistance to change (inertia, force of habit, custom)
 The elephant-in-the-room syndrome (tacit acceptance of aspects of the organization one feels
it is dangerous to talk about, or perhaps even acknowledge)
 Illusory learning – relying on the ‘rhetoric’ of learning, but not really doing it (calling one’s
organization a learning organization even though it is not)
 Verbal obfuscation (sugar-coating mistakes, errors; an unwitting covering up of the deeper
implications of failures by using jargon and euphemisms to protect oneself against the truth)
 Authoritarian leadership
 Inability, unwillingness to communicate
 Fear of sharing credit for success or of being blamed for failure
 lack of confidence
 Short–term focus
 An excess of routinized functions
 An excess of detailed planning, too much of which can block adaptation and adjustment
 Unwillingness to confront, accept error
 Lack of shared vision about the value of learning
 Entrenched positions (any position in an organization occupied by someone on the basis of
attributes few others are likely to have – kinship connection, tribal affiliation, etc.)
John Dewey on Education: Selected Writings. (R.D. Archambault, ed., Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
1974, p. 151
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (New York; Stokes, 1883), p. 172.
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Lack of time or space for reading, absorbing new ideas, reflecting
Judging such as criticizing, moralizing (psychologist Carl Rogers commenting on
communication said the major barrier to communication lies in our very natural tendency to
judge – to approve or disapprove of the statements of another.4)
The good news is that there are some common bridges – or potential bridges – donors can build
on to help overcome barriers to learning. Some of these bridges are already constructed – it may
be simply a matter of joining (such as a network) and being involved. Other bridges are internal
(such as brainstorming sessions). Following are some ways to encourage a learning environment:
 Fostering networks, exchanges
 Encouraging experimentation by developing contests with rewards for interesting solutions to
 Encouraging learning from failure by allowing some portion of funding to be “at risk”
providing the learning results in demonstrable change
 Encouraging the documentation/publication of lessons, including an approach which
celebrates rather than denigrates those failures that lead to learning
 Supporting exercises in clear jargon-free writing and other forms of communication
 Supporting platforms for research
 Supporting platforms for sharing /debating lessons
 Entering into pooled funding arrangements with other donors
 Providing employees with time to read and discuss, and rewarding them for doing so
This Guideline points to some constructive ways in which to create a learning organization. These
ways are supported by a long and wide literature on learning. Two models central to learning
organizations are discussed: Single and Double loop feedback, and Reflection. Double loop
learning provides an obvious advantage to long term organization development. The idea is to
think several years out – to be proactive in addressing change management rather than reactive.
Double loop learning is a fruitful approach to management; it also requires mature and
sophisticated thinking on the part of those in a leadership capacity.
Reflection is integral to double loop learning. It is one thing to say you are a learning organization;
yet, quite another to be a learning organization. Reflective learning must be ingrained in the culture
and structure of an organization. It is not easy; in fact, it can be difficult, because it means letting
of old habits. Learning is a process. It takes time, effort and a budget.
Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person, p. 330 1961 Houghton Mifflin.
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