Two important rules of the learning organisation that you won’t study in an MBA yet they are ignored at great cost.

The learning cycles described by    Sekar Sethuraman CISSP,CISA,CISM,CGEIT,CIA,PMP is in my view an excellent starting point that would most likely be a significant achievement to formalise and encode into almost any organisation.

My personal experiences apart from academic interest are around :

  1. What we often call “lessons learned” i.e. the constant adjustment to circumstances and to the perceived results of our previous actions.
  2. The impact of swarm intelligence on our ability to learn and teach.

Lessons learned, maybe we should not be doing it at all?

In the area of Project Management, few organisations do anything at all about “Lessons learned”  though virtually all would express a regret about this. In truth , doing nothing formally is not doing nothing after all and hence informal learning continues. Is that better, or worse? Well it’s not a clear-cut answer.

In the past year I returned for a period to the area of managing risk in an uncertain and volatile environment with vague rules and little explicit information.  A classic example of this environment is day trading , or any kind of investment banking activity, bookmaking, military activity, espionage, football  and a long list of less glamorous situations.  Football is too tricky for this discussion  because  there is almost no conscious decision making involved.
The reason I choose to discuss these more obviously volatile environments is because they are more like real life only sped up enough to trigger human emotions and  for people to  learn from trends  and responses  that otherwise  might remain hidden. i.e. because you see the results of your actions soon enough to make an association you have a chance to reflect on the actions and the outcomes that in normal, snail’s pace life , would remain hidden from most people .

Actions and results are two key elements of all learning. John  Boyds OODA loop is a wonderful example of this.  What Boyd recognised is the need for “ Sense making” and this is the key, because learning without doing this effectively is to learn things that are patently wrong. The equivalent Is to put arsenic in your coffee cup.
In a fast moving environment we see every day people who pushed  a button a and felt a shock up their leg. Like the pigeon learning to select the right beans, he stops pushing the button, because he assumes a relationship between the two. How quickly he makes this assumption and how rapidly he reacts is directly related to his self confidence and very quickly you can see the cookie crumble to a pile of dust.  Burned out traders are almost as common as arrogant and broke ex-traders.
The answer lies in the ability to ignore what you hoped or expected to see, question what you do see and only act on proven information while filing the rest away for another day. The ability to do this is much scarcer than you might think.

Lessons learned can be formally handled in a project management environment and these lessons ingrained in culture at which point they will become pervasive until they need to be superseded.

That leads us neatly to the other area:

Swarm Intelligence or Hive Mind has most of us  firmly in her grasp.

Swarm Intelligence , or Hive Mind as I prefer, or in simpler terms culture is a far more pervasive and more potentially damaging force than most observers realise , in particular when it comes to learning.  Ask Paddy Power Bookmaers.- Paddy Power Left ‘Red Faced’ After Early Payout on Greek Vote. They trusted the wisdom of crowds and learned an expensive lesson.

Surowiecki had a bestseller and started a wave of books that appeared to discover something new in old wisdom , only to be widely discredited later.

According to Jesse St Charles of University of Tennessee at Chattanoogai, there are specific rules that define a swarm or flock:
1. The rule of separation. Think of a flock of birds flying in close formation but never  make contact physically. There is an unwritten rule that keeps them a certain distance apart and that rule alone defines where they go. Watch the starlings over Rome about this time of year.

  1. Cohesion. The birds all use the same patterns of flight and movement and even squeak and defecate in unison.
  2. Alignment. They gauge their direction by where everyone is going and align themselves
    4. Type recognition. A flock of starlings will never allow a crow to join, nor will he try

Once these rules are in place, the bird has waived all control over his own brain and simply follows the pack.  In all group based creatures this can be seen and it mostly likely stems from the safety of being in a group and ideally close to the centre.

Parallel this to the Stanford Prison experiment when a group of well bred and highly intelligent students from the top 5% or so of Americans were given roles and group structure in two opposing groups; Prisoners and warders and left to enact this for the benefit of a study.  If you don’t know what happened, I urge you to read this:

I am not commenting about the scourge of starlings in European cities, or the capabilities of the human given the right opportunity, I am simply pointing out that once an individual has identified his or herself as belonging to a particular group a large part o his/her brain is surrendered to the perceived group intelligence and the power of the written or unwritten rules of that group prevent learning anything that  contradicts the group in any small way


If you are engaged in deepening the learning of your organisation, or team bear in mind two extra rules:

  1. Unless you adjust the culture of your hive so that learning and changing is a source of social acceptance and security, all you efforts will come to nothing.
  2. Sense making, for adults in a business means something different than in teaching and learning. People’s emotions play a huge role in how they perceive the effects of their actions, what they learn from what they see and even what they see. If you want to create a learning organisation, you must teach and assist people to collect and observe the results of their actions in an objective way, make and execute good decisions at the right time and police their emotions against rash reactions, or unearned self-doubt.

Perhaps the short description of all this is leadership, the thing mankind craves for more than anything


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.