Learning as a foundation for engagement – part two

From part one of this series, it is evident that the concept of organisational learning has been around for decades. But it doesn’t appear to have made much impact. For me there are two primary reasons:

  1. embedded defensiveness
  2. over-complicated prescriptions

1. Embedded defensiveness

Shooting the messenger is a practice that in earlier days manifest itself in physical violence and persists today, usually in more subtle punishments. In Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen threatens violence to the messenger that informs her of Antony’s wedding.

The space shuttle Challenger exploding

It is notable, however, that death and injury can still be caused by poor engagement and defensiveness. The explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 can be attributed to organisational defensiveness and a lack of engagement. The Roger’s Commission found that the issue with the o-rings, that caused the disaster, had been know since 1977. The 1986 launch proceeded, despite the unheeded warnings of those who believed the o-rings might fail due to the unseasonably cold weather.

More recently, and closer to home in New Zealand, the Pike River mining disaster appears to be reveal another example of poor learning through organisational defensiveness. On 19 November 2010, a massive explosion killed 29 miners in the Pike River mine. A year later, testimonies from the resulting Royal Commission of Inquiry are revealing how industry insiders were concerned about conditions in the mine in the weeks before the explosion. A Japanese mining expert, Masaoki Nishioka, told the Royal Commission that he advised the mine’s management of his concern’s about the safety of the mine before leaving the mine on October 20. Bernie Monk, whose son died in the mine has found some consolation in that miners are not not so scared to stand up and raise concerns.

In both the cases of the Challenger and Pike River Mine, a common element is the decision makers not wanting to hear news that would impede the progress of their plans.

These are the extreme and public cases of defensiveness. But it manifests itself in many organisations and is the main impediment to better learning. When manifested as the “I know best” attitude, defensiveness suppresses beneficial ideas from the organisation’s rank and file that might reduce costs or spawn innovations. The MacLeod Report, Engaging for Success articulates the link between innovation and engagement:

Gallup indicate that higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation. Fifty-nine per cent of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas against only three per cent of disengaged employees. (page 12)

the downside of defensiveness and the upside of learning and engagement

Over-complicated prescriptions for learning

Many books have been written about organisational learning, typically offering complex tools and methods to achieve learning. Professional development efforts to implement these ideas are first invested in senior staff, and often the initiatives fail to gain traction further down the hierarchy. Perhaps the tyranny of defensiveness sabotages efforts?  Harvard’s Amy Edmondson comments on this phenomena in this excellent video:

First, many of the early discussions of the learning organization were abstract and without concrete prescriptions for action. Second, the concept is really aimed at the CEO, or other C-level executives, rather than local leaders who are leading focussed work … in the organisation itself – where the real critical work of the organization is done…

It appears that Japanese companies learned to democratise learning decades ago, while Western companies are still struggling to embed learning processes. The diagram below reveals the extent that learning is embedded in Japanese automobile assembly plants. Note that the suggestions generated by Japanese workers far exceed those from Americans and Europeans. (click on the image for a larger version)

Practical tools for engendering learning will be explored in the next post in this series. I would love to hear examples of how defensiveness or over-complication has impeded learning in organisations you are familiar with.

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