Is the Learning Organisation passé?

Riff Fullan, 03 November 2014
Is the Learning Organisation passé?

Is the Learning Organisation passé?


Having thought in terms of communities and networks for much of the past two decades, I am putting some energy these days into wondering about the place of the organisation. More specifically, about learning organisations. I still believe a lot of the potential of organisations to thrive depends on support for individuals and teams to form and participate in communities and networks both within and outside their borders.


I recently decided to dust off some of the learning organisation ‘classics’, and I wanted to share a reaction to what I saw in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, or more accuratealy the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, of which Senge is the lead author. I was struck by how much of what it had to say resonates with our thinking about how to approach learning and innovation in general. For example, on the idea of ‘practice fields’:


It is impossible to imagine a basketball team learning without practice, or a chamber music ensemble learning without rehearsal. Yet, that is exactly what we expect to occur in our organisations.


I love it! A simple enough and logical point, but how do we do this ourselves? We certainly don’t have a systematic approach. Along similar lines, something that is coming up in our organisational discourse is learning from failure (a component of our internal Knowledge Sharing Award as of this year), though we still aren’t entirely sure how to approach it.


I know Engineers Without Borders has produced a failure report for some years, and last year IFAD held a one-day Failfaire to explore this area, but the reality is few of us in the development sector are really making substantial progress.


One reason for this is the project logic we tend to be locked into for one reason or another. The 3-year or at best 5-year time horizon, the need to specify exactly what will be done and what outcomes and impact are expected – and then to report against those claims – are all barriers to taking more experimental and iterative approaches that promote small investments and correspondingly small failures (if things fail). If we could do this, even the failures would be small enough to be good learning opportunities because the stakes would be lower.


It is not easy to create a practice field, or to try something out in that kind of operational context, but it could make a dramatic contribution to innovation. Here’s a neat exercise that illustrates how innovation can be approached differently and where some of the behavioural barriers come from:




The big message coming from that exercise? Things like prototyping and iteration are important ways to contribute to innovation. This is one of the challenges we at Helvetas are trying to come to grips with: to create spaces (and an organisational culture) that allows for experimentation and embraces failure, not because failure is desirable, but because it is inevitable that some things you try will not work out as planned, and because some of the deepest learning can come out of failure.


What did I learn from all of this? Well, one thing is to occasionally try to break out of the immense flow of new information to look at some of the ‘older’ stuff (The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook was published in 1994). You might just be surprised at what you find – and at what you’ve forgotten 🙂

Riff Fullan

Riff Fullan

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