Organizational wisdom: How do you (un-)learn what (was)is worth being known?

Three wise monkeys, "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil"​. Organizational wisdom, or how not to dwell on "evil thoughts"​. Instead adapt situation-wise and revalorise what is worth being known.

In the Spring, I took a course on Organization Theory and Analysis at Tampere University. All students had to write a first personal memo based on their reading of the article entitled Organizational Learning, by Levitt and March (1988). Below is laid my own reasoning on the matter.

Levitt and March (2016) could delineate three core observations about organisational learning: organisational behaviours are relative to routines, they are history-dependent and goal-oriented towards the accomplishment of established targets. Routines encompass “forms, rules, procedures, conventions, strategies, and technologies around which organizations are constructed and through which they operate […] structure of belief, frameworks, paradigms, codes, cultures, and knowledge that buttress, elaborate, and contradict the formal routines” (p.320).

When they mentioned that routines are “independent from the actors who execute them” (ibid.), I would rather claim that they actually are relative depending on whom is their executer as individuals interpret and understand differently the common culture of knowledge, stories and frames through their own filters, which will subsequently influence their application and implementation of routines (p.323-324).

This explains variations in the enactment of routines based on situational intelligence, one that consists of their intuitive application by individuals throughout their own singular experience. In this respect, “short-term flexibility and long-term stability” (p.327) characterise the process of both individual and organisational learning. Organisations can thereby learn from their members experimentations through, for instance, the development of minimum viable products, whose rapid success or failure allows for organisations to adapt more accurately their operations to fit the reality of their environment.

However, learning isn’t punctual but requires time, not least for it to be adequately reached and at scale throughout the organisation. First, experiential learning involves the identification of what information to keep or discard with relevance to existing routines, how the latter could be supplemented for the organisation to reach favourable outcomes and meet their targets given the circumstances of their present environment (including the consideration of the competition), as well as the manners whereby they could possibly serve in an unknown future. A challenge may then lie in the different experiential interpretation and understanding across levels of hierarchy, between employees and mid-level managers, mid-level managers and higher-level managers, and so on.

How to make decisions as regards what information is worth being added to the key organisational knowledge?

Looking inward, one decisive facilitator is the use of information-systems enabling the record and (more or less automated) transmission and diffusion of information among employees. As information-systems are set to keep track of the most relevant information by members, they allow for good timely sharing of information, then sorted using for example key-words recognition and AI suggestions to ease the classification process that should ultimately increase learning on a variety of matters, including the competition practices by means of benchmarking.

Despite the potential of such powerful technologic tools, not all organisations can afford investing in them. The smaller the company, the less means they will have, which is the reason why, regardless of the size of the organisation, there is a crucial need of having a well-designed and implemented feedback system via the conduct of daily reports and weekly face-to-face meetings for example.

Additionally, frequent face-to-face interactions between members allow to gain more precision about situations, with increased levels of accuracy. The more frequent a routine will be, the more likely it will contribute to the constitution of a common culture and remain influential on the members' daily practices (p.332).

Yet, this might inhibit the level of adaptability to situations because of the structure provided, which could furthermore not fit a specific situation and, therefore, negatively affect the activity in the short-term and overall performance in the long-run. Accordingly, the members of the organisation should not only be trained through clear procedures on how to effectively execute on their tenures and correlated routines pertaining the diversity of activities and roles they may play in the organisation, but also be informed on and well-aware of the salient adaptation of routines by resorting to common sense when facing new variables.

Whereas the authors broach trial-and-error experimentation (p.321), it would be interesting to know more about what could be considered an error given a newly encountered situation or a situation whose variables would be new, what routines (e.g. procedure) would be needed to counter the negative impact(s), whether errors could positively impact the run of activities and eventually contribute to organisational learning.

Besides, considering the age span between employees within organisations, training and learning need to suit intergenerational needs. Learning how to learn may not seem sensible or even shameful for older employees or employees having spent more time in an organisation. Whilst they may benefit from a greater knowledge and understanding of routines, it may be difficult for them to perceive and understand the need to adapt to change. Therein, newly hired and younger employees could broaden their perspectives and provide a fresher approach on how to use routines, their limitations, discrepancies and pitfalls.

So, what kind of routines do you have in your organization? What is your learning system? What information is worth being added to your organizational knowledge and how? Do you have an established feedback system and does it suit your organizational goals and needs? How do you ensure that new/younger employees learn effectively the essential routines and contribute in their revalorisation while experimented/older employees renew their perspective on them? Ultimately, can you claim that your organization is wise? These few questions point out the need of perpetual adaptation for your organization to stay wise and relevant in its field and with all its stakeholders.