Sustaining, learning and moving on – continuously

Reaching the point of alignment between values, strategy and workplace practices brings organisations close to achieving a sustainable momentum of change and a tangible culture of engagement and innovation. This is marked by a continuing process of workplace innovation as aspirations grow with knowledge and experience. It is shaped by actual and perceived future challenges, by a hunger to absorb and deploy external knowledge, and by stimulating and empowering employee involvement and voice at all levels of the organisation.

Sustaining the momentum of workplace innovation is nothing less than the ability to get better and better as an organisation, to anticipate and adapt rapidly to external change, and to stay ahead of the competition. Organisational structures, technologies mand workplace practices can either help or hinder organisational learning and adaptiveness. Leaders need a clear understanding of how they create, share and utilise knowledge at every level of their organisation.

An important distinction has to be made in this context between two important concepts: the learning organisation and learning within organisations. The distinction between the two is that the former represents more than the sum of the people within the organisation. Although organisational learning occurs through individuals, it would be a mistake to conclude that organisational learning is nothing but the cumulative result of individual employee’s learning. Organisations do not have brains, but they have cognitive systems and memories.

The learning organisation is skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights. At the most basic level, organisational learning can emanate from repeated tasks and activities which result in progressive adaptation and greater efficiency. At a higher level, the learning organisation progressively modifies its structures, technologies, practices and cultures to maximise and utilise the learning capabilities of all of its people.

Such organisations have learnt how to learn, with characteristics described by two annoyingly jargonistic phrases: deutero learning and absorptiveness.

Deutero learning is the result of dialogue and reflection in which problem solving, improvement, innovation and strategy are linked by a two-way channel. It starts with embedding the continuous detection and correction of errors and the instigation of improvements within team practices, management roles and behaviours, performance incentives and organisational values (see the Continuous Improvement unit). This is often known as single-loop learning, in which the policies and objectives of an organisation remain essentially untouched. In double-loop learning, the experience and knowledge gained from single loop learning is used to reflect on and adapt these policies and objectives, leading to greater refinement and effectiveness.

In short, single-loop learning asks are we doing things right?’ while double-loop learning asks ‘are we doing the right things?’.

Yet in the current business and political environment, organisations need to master increasingly complex surroundings that are changing continuously. Disruptive technologies, globalisation and social trends develop increasingly rapidly and in unpredictable directions, creating turbulence and forcing adaptive organisations to think continuously about what they are up against. Deutero-learning adds a third loop by asking: ‘how do we know what is right?

In the Employee-Driven Innovation & Improvement module, we emphasised the potential seamlessness of reflection, learning, improvement and innovation from individual and team activity at one end of the spectrum to employee voice in strategic decision-making at the other. Likewise, in Co-Created Leadership & Employee Voice we emphasise the importance of decision-making processes that combine the strategic knowledge of senior teams with the tacit ‘how to’ knowledge of frontline employees to create effective and sustainable outcomes which avoid the ‘implementation gap’. These synergies represent the cumulative effect of aligning practices within each of the Elements, and once again the emphasis is on their interdependence:

If deutero-learning is about those workplace structures and practices that embed reflection, responsiveness and agility, absorptiveness is the capacity to identify and recognise the value of external knowledge and experience, to assimilate it, and apply it to strategic ends ends. ‘Organisations grow through what they know . . . ’, a phrase that underlines the importance of new knowledge for innovation and improvement.

It often surprises us to find how little organisations know about what is happening ‘out there’, whether in terms of technological innovations, new working practices or other factors which influence competitiveness, productivity or employee engagement. Peer-to-peer learning can be one of the most powerful stimuli and resources for innovation and improvement.

Absorptiveness is reflected in many aspects of how an organisation works but some simple measures include:

  • scouting for new and innovative practices through Fresh Thinking Labs online and in person events, as well as other platforms, local networks and personal contacts;
  • asking new employees about what worked well in their previous organisations;
  • creating regular opportunities for managers and teams to discuss what they’ve discovered from customers, social media, conferences or any other source;
  • ensuring that there is an effective forum capable assessing, assimilating and acting upon intelligence received from these and other activities.

You can download an in-depth Absorptive Capacity Self-Assessment Tool developed by Exeter University’s Professor John Bessant.


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