PMLLblog summary of Learning and Organisational Learning

This post will focus on the learning component of the lessons learned process. Maqsood (2006), Maqsood et al. (2004) and Duhon and Elias (2008) all highlight the need to understand cognitive psychology when examining the effectiveness of tacit knowledge in the learning process. Maqsood discusses how the human information processing occurs and the need to understand: ‘perception and recognition’; cognitive styles (Van Gigch 1991); heuristics and biases in judgement (Baron 1998; Best 1989); functional fixedness and mental set (Baron 1998); and mental models (Best 1989; Johnson-Laird 1983a). Maqsood further reports that every person has a distinctive learning technique and learning depends on an individual’s capability to effectively acquire and use in a timely manner. Maqsood et al. suggests that when capturing tacit knowledge it is important to ensure that it is not under any bias and is understood in the right context, as incomplete knowledge should be avoided.

Duhon and Elias (2008, p. 1) describe learning as ‘…any increase in knowledge or skills that enables the learner to be more effective’ in achieving their objectives. When faced with a problem, an individual should: collect and evaluate data, assess the situation; develop objectives and identify alternatives; evaluate alternatives, select the most appropriate; and then take action to implement. Learning will be impaired if there is a failure at any of these steps. Duhon and Elias developed a decision process model to understand the learning limits and describe how the fields of psychology, decision theory and sociology are important in understanding why learning is difficult. Duhon and Elias describe the influence of: heuristics and biases (psychology); sense making; team psychology and sociology; naturalistic decision making;

Source: Duhon and Elias (2008), (Argyris 1999)

and action science (theory of action) based on Argyris (1999) model I and II. Duhon and Elias summarises that learning on projects is difficult considering that most projects are complex undertakings (Von Zedtwitz 2002). Duhon and Elias note that project team members develop different views as to the learning’s and when they commence the next project their memories will fade.

Project teams often know they are in trouble however they take no or limited action to correct mistakes, as admitting faults may cause embarrassment (model I) (Von Zedtwitz 2002). Typically project reviews often don’t have an impact as the team becomes defensive and argues against problems rather than implement recommendations (Duhon & Elias 2008; Von Zedtwitz 2002). Duhon and Elias report that the same face-saving, defensive post-mortem attitude weakens the lessons learned process and hides the real problems of the project. When a problem is recognised they are biased to learning the least-threatening lessons (model I, single loop learning). Duhon and Elias (2008, p. 5) state ‘The more important a lesson is, the more difficult it is to learn’. They re-iterate that most of what we learn is unactionable and that many project problems are caused by model I behaviour (Duhon & Elias 2008; Von Zedtwitz 2002). Model II behaviour is seen as difficult to achieve as project team members are typically not open and trusting in difficult situations. Industry as a whole should be learning from others mistakes, however this is countered by in-group favouritism (Duhon & Elias 2008). If we view others as substandard to us, we then don’t believe we can learn from them. Another issue is that it is often hard to get relevant information on what went wrong. Duhon and Elias conclude that the current project management culture environment highlights that there is a need to examine if the aviation safety practice of just culture would have a positive impact on project teams learning.

Reflection learning has also been recognised as playing a key part in project learning (Julian 2008; Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995; Raelin 2001; Smith 2001; Williams 2007, 2008) and can also be viewed as double loop leaning (Argyris 1994). Senge (1990) presents the need for reflection reviews and states that unless those lessons change working practices no organisational learning has taken place (Atkinson, Crawford & Ward 2006).

The review of learning literature re-enforces that people factors influence the success of the lessons learned process and that a learning organisation culture is critical to successful dissemination of lessons learned (Fernie et al. 2003; Sense 2007). The shift from the individual to the organisation is not straightforward. The work of Senge (1990) motivated companies to become learning organisations. The other particularly influential author was Nonaka (1991, 2007) and Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995). Nonaka (1991) described how Japanese companies working in innovation created knowledge-creating companies. Simon (1991, p. 125) states that: ‘All learning takes places inside individual human heads; an organization learns in only two ways: (a) by the learning of its members, or (b) by ingesting new members who have knowledge the organization didn’t previously have. …What an individual learns in an organization is very much dependent on what is already known to (or believed by) other members of the organization and what kinds of information are present in the organizational environment. …Individual learning in organizations is very much a social, not a solitary, phenomenon.’ Simon further reports that cognitive psychology concepts used for human learning can and should be applied to organisational learning research.

Strang (2003) discusses the difficulties and provides a valuable insight into organisational learning theory. Strang recommends further research around organisational psychology factors that may explain why organisational learning methods are not applied even though the belief is that these practices would improve organisational project performance but rarely applied in practice.

Garvin (1993) discusses five main activities to becoming a learning organisation: 1) Systematic problem solving (based on quality plan, do, check, act cycle.); 2) Experimentation (use of demonstration projects.); 3) Learning from what went before (companies need to review both failures and success and document the lessons learned, unfortunately most fail to learn and allow knowledge to leave. Garvin sights the Boeing example of learning from the difficulties of different production lines.); 4) Learning from others (benchmarking and applying best practice), 5) Transferring knowledge (knowledge needs to spread rapidly and efficiently).

There are two themes that constantly surface from the literature as important; people culture and organisational structure. Duhon and Elias (2008) argue that an organisation knows something if just one person knows it and that the organisation culture and structure enables that knowledge event to be used effectively on an organisational issue. Duhon and Elias (2008, p. 5) define organisational learning ‘…as an increase in the knowledge or skills of individual members of the organization or a change in the structure, processes, or culture of the organization that enables the organization to be more effective at planning and implementing actions that achieve the organization’s objectives.’ They reference actions such as; individual learning; storage of knowledge that makes it available to others – checklists and work processes; organisational changes that re-focuses knowledge; culture changes to open and act on problems; and relationship building that enables skills and knowledge to deal with organisational problems.

Duhon and Elias (2008) state that people learn by processing information using the human central nervous system. An organisation does not have a central nervous system, so they need to create a structure to enable their personnel to learn (collect and analyse, transfer/disseminate and apply) as a group. Duhon and Elias find that individual learning is a cognitive (psychological) process and for an organisation the learning process is social. Duhon and Elias suggest that organisations collect and disseminate knowledge using organisational learning mechanisms (OLM)s (Lipshitz, Popper & Friedman 2007). Examples of OLMs are: lessons learned studies; after action reviews, communities of practice; work processes; procedures; standards; mentoring; team-building exercises; classroom training.

Individual learning is held back by many people factors and these same factors can affect organisational learning and in some cases there are significant increase effects. Culture continues to have a significant impact in organisational learning and usefulness of learning mechanisms (Duhon & Elias 2008).

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The next post will focus on Lessons Learned Practices.


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