Measuring Organizational Learning LO19908

AM de Lange (
Wed, 18 Nov 1998 10:52:34 +0200

Replying to LO19846 --

Dear Organlearners,

Roy Benford <> writes:

>As an example of an organisation that has poor
>organisational learning, I would like to suggest my local
>parish council. Recently, I scanned through old minutes
>of meetings prior to sending them to the local archives. I
>found it interesting to note that some topics would repeat
>with varying cycles and the problems were the same. The
>clerk and past chairman, agreed with this view, so the view
>was unlikely to have emerged from some personal bias in
>my information processing. My interpretation of this is that
>the council is not learning or it is forgetting what had been
>learnt. The cycles were typically in excess of 5 years which
>is outside, in my experience, most commercial organisations
>measuring periods.

Greetings Roy,

You have decribe an important phenomenum, the cyclic ocurrance of a
problem within an organisation. I have observed this phenomenum here in
South Africa in a variety of organisations. In some of them I have been a
member and with others I have a close association. Here are some examples
to stress the diversity: parish, municipality, school board, succulent
society, nature conservation, political party, rugby league, customs and
university. But as you write, a very long time of association is necessary
to become aware of this cycle which itself has a long period.

This phenomenum even occurs on our LOlist! However, the cycling period is
much shorter so that it has to be measured in months rather than years.
Herein lies an important clue.

But the phenomenum also occurs outside human organisations in other living
systems like recurring virulent diseases and overpopulation by a prolific
species. Once we perceive the general pattern, we can add even
nonbiological systems like hurricanes and volcanoes. Herein lies another
important clue.

But why does the phenomenum occur in the first place in human
organisations? I suspect that there are two main reasons. The first main
reason is the ablative immergence of existing emergents. Old timers leave
the organisation and novices (not necessarily young people) replace them.
The lack of organisational learning causes these novices to let the
organisation drift away (meander) from its proven practices and the old
timers do not to step in with timely measures. Thus, for this reason, the
phenomenum appears to be a typical cybernetic regulation (control) problem
with ineffective feedback (positive and negative) loops. Three of the five
LO disciplines (Systems Thinking, Shared Vision and Team Learning) can
help to optimise the regulation of the cycle. But we should not forget the
dynamics -- the power of "elementary sustainers of creativity" such as the

The second main reason is the repetitive pushing towards bifurcations for
a new higher order to emerge. Sometimes problems cannot be solved within
the present existing orders. Gen Jan Smuts, the father of holism and
author of "Holism and Evolution", was very sensitive to this truth. (His
political opponents used his sensitivity to this truth to accuse him of
fabianism -- leave a problem long anough and it will disappear.) Here the
LO disciplines Systems Thinking, Personal Mastery and Mental Models can be
of great help. What we have to understand is that the higher the order of
an emergence, the complexer it is and the longer it takes to emerge. Again
we must not forget the dynamics -- the "elementary sustainers of
creativity". In this case the sustainer "problem-solving" appears to step
in the foreground -- the "tool" which we use to forge (hammer)
bifurcations repeatedly until the emergence happens. However, if we
carefully consider the other four sustainers (dialog, game-playing,
exemplar-studying and art-expressing). we will observe how they also are
used as "tools" to create the same bifurcations time and again. For
example, the writing of a novel belongs to art-expressing. It is
interesting to observe how novels helped to forged a specific emergence.

We must remember that the phenomenum concerns the cyclic ocurrance of a
problem within an organisation. Although the phenomenum concerns problems,
is it a problem itself? I hope that I have painted above a picture rich
enough for us to realise that the phenomenum is basically not a problem
itself. It is intimately connected with emergences -- sustaining existing
ones and obtaining new ones. But the phenomenum can be become a hideous,
complex problem when it cannot sustain exisiting emergents or lead to new
emergences. This hideous problem gets aggrevated even more when we deny
"emergent learning" as one of the two legs of authentic learning.

>Perhaps, in stead of measuring organisational learning,
>organisations should be measuring the level of factors
>that inhibit organisational learning to ensure that they
>are low and organisational learning my occur as an
>emergent property of the organisation.

I will second this suggestion! Perhaps we should begin with the eleven
"essences" which Peter Senge considers as vitally important to the
functioning of a LO. let me list them again:

Systems Thinking
Personal Mastery
Mental Models
Love of truth
Shared Vision
Commonality of purpose
Team Learning
Collective intelligence

Senge writes that they are difficult to express in words. Now how on earth
will we measure them when we find it difficult to even speak of them?

Is this "desire to measure important things" not itself a cyclic occuring
problem? I am convinced that it is one. In management science it is
manifested as the desire to measure the sustaining or success of
management methodologies, the Learning Organisation being one of them.
Thus it appears to be related to the first main reason which I have
described above, namely how to maintain and even imporve on an existing
LO. But I cannot remember having read (probably more than 10 000 LO
messages by now) that anybody has ever wanted to measure the LO for the
second main reason, namely to forge an emergence of a higher order (except
probably the LO itself). In other words, why do we have this "desire to
measure important things"?

Is it not time to learn the "Godel lesson" from mathematics?
Mathematicians also have an intense desire, namely the "desire to prove
theorems". But one day, more than half a century ago, a young man named
Kurt Godel made them stop dead in their tracks -- he formulated the
incompleteness theorem that there are theorems which cannot be proved AND
proved this very theorem. What a surprise! Did it make matehematics dead?
No, the opposite happened. By stopping dead in their tracks, it gave
mathematicians time to take stock of what they had been doing. Soon
afterwards a great surge in mathematical creativity followed, one of which
its ramifications is felt up to the present.

It reminds me of something else. During my recent visit to some countries
in Southern Africa, we had to fill in forms galore at the border posts.
One form even required information such as the names of parents and
grandparents! Worst of all, at one border post the completed forms of at
least the past decade were stacked on shelves and shelves along the walls.
The border post was too far away in the bundu to remove these forms to a
"better civilised" place. But yet the hungry "paper monster" had to be fed
with great precision. When I compare this with a visit to Germany and the
Netherlands a couple of years ago, the situation becomes tragic. My
friend, while traveling through the border from Germany to the
Netherlands, pointed out to me the former border control buildings. One is
now used as a pub!

Again, I repeat my question:
Why do we have this desire to measure important things?

Best wishes


At de Lange <> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>