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The paradox of the learning organisation

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The term learning organisation  refers to an organisation that continually modifies itself in response to changes in its environment.   Ever since Peter Senge coined the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline, assorted consultants and academics have been telling us that a learning organisation is an ideal worth striving for.  The reality, however,  is that most organisations that undertake the journey actually end up in a place far removed  from this ideal. Among other things, the journey may expose managerial hypocrisies that contradict the very notion of a learning organisation.  In this post, I elaborate on the paradoxes of learning organisations, drawing on an excellent and very readable paper by Paul Tosey entitled, The Hunting of the Learning Organisation: A Paradoxical Journey.

(Note:  I should point out that the term learning organisation should be distinguished from organisational learning: the latter refers to processes of learning whereas the former is about an ideal type of organisation. See this paper for more on the distinction.)

The journey metaphor

Consultants and other experts are quick to point out that the path to a learning organisation is a journey towards an ideal that can never be reached.  Quoting from this paper, Tosey writes, “we would talk about the fact that, in some ways, the learning organization represented all of our collective best wishes for Utopia in the workplace.” As another example, Peter Senge writes of it being, “a journey in search of the experience of being a member of `a great team.”  Elsewhere, Senge  suggests that the learning organisation is a vision that is essentially unattainable.

The metaphor of a journey seems an apt one at first, but there are a couple of problems with it. Firstly, the causal connection between initiatives that purport to get one to the goal and actual improvements in an organisation’s capacity to learn  is tenuous and impossible to establish.  This suggests the journey is one without a map. Secondly, the process of learning about learning within the organisation – how it occurs, and how it is perceived by different stakeholders – can expose organisational hypocrisies and double-speak that may otherwise have remained hidden.  Thus instead of progressing towards the the ideal one may end up moving away from it.  Tosey explores these  paradoxes by comparing the journey of a learning organisation to  the one described in Lewis Carroll’s  poem, The Hunting of The Snark.

Hunting the Snark (and the learning organisation)

Carroll’s poem tells the story of ten characters who set of in search of a fabulous creature called a  Snark.  After many trials and tribulations, they end up finding out that the Snark is something else:  a not-so-pleasant creature called a Boojum. Tosey comments that the quest described in the poem is a superb metaphor for the journey towards a learning organisation. As he states:

Initially, when reflecting on personal experience of organizational events… I was struck by the potential of the dream-like voyage of fancy on which Carroll’s characters embarked as an allegory of the quest for the learning organization. Pure allegory has limitations. Through writing and developing the article I came to view the poem more as a paradigm of the consequences of human desire for, and efforts at, progress through the striving for ideals. In other words the poem expresses something about our `hunting’. In this respect it may represent a mythological theme,a profound metaphor more than a mere cautionary moral tale.

There are many interesting parallels between the hunt for the Snark and the journey towards a learning organisation. Here are a few:

The expedition to find the Snark is led by a character called the Bellman who asserts: “What I tell you three times is true.” This is akin to the assurances (pleas?) from experts who tell us (several times over) that it is possible to transform our organisations into ones that continually learn.

The journey itself is directionless because the Bellman’s map is useless. In Carroll’s words:

Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!

Finally, the Snark is never found. In its stead, the crew find a scary creature called  a Boojum that has the power to make one disappear. Quoting from the poem:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The journey towards a learning organisation often reveals the Boojum-like dark side of organisations.  One common example of this is when the process of learning surfaces questions that are uncomfortable for those in power. Tosey relates the  following tale  which may be familiar to some readers,

…a multinational company intending to develop itself as a learning organization ran programmes to encourage managers to challenge received wisdom and to take an inquiring approach. Later, one participant attended an awayday, where the managing director of his division circulated among staff over dinner. The participant raised a question about the approach the MD had taken on a particular project; with hindsight, had that been the best strategy? `That was the way I did it’, said the MD. `But do you think there was a better way?’, asked the participant. `I don’t think you heard me’, replied the MD. `That was the way I did it’. `That I heard’, continued the participant, `but might there have been a better way?’. The MD fixed his gaze on the participants’ lapel badge, then looked him in the eye, saying coldly, `I will remember your name’, before walking away.

One could argue that a certain kind of learning – that of how the organisation learns – occurred here:  the employee learnt that certain questions were out of bounds. I think it is safe to say, though, that this was not the kind of learning that was intended by those who initiated the program.

In the preface to the poem, Carroll notes that the Bellman there is a rule  –  Rule 42 – which states, “No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm,” to which the Bellman (the leader) added, “and the Man at the Helm shall speak to no one.” This rendered communication between the helmsman and the crew impossible. In such periods the ship was not steered. The parallels between this and organisational life are clear: there is rarely open communication between the those steering the organisational ship and rank and file employees. Indeed, Tosey reformulates Rule 42 in organisational terms as, “the organization shall not speak to the supervision, and the  supervision shall not speak to the organization.” This, he tells us, interrupts the feedback loop between individual experience and the organisations which renders learning impossible.

(Note:  I can’t help but wonder if Douglas Adams’ famous  answer to the life universe and everything was inspired by Carroll’s rule 42…)

In the poem,  the ship sometimes sailed backwards when Rule 42 was in operation. Tosey draws a parallel between “sailing backwards” and unexpected or unintended consequence of organisational rules.  He argues that organisational actions can result in learning even if those actions were originally intended to achieve something else. The employee in the story above learnt something about the organisational hierarchy and how it worked.

Finally, it is a feature of Rule-42-like rules that they cannot be named. The employee in the story above could not  have pointed out that the manager was acting in a manner that was inconsistent with the intent of the programme – at least not without putting his own position at risk. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of learning, though of a rather sad kind.


Experts and consultants have told us many times over that the journey towards a learning organisation is one worth making….and as the as the Bellman in Carroll’s poem says: “What I tell you three times is true.” Nevertheless, the reality is that instances in which learning actually occurs tend to be more a consequence of accident than plan, and tend to be transient than lasting. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Snark may turn out to Boojum:  people may end up learning truths that the organisation would rather remained hidden.   And therein lies the paradox of the  learning organisation.

Written by K

June 4, 2013 at 9:23 pm

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