Gavin Jones: We must become learning organisations

By Martin Gavin | 04 October 2017

It might seem surprising that the world’s most on trend entrepreneurs would turn to a school of thought that was last in vogue 2000 years ago, but it seems in Silicon Valley the latest intellectual fashion is the study of Stoic philosophy.

If you want to get with the zeitgeist, the key to stoicism is learning through systematic reflection. The world’s digital leaders are busy rediscovering a system of thought geared towards self-improvement through learning. Interesting. It seems no matter how successful or at what stage of our lives we are, learning is a fundamental human instinct. Indeed, nobody teaches babies to explore and experiment; it’s what comes naturally.

So why, when it is so instinctive for individuals to learn, do organisations – made up of those same individuals – find it so hard? Why does it matter? And what, if anything, should we do about it?

These are the issues, in dialogue with you, that I want to try to answer through this series of articles. I want to answer them because I firmly believe that, in this increasingly complex world, where the pace of change is accelerating at warp speed and the public’s expectations are rising, the only way we are going to be able to cope is through our ability to create organisations that make full use of the capabilities of all our people.

Not only that. In the process of re-imagining the best way to address complex social challenges, we are going to need to get to grips with a whole new set of operating models – more data driven, more predictive, less reactive, more focused on experimentation and rapid learning, more agile in responding to evidence. This represents a challenge to prevailing ways of working and thinking.

But let’s rewind. The learning organisation might seem like an obvious concept, but we can trace its birth to the publication in 1990 of Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Senge describes the learning organisation as a place ‘where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together’. That sounds like a good place to me, but I think many of us would struggle in all honesty to describe our current organisations in those terms. To get from here to there, we need to focus on three areas that are particularly relevant to public services now.

The first is leadership. Given the importance of thinking at the whole system level, in my next article I want to explore the issue of leadership with Stephen Kavanagh, the Chief Constable of Essex. We will be writing about what type of leadership supports systematic learning, where we see it exercised, how it can be nurtured, and what risks it might be exposed to.

Second, I want to explore the development of the learning organisation through the prism of politics. Those of us working in the public sector understand the pressures and additional complexity that operating in a political context can bring. It’s important we don’t ignore that. At its best, politics brings energy, accountability and dynamism. If we get accountability wrong, it can lead to risk aversion and defensive behaviours.

Finally, I want to understand the role of culture. To some extent this is a combination of all the other factors and the most complex element to get right. Cultures are difficult to describe in the abstract but absolutely apparent in the flesh. Anyone who has ever done a peer review will know the culture of an organisation is manifest as soon as you enter its buildings.

I want to emphasise that getting this right is not easy. It may even be particularly challenging in organisations like ours, which contain multiple professional cultures grounded in institutions that look beyond organisational and system boundaries. Creating a genuine learning organisation in the way Senge envisages is not the job of a few months, or even years. It requires unremitting attention and focus. Angela Duckworth’s recent work on learning claims true achievement depends less on talent and more on ‘grit’ – the ability to persevere with purpose and passion with what is difficult. As with individuals, so with organisations.

As I write these articles, I’m conscious many of you have knowledge, views and experience it would be helpful to share. I would welcome your thoughts and encourage you to tweet me on what this means to you. In particular for the next article I am interested in your views about the role of leaders in creating the learning organisation.

As we started with the stoics, I’ll end with them. Seneca, who eventually received his comeuppance at the hands of the Emperor Nero, suggested we should continue learning until ignorance is conquered – which I guess means we must keep going. So, although there may be no prospect of ending, I look forward to starting the conversation with you.

Gavin Jones is chief executive of Essex CC and chair of SOLACE

Tweet @GibsonGav and @TheMJcouk using the hashtag #LearningOrganisation

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Chief executives SOLACE Management Improvement