30 things #5: Organisational learning demands a systems perspective

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1st May 2016

I find it useful to think of learning in civil society organisations in terms of concentric circles. At the centre is individual learning; outside which are team-level learning, programme-level learning, then organisational learning and finally inter-organisational learning, all happening within civil society and the wider environmental, political, economic, social and spiritual context. Each level is inter-related with those inside and those that surround it.

Understanding organisational learning involves looking at all these levels and viewing the organisation as a complex adaptive system. To do this, we need to constantly zoom in and zoom out, exploring the levels and the relationships between them. For example, an organisation may view the purpose of organisational learning mainly in terms of the level of programme effectiveness. However, it may underestimate the contribution to programme-level learning that is made by reflective practice at the individual level. In this example the most effective way to strengthen programme learning may, paradoxically, not involve further developing systems and procedures at the programme level, but investing in the reflective practice skills and confidence of individual staff members.

The process of zooming in and out from one level to another and identifying the links between them is the very essence of systems thinking. In her brilliant book Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situations, Rosalind Armson reminds us that moving freely between micro, reductionist thinking (in our case focusing on individuals) and macro, holistic thinking (focusing on the organisation and its wider environment), provides us with multiple perspectives all of which add to our understanding of a system (in our case, of organisational learning). Zooming in and out also helps us resist the temptation of jumping to premature conclusions about what is the best way to strengthen an organisation’s capacity for learning.

The idea of zooming in and out between the levels that comprise ‘systems of systems’ is brilliantly captured in the App Cosmic Eye which is loosely based on the 1984 book Powers of Ten. Fortunately in the world of organisational learning we are not expected to zoom in or zoom out quite as far as in this animation!



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