Dr. Russell Ackoff’s list of antisystemic (sub-optimising) methods – part 6/8 – dissecting Learning Organization

This is part 6 of the series of blog posts that is elaborating on some of the methods in the list of managers’ panaceas [1], a list of anticipated antisystemic (sub-optimising) methods that Dr. Russell Ackoff brought up in the middle of the 1990s. Today’s blog post will dissect the Learning Organization.

Learning Organization, by Peter Senge [2] got popular in the beginning of the 1990s, and is also derived from methods that claim that they are thinking systemically. A future goal is set and then the gap to the present state is to be closed. The goals of Learning Organization can be regarded as soft, if compared to KPIs for example that are hard. Soft goals mean that the efforts are put on for example changing the competences by closing the gap, at the bottom line changing the people within the system, which means changing the culture of the organization.

And that is a tricky path, as Dave Snowden puts it about complexity thinking in the terms of sense-making vs Systems thinking/Dynamics and its “closing the gap thinking” [3]; “We don’t try and create an ideal person with all the right competences, we change the environment and interactions so desirable behaviour is more likely to emerge.”.

But, since we know our set of principles built on our evolutionary prerequisites as a specie, we can go one step further by fulfilling the principles, which will result in both a flourishing way of working and a flourishing culture in our organisation.

In the book “The Dance of Change”, an answer to Learning Organization’s decline in popularity in the middle of the 1990s, Senge et al states different reasons why an organisation has problems transforming itself to a Learning Organization:

  • Time is one factor
  • There are other more important issues to take care of
  • With any transformation of an organisation, it is first important to address what problems or needs the organisation has.

They also state the following about the problems with the implementation; “That’s because organizations have complex, well-developed immune systems, aimed at preserving the status quo.”

But once again, with our set of principles we know that the culture depends on the system, so if the new strategy is not coherent with the system, it is doomed to fail. So, in the case that the Learning Organization transformation is not coherent with the system, the transformation will encounter big problems, since the organisation is not systemically built from start.

And regarding any method, it will never be enough to only say that we think systemically, we also need to act systemically and solve the root causes to the problems of the organisations. And it is definitely not trustworthy to say that we act systemically, when the root causes are left untouched. Only when we solve our root causes, we can say that we act systemically. Only then we can say that we have System Collaboration. Only then we are beyond best practices.

If we go back to Toyota, our company for comparison, they are the state of art of a learning organization, with their Kata thinking [4]; not only teach others, but also teach others how to teach.

Learning Organization and of course any other method needs to start with the problems within the organisation, to even have the possibility to make it flourish. These problems are most probably only symptoms, so we need to ask multiple why in order to find and solve all the root causes. This is the only possible way to act systemically, everything else is guessing, since symptoms are impossible to solve.

Optimising the parts/layers in any direction by trying to close gaps, will only sub-optimise on the whole, the same as trying to solve symptoms will. Learning Organization is therefore no exception, but can of course be systemic if at the same time root causes are solved. This goes for any method, but that is called luck, since no one can prove why it worked at this specific company or part of the company, since it always depends on the context. This also means that it will impossible to copy it to another company since we never know what root causes were solved in the first place and is the reason why Best practices do not work, even though the context looks exactly the same. Here is how it will look in our map with the added sub-optimising areas from Learning Organization:

Dr. Ackoff’s anticipation was correct again.

Dr. Ackoff                                           Panaceas
5                              –                              0

This was all for today and in the next blog post we are going to dissect the next method in the list of managers’ panaceas; Cognitive Therapy. C u then.


[1] Ackoff, Dr. Russell Lincoln. Speech. “Systems-Based Improvement, Pt 1.”, Lecture given at the College of Business Administration at the University of Cincinnati on May 2, 1995.
The list at 03:30 min. Link copied 2018-10-27.

[2] Senge, Peter. Wikipedia. Link copied 2018-12-23.

[3] Snowden, Dave. Blog post. Link copied 2018-12-23.

[4] Rother, Mike. Toyota Kata (in Swedish). Liber 2013.
ISBN 978-91-47-11119-0.
English full name: “Toyota Kata. Managing people for improvement, adaptiveness and superior results.”

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