Monday, 30 April 2007

Is Ignorance Bliss? 6 - On Organisational Learning

Driven partly by the belief that there is a single good answer to the question of ‘what does the market want?’ just waiting to be found by the person who is the most ‘in the know’, the whole subject of making sense of the business environment often becomes personalised and politicised. Discussions on the meaning of data and information become ‘turf wars’ where the political stakes for domination of ‘your’ point of view is extremely high. In this environment the skill of ignoring others becomes very polished and seems to occur as:

Being ignorant of ‘ignorance’ as an organisational phenomenon.

My experience in organisations shows that a significant number of people don’t have the business lexicon (jargon if you prefer), deep and intergrated education in business thinking and approaches, or the reflective skills to enable a productive assessment of management behaviour. Consequently people frequently rely on 'armchair theories', man on his bar stool explanations, and Springer-esque understandings of the process of becoming a succesful organisation.

Having the power to ignore.

A sense of indispensability, and a strong ego reinforced by recent successes encourages people to believe ‘they’ve learned enough’ and that the usefulness of their ‘model of explaining their world is enduring’. These echoes the observations of Bob Garrat in his book ‘Creating a Learning Organisation’ where recently promoted new directors feel that learning and training applies to everyone in the organisation but themselves.

In the gaming business this is especially noticeable in the area of games design where the explicit technical skill of computer programming is welded to the tacit behavioural skill of game creation. Attempts to learn about games design assumptions and their relationship to market information are frequently perceived as a serious threat to interfere with the ‘special knowledge’ of the designers rather than an attempt to build new perspectives and grow the organisations knowledge of the subject. These perceived threats are frequently and skilfully repulsed.

Organisational ignorance therefore seems to possess the dual properties of

deliberateness where a conscious choice is made by the individual to ignore input and suppress feedback, echoing Karl Deutsch’s remark that ‘power is the ability not to have to learn anything’ and the observation of Elias Cannetti in Crowds and Power that ‘freedom is not having to give an answer’.


unawareness which is explored in detail by Chris Argyris in ‘On Organisational Learning’ where he refers to those behaviours we unconsciously perform such as:

i) Defensive reasoning e.g. 'I could have done a better job if I'd had more resource'

ii) Predisposition to blame external rather than internal factors for failure e.g.'The suppliers let us down'

iii) A pre-occupation with symptomatic rather than root cause problem solving (single rather than double loop learning) e.g. sorry but the database software we have has a limited query facility. The solution to the problem lies outside the system in which the problem exists. (see post...There is effort...)

iv) Placing management subjects and themes ‘off limits’ so that they are not to be discussed, and making this tacit ‘decision’ in-discussable too!

These behaviours are largely unrecognised because they are so deeply hidden in the character of the individual they are, without considerable reflective effort, taken for granted.

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