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Organisational Development and the Learning Cycle

It all began with an introduction into Max Boisot’s theories about the learning. Like most people, I was already aware of the distinction between data and information and so the differentiation between information and knowledge was only a small step. Likewise to understand that knowledge has no value until it is put into use. The discussion was around why knowledge isn’t always put to use, however, was very enlightening. The following diagram is my interpretation and helps explain better.

Working from left to right, you can see how information is distilled from raw data. The information developed, however, is subjective, which means it is somehow filtered. Some data is used more than once while other data isn’t used at all. Distillation depends on why the data is being accessed, as well as how you obtain it.

Similarly, information is also filtered and does not necessarily convert into knowledge. This may be a matter of simple choice (e.g. I have no interest whatsoever in learning how the internal combustion engine works) or simply a question of using only what I can ascertain or access. In both cases the information exists, but is like a library book that is never taken out or read. To the extent it is not utilised and remains dormant, it does not merit being designated as knowledge.

Knowledge is thus information that is personalised and put into action. Even then the action is filtered by how the knowledge is applied. Just think how many discoveries have evolved when something has been used in a completely different way to existing practice: e.g. Coca-Cola being transformed from a medicine to a soft drink.

This leads to another fact: knowledge is never static. This is because the outcomes of the derived activity are constantly being evaluated.  This in turn is a process that demands comparison with the original reasons for the activity. This, as the diagram depicts, means that learning is a cycle with a multitude of inter-dependencies. Just as changing needs lead to new objectives, new data, information and knowledge, so too new information and new knowledge leads to new activity.

You would be totally justified if, right now, you are questioning what is new and why the excitement. Thus far all I have described is the logic behind continuous improvement and that is hardly new.  The difference is the introduction of the “filters.”           

These filters occur at every stage in the cycle and affect what happens subsequently. They may consist of such things (the list is by no means exhaustive) as innate values, preconceptions, past experiences, and other personal constraints as well as ‘environmental’ issues like the corporate culture, management pressure and the demands for quick action. All of which lead to unrealistic demands, stress and inevitable shortcomings. This means they almost invariably act as inhibitors rather than magnifiers and lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

Furthermore these filters are not necessarily constant, but can be affected by changing needs. This makes identifying and improving them, so that they become magnifying lenses instead, more difficult. This only becomes possible when you understand that filters are personal. They affect each and every person differently and so their effects are shaped by the individual response to them.  Nevertheless, they have a compounding negative impact on the organisation, since activity ultimately always depends on people.

This is key: while you intuitively understand that your organisation is the aggregate of the people who work in it, you must consciously recognise that every person is an individual. Maximising your organisational learning means maximising individual employee learning. Thus creating a learning organisation, with an effective continuous improvement programme that secures your organisational development, necessitates ensuring you introduce mechanisms that will identify and circumvent the limiting effects of these filters. Your business demands nothing less. 

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Feel free to contact me directly if you'd like to know more about the model and how it could be used in your organisation.

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Bay Jordan

Bay is the founder and director of Zealise, and the creator of the ‘Every Individual Matters’ organisational culture model that helps transform organisational performance and bottom-line results. Bay is also the author of several books, including “Lean Organisations Need FAT People” and “The 7 Deadly Toxins of Employee Engagement.”

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