This is the text of a post I recently contributed to Evaltalk, the listserv of the American Evaluation Association.
Organizational Learning as Adaptation
I see organizational learning in terms of potential for adaptation in a changing environment. Environments can change rapidly or slowly, which makes for two different kinds of adaptive capacity. (I’m a big believer in thinking about organizations as organisms navigating an ecosystem characterized by a fitness landscape.)
Rapid Environmental Change
When I say that environmental change is “fast”, I do not mean that the need for adaptation is frequent. That’s a kind of crisis management that I don’t know anything about. What I mean is “fast but infrequent”. This is a scenario where environments are stable for long periods of time but are punctuated by low probability events that drive state change-like behavior. These events lurk in the long tails of event distributions. None are highly probable, and their specifics cannot be predicted. (Complicating the problem is that several low probability events may not be problematic in their own right but be highly consequential if they occur together.)
My sense is that to adapt in the face of state change-like challenge, is that organizational learning should focus on cultural and organizational factors. Some examples of relevant topics are intellectual diversity of human capital, rigidity and looseness of intra-organizational linkages, access to emergency funding, informal relationships with other organizations, capacity of people and groups to assess the need to change and act, heterogeneity of products and services, and so on and so forth.
The organizational learning challenge is not of the form: “X” may happen, how can we be ready for it? Rather the challenge is: “Something may happen”, how can we be ready for it? I don’t think there can be a metric for adaptability to unknown needs. Also, adaptability comes with costs, e.g., money, or the instability that comes with too much change. So, the organizational learning challenge is to identify sources of stability and adaptability, and to make reasonable decisions about managing them.
Slow Environmental Change
The organizational learning challenge here is to appreciate the consequence of small change. We have been taught to worship at the alter of the general linear model. We care about groups – means, variances, and distribution shapes. I like thinking that way. I think everyone should practice it. But it is also true that local variation can affect the trajectory of change. This is the phenomenon of sensitive dependence on conditions. Look back on any major change in any scenario you are familiar with, and I bet that unless you find a state-change, you will find that what looked at the time like seemingly insignificant changes set the developmental trajectory.
The organizational learning problem is that the critical events were “seemingly insignificant”. Try a thought experiment. Find the events that drove the change. Draw the relationships among those events. Then look for all the other events that took place about the same time. Would you have been able to know which ones would matter, or what pattern of relationships among them would? Not so easy. Most of those events would be no more than random noise, and there is no certain way to detect the signal. That is the challenge of organizational learning.