An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage. — Jack Welch, former General Electric CEO
Organizational learning is the process of creating, retaining, and transferring knowledge within an organization. A scalable organization can only do that if it has formal process to create, collect, retain, and measure Organizational Learning.
A good example is the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) as a way to institutionalize learning from experience. The center was created in recognition that U.S. Army units were repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Even more important than capturing lessons is the ability to embed them in real time in current operations. In a detailed account of how the U.S. Army became a learning organization, Janine Davidson in her book Lifting the Fog of Peace, describes how “CALL methodology allows for ‘just-in-time’ learning at the tactical and operational levels, even during ongoing real-life military operations.”
In June 2003, the Israeli Army Chief of Staff invited the U.S. Army Chief of Staff to send a team to observe Israeli tactics in counter-terrorism. Their After Action Report was posted on the CALL website before the team even returned, and a little gray booklet was published within a month to be widely disseminated in training areas and on the front line.
Organizational learning is not only about retaining lessons learned inside your team or group. It is also about learning from peers. A prime example is the success of Korean companies expanding in China. An analysis of the expansion of South Korean manufacturing firms into China between 1987 and 1995 showed that a key component of their success was based on formal or informal organizational mechanisms to gather information and diffuse it across the group, with the expectation that member companies would be able to learn from the foreign experiences of other firms in the same group.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) is arguably one of the best Air Forces in the world. It is also known as one of the most technologically advanced. But very few know that one of the key reasons for IAF’s extraordinary performance, at a time when technology was not an advantage for the IAF, was the introduction in 1952 of post-flight reviews by Moshe Bar, a farmer turned fighter pilot.
In a paper called “How Organizations Learn: Post-flight Reviews in an F-16 Fighter Squadron”, Neta Ron, Raanan Lipshitz, and Micha Popper describe how post-flight reviews, as an organizational learning mechanism, are largely responsible for the high-performance level demonstrated by IAF’s units.
In the IAF, every move a pilot carries out in training and in battle is documented on video. Post-flight debriefing leads to an incredibly competent control system based on the theory that learning from mistakes is the best way to gain perfection.
Dan Halutz, a former IAF commander, explains how there is no prejudice in the debriefing room: “Ranks are not counted when you are flying. When you are flying, you are treated like a pilot.”
In Post Flight Reviews, pilots must be able to recall every move, admit every mistake and justify every correct decision. Integrity and honesty are essential traits of an IAF pilot. Everybody knows that debriefing is not about apologizing, it’s about learning.
The study demonstrates how five behavioral norms are critical for effective organizational learning using post-flight reviews:
1. Transparency (exposing one’s thoughts and actions to others)
2. Integrity (giving and receiving feedback without defending oneself and others)
3. Issue orientation (focusing on the relevance of information to the issues at hand, regardless of extraneous factors such as hidden agendas and the social standing of its source)
4. Inquiry (persisting in an investigation until a satisfactory understanding is achieved)
5. Accountability (assuming responsibility for learning and the implementation of lessons learned).
During the same time two psychological conditions are necessary for effective learning in the social context of post-flight reviews:
1. Psychological safety for risk taking and experimenting with new ideas and behaviors
2. Organizational commitment to motivate sharing of information and knowledge with others
The U.S. Army uses AARs (After Action Reviews). During the AAR debrief, teams question leader decisions and suggest alternatives.
General Gordon Sullivan, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, said that “The AAR system was the key to turning the corner in institutionalizing organizational learning in the U.S. Army.”
The basic characteristics of effective after-action reviews, as identified by the U.S. Army, are:
· Focused on few critical issues
· Done immediately after the action
· Inclusive of all those who took part in the action
· Follow a structured process, and lead back to action as soon as possible.
The practice trickled down to business with the emergence of agile software development where it has been called a Retrospective.
Eric Kish as an author, speaker and practicing CEO. He is the author of 5 to 50 to 500: How to build and run scalable organizations and Everyday Turnaround: The art and science of daily business transformation
Janine Davidson is a former Under Secretary of the United States Navy,former U.S. Airforce pilot and president of MSU Denver
Institutional Structures, Organizational Learning, and Sequential Foreign Expansion: South Korean Firms and Business Groups in CHINA, 1987–1995 — Mauro F. Guillén The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
 Lifting the Fog of Peace, Janine Davidson The University of Michigan Press 2011