The way organisations learn is not dissimilar from the way individuals learn. Let's explore that idea through reference to the four quadrants in the Rumsfeld diagram below.
- unconscious incompetence (we don't know that we don't know something)
- conscious incompetence (we know that we don't know something)
- conscious competence (we know that we know something)
- unconscious competence (we don't know that we know something)
The learning journey involved becoming conscious as we move from stage 1 to stage 2, becoming competent as we move from stage 2 to stage 3, and becoming unconscious again as we move from stage 3 to stage 4. We recognised these steps in an individual learning journey, and we can recognise the same 3 steps as an organisation learns.
Moving from point 1 to point 2 - becoming consciously incompetent - identifying the knowledge gaps
A smart organization needs to know what it doesn’t know, before it can develop a plan to fill the knowledge gap. They can do this in many ways.
- One company holds meetings of senior functional staff to understand their knowledge gaps.
- In a worldwide manufacturer of branded goods, internal benchmarking is used to identify plants with a knowledge or competency gap in areas such as Lean manufacturing, water usage, or energy conservation.
- In a major oil company, senior engineers study the lessons coming from Retrospect meetings to identify points of common failure, which the organisation has to learn how to avoid.
- In another company in the oil sector, projects teams sit down at the start of a project to develop their knowledge management plan, and to answer the question – “What do we need to know, to deliver this project successfully?”
- A telecommunications company uses feedback data from customers to identify areas where it needs to “learn to improve”.
- In a major multinational, a community of practice has sifted through its large database of questions and answers, and looked for those “frequently occurring questions” to which nobody seems to have an answer. For them, these are community knowledge gaps.
In each of the cases mentioned above, the need to learn has been identified through conversation; a conversation between senior staff, between members of a project team, or between members of a community. This is a conversation around “what do we need to know,” and data from benchmarking or from collected lessons can be used to answer the question. In a few companies, this conversation happens at a very senior level, and is used to develop areas of focus for a knowledge management strategy. At whatever level you hold it, holding the conversation is the way to develop a shared consciousness of the need to learn.
Moving from point 2 to point 3 - becoming consciously competent - filling the knowledge gapsOnce you have become conscious, as a team or an organisation, of a knowledge gap, then you start to put in place strategies and plans to fill the gap. There are many ways in you can approach this, and there are many knowledge management tools and processes that can be put in place. A team will tailor these in its knowledge management plan, while a company will define them in its knowledge management strategy.
Where individual reflection is part of learning for an individual, for an organisation this is replaced by team reflection, using processes such as After Action review and Retrospect to identify new knowledge and new potential process improvements. If team reflection is embedded into the work process, that the first step has been taken to embedding learning into operations, for example by mandating retrospects at the end of each project stage, or After Action reviews at the end of every major team activity.
Questions at these sessions are “what does this mean for us? What are the implications of these lessons”, and the outcome is often a set of modifications to company process or company structure.
Moving from point 3 to point 4 - becoming unconsciously competentAn organisation becomes unconsciously competent when knowledge is embedded into standards, processes, and procedures. When this occurs, teams and individuals in the business, don’t need to seek back through lessons learned, and don’t need to set up peer assists, they just “follow the procedure”. Just as a professional golfer swings the club without reviewing his last lesson, so a project team follow the procedures without needing to worry about searching through lessons databases. Provided the procedures are always up to date, and always incorporate new lessons, then the learning has been transferred and internalised.
The type example of this kind of unconscious learning comes from the military sector, where best practices and standards are provided as “Doctrine”. Because of a very widespread use of after action review, and a very close coupling between the Centre for Army Lessons Learned and the Doctrine, a new lesson (if important enough) can enter the Doctrine within a matter of a couple of days. Then all the other troops need to do, is follow the Doctrine, in confidence that it represents current best practice.