Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Lesson learning - Loch Ness monster or Black Swan?

I recently saw Effective Lesson Learning compared to the "Loch Ness Monster" - a mythical beast. I argue that it is more of a Black Swan.


Image from wikimedia commons
The Loch Ness Monster description comes from the world of Aid and Development; specifically from the KM4Dev community. In a wiki article entitled Lessons Learned - The Loch Ness monster of KM, Johannes Schunter raises the question whether effective lessons learned systems are perhaps "a phantom that everyone is chasing after, but nobody has ever seen". Much like the mythical Loch Ness Monster, the subject of decades of search with no success.

However there are effective lesson learning systems out there in the world.

In our 2104 survey of Knowledge Management, we asked participants to rate the effectiveness of their Lesson Learning systems, from zero to 5. The average rating was  - suggesting that lesson learning is moderately effective at best. However 23% of respondents gave a 5 out of 5 rating, and 23% gave 4 out of 5.  Interestingly, among the latter were several organisations which I would consider Best in Class in terms of lesson learning, but which know enough about the topic to know they could do even better.

So successful lesson learning IS possible. There are organisations that DO do it well. It is not a phantom or a mythical beast. Instead it is a black swan - something that people who have not seen it in their own sector, may assume it does not exist anywhere.

Part of the issue is that successful learning from lessons is best developed only in a few sectors, where the consequences of not learning are most obvious and immediate. This does not make lesson learning any easier for these sector, but it is easier to make the case for lesson learning when lives depend on it, and  when the link between lives and lessons is clearest.  These sectors include construction, big engineering, oil and gas, aviation and aerospace, and the military.

In the Aid and Development sector it is livelihoods at stake rather than lives, and the long timelag and indirect causal chain between actions and outcomes makes lesson learning less starkly obvious. As a result lesson learning is not so well developed, and it is more difficult to find successful systems to emulate from within the sector. This led Johannes to say "I have yet to come across an example of an organization where [lesson learning] was actually done successfully in a systematic way", much as naturalists at one time would say "I have yet to come across a swan that was not white".

Much kudos to Johannes, by the way, for actually asking the question. I have great respect for Johannes, this blog post is by no means a criticism of him or his work, and the question he raised in KM4Dev actually sparked a great discussion with some good success cases from other sectors, and some guidelines on how to make lesson learning successful.

However the discussion, and the Loch Ness Monster reference, reminds me of a key message; as follows.

To find successful KM examples, we need to come out of our sector, and look at what other sectors are doing. Finding success cases may need looking further afield, just like finding back swans.

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