Organizational learning

Having spent the last few weeks exploring what’s wrong with lessons learned, it’s time to turn our attention towards the elements that contribute to successful organisational learning.


As we piece this puzzle together, one of the most important principles to bear in mind is that of knowing your customer.

It sounds obvious, but in my experience it’s often overlooked.  Just who is customer for the learning?

1. The current team.

One clear customer is the team who are conducting the review.  A well-facilitated review will not only surface technical, commercial and process-related learning, but also personal, behavioural and team-related insights. Even if the activity was a one-off, never-to-be-repeated project, there will always be learning relevant to each individual – provided the team explores the right questions.

Imagine a research team is working on a vaccine for an incurable disease.  After years of experimentation, analysis and a little luck, they stumble upon the antidote.  The team is ecstatic – they have a formula in their hands that could improve the lives of thousands of people.  So they secretly inoculate themselves, disband the team and each individual starts on their next challenge.

Now imagine the outcry!  That would be outrageous – a waste of extensive research. Commercially disastrous and selfish to the point of immorality!

There is a research team hidden in every operational project we do – it’s just that we fail to help them realise and multiply the value in what they have discovered – which takes us to customer type number 2:

2. The next team.
One year ago, a large number of representatives from the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games conducted an extensive debrief. That debrief wasn’t carried out in London.  Instead, it was conducted in Rio de Janeiro, in the presence of the Rio 2016 team, facilitated by the IOC.  Not only that, but the time was deliberately managed such that 50% of each day was available for connecting, networking and asking further questions., as well as exchanging documentation.
The customer was clear – it was the next team.

Sometimes we know who exactly the next team (or teams) will be, and we can set up relationships, staff transfers, conversations, forums to ask questions, site visits, peer assists, peer reviews.  The IOC do all of this very well.
When we know who our customers are, then we can connect the supply with demand. Dialogue-based approaches are the most effective mechanisms for this.

However, there are times when we don’t know who the next team will be – but we’re sure that there will be one at some time.  We can’t afford to wait until the demand surfaces, because the supply (the current team) will have already been disbanded, and may well have left the organization.  In these cases we do need to capture some record of the context and the learning, and where it is relevant, to express this as principles, propositions, recommendations or specific advice for the next team, whoever they might be.

We need to ask the right questions (more on this the next post); questions which make the current team think about the needs of an imaginary future team:

  • “What would you say to a team about to start on a similar project?”
  • “If you had just 5 minutes with them, what key pieces of advice would you give them, based on your experiences?”
  • “How could they repeat your successes; how could they ensure that they avoid the low points you faced?”

In practice, it can be difficult to convince a busy team that they need to invest time together for the benefit of some future imaginary team. They know it makes sense, but they usually have other priorities, even if there is a requirement in the project process that they need to comply with.  Compliance rarely generates thoughtful dialogue.

You will want to start with them as the customer, and bring the questions around to the future once they have warmed up, and seen some personal benefit.  You may need to appeal to people’s professionalism and pride to get them to engage in the idea of being recognized for leaving a legacy.  Indeed, some organisations have recognition schemes in place for exactly this. (ConocoPhillips’ “Gather” award, and Syngenta’s “Embed” award are both examples of this.)

Of course, when we take on a customer mindset, we need to consider more than just what they need to know.  We have to think equally as hard about how they would like to receive this knowledge.  You can bet that they don’t want a copy of a flipchart sporting a set of bullet points from a meeting that they were not present at!  They would probably like to have context, contacts, reasons for decisions, artifacts, quotations, narrative, references, top tips, things to avoid… – all nicely structured and easy to navigate.

When we understand that we have knowledge customers, then we need to consider our knowledge products.

More on this at a later date.

3. The Organisation itself.

So the current and future teams are clear enough, but how does the organisation become a customer?

It’s the best way I could think of to describe the idea of improving the structural capital – the processes, guidelines, protocols, standards, policies, training, development and formal ways of working.  I have had the privilege of spending time with the IOC over the past two years, and their approach to closing the loop and translating learning into technical guidance through their technical manuals is a great example of this.

An effective “lessons learned programme” does to simply pass the baton to the next team, neither does if make it’s goal in life the develop a library of lessons learned.  The focus should always be on improvement.  The question should be “how do we ensure that actions follow which remove the risk, or bake-in the benefits that our learning has uncovered?”.  I covered this in my BMW shaggy-dog story earlier last year.

The question “what have we learned?” should be followed by  “what should we do about this?”.  A learning log needs to have an actions log.

When we apply KM in Safety context we do this without another thought.  If someone is killed, injured or in the event of a near miss, a sequence of safety-related review processes are initiated, root causes are understood, risks mitigated, procedures updated, communication planned and training delivered.

We are good at closing the loop between a moment of learning and a permanent change in the structural capital.  Hopefully this is because we don’t want to kill or injure anyone, and hence care enough to make someone accountable for looking for risks and actions in every fragment of learning.

In my experience, other topics don’t receive this level of attention, even though the commercial value at stake might be significant.  Something we could learn from there.

False customers.

Just a few words about other stakeholders who are sometimes unhelpfully referred to as the customer for learning.

The customer is the project management process.

Never heard anyone say that?  Well, perhaps you’ve heard them express the same sentiment when them say: “the process says we need to have a review before proceeding to the next stage gate”.
That’s more or less the same mindset.  We need to raise the sights of our project teams to see the real customer – themselves, the next team, or the betterment of the organization, which ultimately will improve relationships with a real external customer.

The customer is the regulator.

In some regulated businesses, there is an expectation that effective learning and improvement cycles are in place. This is a good thing!   Sadly, the regulators often look for evidence of inputs (because that’s what how they can measure compliance and consistency) rather than outputs (where the customer creates the value).  This can launch an industry of lessons logs and registers, unproductive reviews and ineffective debriefs, again the real customer has been lost and regulatory compliance has become a distraction.

This can be difficult, as nobody wants to do the work twice.  I recommend a dialogue with the regulating body to find out what they are actually looking for, rather than making assumptions that they have a preferred format. In my experience, regulators are specialists in their subject matter, but not specialists in organisational learning.  Engage them in a discussion about your preferred approach and propose different or additional sources of evidence of learning and transfer (for example: meetings in schedules, testimonies from individuals, candidates for recognition schemes).

Let’s keep our focus on the true customers, and magnify the benefits.


My post on “What did Einstein know about KM” last week seemed to go down well, so I have continued my search for KM musings from great figures.

This week, we’ll hear from the Leonardo Da Vinci.  It wasn’t until I read Gelb’s ambitiously titled book How to think like Leonardo do Vinci that I appreciated just how multi-talented he was.  Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, writer and no mean athlete  – you name it, he could do it.  Curious then that one of his quotations (one of the few which I disagree with) states “As every divided kingdom falls, so every mind divided between many studies confounds and saps itself.“.  I guess you can make yourself an exception  when you’re the archetypal Renaissance Man Polymath.
I wonder what he would have made of the ubiquitous availability of information and possibilities which we enjoy today?

So my curated top-ten quotes from Da Vinci will take us on a journey through different facets of KM: from knowledge acquisition, the way our perceptions filter knowledge, the superiority of expertise over opinions, the power of learning, seeing and making connections, the challenge and value of expressing knowledge simply and the criticality of seeing knowledge applied.

Yes, I would have had him on my KM Team.

  • “The knowledge of all things is possible.”
  • “The acquisition of knowledge is always of use to the intellect, because it may thus drive out useless things and retain the good.”
  • “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”
  • “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
  • “Experience is the mother of all Knowledge. Wisdom is the daughter of experience.”
  • “Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is to commence with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.”
  • “Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets.”
  • “Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
  • “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
  • “Knowing is not enough; we must apply.”


I couldn’t find a suitable infographic to illustrate these (I’m sure Leonardo would have produced a very good one if he’d not been so busy), but the book I mentioned earlier insightfully looks at the seven different deliberate practices he drew upon.  They’re an excellent set of frames through which to consider our approaches to life and work.

How does your Knowledge Management practice measure up against these?

  1. Curiosita:
  Approaching life with insatiable curiosity and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
  2. Dimostrazione:
  Committing to test knowledge through experience, persistence and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
  3. Sensazione:
  Continually refining the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.
  4. Sfumato:  Embracing ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.
  5. Arte/Scienza
:  Balancing science and art, logic and imagination – ‘whole-brain thinking’.
  6. Corporalita:
  Cultivating grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.
  7. Connessione:  Recognizing and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things – ‘systems thinking’.

Leo, you’re not just on the team; you can write the KM Strategy!

Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at three of the inherent weaknesses of “Lessons Learned” and the way the label is perceived:  Passiveness, Negativity and Ambiguity.
We will move onto a more positive note soon, but before we do, I want to introduce one further weakness:  Bad Teachers.


At this point I want to make it clear that I have seen the Diaz/Timberlake/Segel film of the same name, and that they are 92 minutes of my life that I would like to have back! However, the image was too good not to use.

What do I mean by bad teaching?

In the educational sense of the word, a lesson is deliberately crafted and designed in order to teach.  I can say from experience of being married to a teacher, that every hour of teaching she delivers requires another hour to cover preparation, marking and feedback to the learners.

Lessons are carefully formulated to take account of learning styles, levels of capability and connections with other parts of the syllabus. They evaluate understanding, they build on prior knowledge, they include references to further exploration and they have measurable outcomes.

Our bullet point lessons look a bit lame now, don’t they?

“Ah, but we’re not in the business of education”, I hear you say.
Well, perhaps we should make education more of our business!

There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote which teachers hate – my wife included.  You’ve probably heard it.

Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.


But there’s a corollary to this, which I’d like to add:

Those who can do, often can’t teach.


And that’s often our problem.

A project team successfully learns something from a project review meeting.  A lot of their learning is internalized, and the “lesson” they write down on that flipchart makes sense to them.

But it doesn’t make sense to the next team who will be using it. Just because I’ve learned something doesn’t make it a lesson for everyone else when I write it down.

Imagine my wife visiting an Egyptology exhibition and giving the brochure to her class on Monday morning whilst announcing “Hey class 4, this is what I learned about the Egyptians over the weekend – why don’t you take a look!”
It’s not what she learned that matters, it’s what she teaches.

So how do you prepare a lesson which becomes a good teacher?

  • Think about the customer for the knowledge.  Who will be reading this?  What questions would they have?
  • Consider the context.  In what situations would this lesson be relevant?  Is it specific or general recommendation?  A good practice? Something to bear in mind?  Something to avoid?
  • Provide the back-story. Help the reader to understand the circumstances which gave rise to your experience to help them make sense of what you learned and make a judgement on its applicability in their context.
  • Illustrate the lesson with artifacts, images, documents, quotes, videos, references and links to provide a richness to the learning experience.
  • Don’t separate the lesson from it’s source. Ensure that the person behind the story behind the lesson is clearly referenced.  Include a photo and full contact details.
  • Show where it fits with other lessons.  Signpost other relevant lessons and content by drawing together related content into a “knowledge asset”.
  • Keep it fresh. Revisit the content periodically to ensure that it is still current, relevant, and illustrated with the best examples.

That way, we can be those who can do, can learn and can teach.

Quite a lot, it appears!

Here are my top ten favourite “Einstein on KM” quotes, which I have roughly curated into a journey from information to knowledge, through to learning and simplicity, experimentation, failure, curiosity and imagination…

  • Information is not knowledge.
  • The only source of knowledge is experience.
  • Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
  • If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
  • We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
  • The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.
  • Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.
  • Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.
  • Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
  • The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

And for any of us who have ever been asked to create an accountant-proof business case for KM, there is always the classic:

  • Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.

Far better than my quick top ten list is this  infographic (click to enlarge) created by IQMatrix on, which does a brilliant job of mind-mapping most of the above quotes, and a number of others.

But one unexpected Einstein quote escaped the infographic – which has nothing to do with knowledge management,  demonstrates his humanity and humour and makes me smile…

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.


In the last few posts we’ve been exploring what’s wrong with the way we position “lessons learned”.  In part one, we looked at the passive problem of people’s tendency to focus on the lessons rather than the activity of learning.  In part two, we looked at the negative associations of the term ‘lessons’, and the impact that this can have.

In part three, I want to look at the problem of ambiguity.

The label “lessons learned” trips off the tongue easily, but that doesn’t mean that everybody hears it in the same way. Learning appears in more than one place on an learning loop, so there is plenty of room here for confusion. It can be an output, an input, or an agent of change.
Here is one, very simple question you can ask to check whats going on in your lessons learned process.

Who is learning?

Here are potential three recipients of the learning – let’s imagine we give a badge of recognition in each case:


It could be person or team who had the experience, who completed the activity and then reflected upon it.

In this case, learning is an output.


It could be a function or department who learn from a team’s experience and make a change to a process, policy, standard or working practice –  thereby reducing the risk or improving the prospects for everyone who follows. In this case, learning is an agent of change to the structural capital of the organisation. It becomes an embedded inheritance for all who follow.


It could be another team about to commence a new activity who are learning from the experience of a previous team. In this case, learning is an input. This input could proactively pushed to another team, or pulled by the new team, through a peer assist, for example.

It’s important to recognise that all of of these are valid and desirable outcomes , or there’s a danger that we allow learning from lessons to be a slightly self-indulgent team huddle.  Worse still, we focus on building the library of lessons rather than actioning the change that the learning should produce, see my earlier shaggy dog story about selling a BMW.

MAKE award winners ConocoPhillips and Syngenta both recognise the need to lubricate all parts of the learning and sharing cycle with appropriate senior recognition.

ConocoPhillips have their 4G awards:  Give (sharing knowledge), Grab (applying someone else’s knowledge), Gather (consolidating knowledge), Guts (sharing learning from failure).

Agri-business Syngenta loved this, and created their own TREE awards along very similar lines:  Transfer, Re-use, Embed and [share a difficult] Experience.

In each case, senior leaders are involved in judging and celebrating the best examples of these essential behaviours, and the teams or individuals concerned receive a physical recognition award.  It’s very clear who is learning, who is sharing, what is improving and where the value is – all of which is the best antidote for ambiguity.

Syngenta TREE award

Syngenta TREE award

I’m not sure how many parts this series of posts is going to have, but let’s make a start with this one…


 1. Lessons learned is a noun.  Learning is a verb.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of learning from experience so that we improve our own performance, and the future performance of others  has lost its oomph, its focus and its impact.  Instead, we hear people talking in abstract terms about “doing their lessons learned”. What on earth does that mean?

When it becomes the object of a sentence rather than the active verb, then it becomes another item on a tick-list – a necessary chore– the organisational equivalent of flossing our teeth. We focus on the lesson (which is usually a couple of sentences in a document, or a bullet point on a flipchart), rather than what we can learn from the lesson, and what we will change as a result.

It’s an odd thing.  My children don’t learn lessons from school – they learn from lessons, and they learn in lessons.  The lesson is the beneficial environment created by their teacher to help them to gain new insights and know how to apply them to problems.  There’s plenty of room for improvement in the way we design and portray our organisational lessons, just ask a teacher.

So rather than brandishing our flipcharts or reports and saying “here are our lessons learned!” – we should be saying.

“Here is a summary of some lessons. Now, what will we learn from them?”

This leads us away from “lessons learned” as a tick-list item, and leads us nicely to the million-dollar question:

“What will we do differently and what actions do we need to take – for ourselves or for the organisation?”

The next questions are:

“Could these lessons be relevant to anyone else, now or in the future?  How can we ensure that they make sense and provide context and contacts for the next project or team?

These questions move us into action, rather than focusing on writing down a lesson as the end-game.

Or to put it another way:

Bullet points kill knowledge.  Questions resurrect it.

Earlier this month I took my family to visit Highclere Castle in Berkshire.  It is beautiful Victorian Castle set in 1000 acres of parkland, and is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It is best known though, for its role in the TV period drama Downton Abbey which has gripped not just the British viewing audience, but audiences around the world, and particularly in the US.  It’s become quite a phenomenon, nominated for four Golden Globes.


As we took the tour of the inside of Highclere Castle, we were expecting to see merchandise and references to the TV series wherever we looked, given the worldwide acclaim for Downton Abbey. “This is the room where Mr Pamuk died…”  “This is the spot where Lord Grantham kissed Jane…”
We couldn’t have been more wrong!   It would be quite possible to tour the entire castle and completely miss its starring role in the TV series!  Surely a missed opportunity by the owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon?

What they did have on display in the huge basement was a large Egyptology exhibition which told the story of their great grandfather, Lord Carnarvon who, together with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.  That momentous discovery in the Valley of the Kings is the real story of Highclere Castle, and we got the feeling that the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon were a little indignant that the vast majority of visitors to Highclere Castle are only there because of a piece of engaging TV fiction!

It’s a perfect illustration of the difference between “what you know” and “what you are known for”.

Throughout our organisations, there are hundreds and thousands of people who have real stories to tell from their past knowledge, experiences and roles – yet they are only known for their current job title.  How do we enable this past experience and know-how, which often lies as buried as Tutankhamun’s tomb, to be rediscovered?

As knowledge professionals, this should be one of our priorities.

  • One way is to enable the creation of internal profiles which encourage employees to describe the interests and past experiences as well as their current position – and to embed their use in the habits of the workforce. Many organisations do this very well, notably MAKE award winners BG Group and Schlumberger.
  • Another approach, often complimentary, is to draw out the experience of others through a collective response to a business issue for example via a “jam” session.  I was speaking with Deloitte in the UK last week, and they described the success of their “Yamjam” sessions which often surface knowledge from surprising locations.
  • The creation of open networks, and the provision of easy mechanisms for staff to join networks of their interest also makes it easy to mobilise knowledge and experience from wherever it lies.
  • Finally, the use of knowledge cafes, world cafes and other free-flowing conversational processes will set the stage for connections and contributions which might otherwise never surface.

These approaches all enable knowledge and experience from the present (what you are known for) and the past (what you know)  to be shared and reused.

Not only would the fictitious butler Carson approve, but also the very real Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.


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