Look around your organization. Are you amazed at just how resigned everyone is to the status quo? Does the seeming acceptance of mediocrity bother you?
Despite severe environmental pressures, are the people around you behaving in obviously ineffective ways that could be threatening the very survival of the organization?
For me, the answers to the above questions is a resounding yes. I work in higher education—enough said, right.
Well, as I look around, I see processes, routines, and objectives that continue to persist despite their perceived inadequacies. Perhaps, my colleagues are unaware of the problems, or they have just accepted them as unalterable conditions.
The easy out is to just blame my colleagues, and you may be tempted to do the same. This, however, is not a people problem.
This issue, as intimated by Ken Miller, will not be solved by “getting better people, motivating the ones you have, and hold[ing] everyone accountable.”
So, what is the problem, and what is the solution?
Most Organization are Incapable of Learning
The problem is that most organizations are incapable of learning or changing themselves in response to experience (i.e., the discrepancy between expectations and results).
Learning happens when an organization and its people can detect and correct an error based on joint reflection and inquiry.
Give some thought to how your organization comes to identify some situations as problems and how it attempts to correct them.
Are the consequences of action and inaction ignored? Is there any blame-shifting in the face of failures? Are policies established to subvert the detection of errors? Are there efforts to redefine what counts for success underway?
Are people closed in their attitudes? Are they defensive? Is the general atmosphere one of distrust and a lack of respect between managers and employees? Are communications blocked?
Well, organizations that do learn embrace error and try to understand its sources. They are marked by an open attitude, open communications, and a general atmosphere of trust and respect between managers and employees.
Most organizations are incapable of learning, but why?
Blame the Bureaucracy
Organizations, as argued by sociologist Richard Scott, are the basic building block of society. They allow us to get things done and achieve goals beyond the capabilities of individuals acting alone.
Organizations, then, are collections of people pursuing a goal. Yet, as those goals grow in their number and complexity, organizations tend to grow in size. To create regularity and make behavior more predictable (i.e., establish some control/standardization), most organizations institute formalized structures and rules outlining roles, role relations, and related responsibilities (i.e., division of responsibility and distribution of decision-making power).
This is what many refer to as bureaucratization. It is an effort to fragment, routinize, and bound the decision-making process to make it more manageable and predictable.
So, how bureaucratized is your organization? How fragmented, routinized, process-driven, and rule-driven is it?
Well, here is the problem. Bureaucracy is primarily oriented toward controlling rather than learning. It makes joint reflection and inquiry into the causes of error (i.e., learning from experience) extremely difficult. Let me give you three of the top reasons why:
- It makes it hard for people to see the big picture.
Yes, breaking problems apart makes them more manageable. But, the corresponding structures, reward systems, information systems, and rules affect what people pay attention to—and what they will overlook.
In the absence of some form of intervention, when we fragment, as stated by management guru Dr. Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline:
We pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.
So, people tend to see their responsibilities as limited or defined by the boundaries of their position. They struggle to feel or realize the interdependencies that cross those boundaries, and how what they do might affect others and the whole organization.
So, what are the implications for learning?
Well, the jobs/positions, departments, and other divisions within an organization do not just define a structure of work activity. They create boundaries that structure and limit the attention of individuals and groups. These boundaries tend to become hard or difficult to cross (i.e., impermeable) such that information and knowledge rarely flow freely. People, then, will struggle to see the consequences of their actions because they are often distant in time and space (i.e., felt elsewhere in the organization). When feedback is lacking or worse yet not welcomed due to reason number 2 below, many errors will remain outside the awareness of the individuals and groups that can act on them. Problems, then, will go unnoticed and unattended to.
- Defensiveness and blame-shifting become the norm.
Errors are rarely noticed, and when they are, the level of reflection and inquiry necessary to correct the error (i.e., learn) can be hard to achieve.
When hierarchical and horizontal divisions are strong, as stated by Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization:
The different parts of the organization operate based on different pictures of the total situation, pursuing subunit goals almost as ends in themselves.
The existence of such divisions tends to emphasize the distinctions between different elements of the organization and fosters the development of political systems that place yet further barriers in the way of learning.
In other words, there can be a bit of goal displacement (i.e., neglect or distortion of the organization’s goals) among individuals and groups who are attempting to adapt and survive in their particular circumstances.
Individuals and groups, Morgan istates:
… compete for scarce resources … Empire building, careerism, the defense of departmental interests, pet projects, and the padding of budgets to create slack resources may subvert the working of the whole.
This attempt to adapt and survive often lead to forms of “wheeling and dealing.” It also breeds defensiveness and conflict. So, the people involved begin to act in ways that will prevent them from the threat of embarrassment or looking weak.
Complex and subtle issues are not explored through dialogue because people feel they must defend their turf and their position against an enemy. The problem is that this enemy, more often than not, just happens to be a member of the same organization.
Guess what happens when things go wrong in this situation. Senge states:
When the results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why. All you can do is assume that “someone screwed up.
There is in each of us a propensity to find someone or something outside of ourselves to blame when things go wrong.
Psychologically, it is easier for people to blame someone else than to confront the reality that they may be partly the cause of their own problems.
It is often easier for people to write off someone or some group as an enemy than to collaboratively confront errors, suspend their own views, and try to understand why others might see a situation differently.
What are the implications for learning?
Well, if someone or some group is seen as the enemy, this leaves little room for dialogue, which is paramount to understanding cause and effect. It is in dialogue that people will begin to see that different views, opinions, and perspectives are often not a matter of ignorance or malice. Instead, they are simply the result of occupying a different position in the organization—positions that may face other pressures and incentives than they do, and that have access to different information.
It is in the free and creative exploration of those differences (i.e., collaborative reflection and inquiry and reasoning about cause and effect) that makes learning at the organizational level possible.
- It is dehumanizing.
Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people – W. Edwards Deming
Bureaucracy is meant to be impersonal and, thus, has a dehumanizing effect. The goal of bureaucratization is to build a plug and play structure that is not dependent on the personal attributes and relationships among the individuals occupying the positions in the structure.
Hierarchical control systems, as argued by Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization, are built on the idea that control must be exercised over the different parts of the organization, rather than being built into the parts themselves. Typical forms of control do not just monitor the performance of workers—they also remove the responsibility from workers.
Management thinker Dr. Gary Hamel describes the implications of this bureaucratization well and says that most organizations are inertial. He states:
This isn’t the fault of supposedly change-phobic employees, but of top-down decision structures that create long lags between sense and respond.
They are incremental. That’s hardly surprising, since bureaucracy has little room for the curiosity, intuition, playfulness, and daring that animates human creativity.
Bureaucracies are emotional dead zones … As a result, our organizations are less adaptable, creative, and inspiring than we are.
Bureaucracy rewards compliance and, in the process, can crush the natural curiosity and desire humans hold to create and make things better. Most will resign themselves to focusing on the tasks they are to perform and will come to prioritize rules and processes over outcomes, impact, and the purposes of the enterprise.
What, then, are the implications for learning?
In heavily bureaucratized organizations, many people adopt an external locus of control. In effect, they see themselves as participants in a system over which they have little-to-no influence. So, they absolve themselves of any responsibility for the current circumstances or problems and, guess what, they choose inaction or, worse yet, they engage in a misguided fight against their supposed internal enemies (see reason 2 above), and the status quo persists—mediocrity reigns.
The Starting Point for a Solution
Often, people have the analytic ability to detect and correct problems through collaborative reflection and inquiry. However, they are constrained by bureaucratization and its effect on the overarching culture of organizations. Together, these things shape, albeit at the subconscious level, how people show up in organizations and engage others.
In the Power of Noticing, Dr. Max Bazerman states:
Leaders have a unique responsibility to create systems that will increase the likelihood that their staff will notice important information and respond in a productive manner. Leaders should audit their organizations for features that get in the way of noticing.
I will leave it to you to pick up Bazerman’s book and accept his challenge to become a “noticing architect.”
For now, the starting point in this effort to create organizations that can learn (i.e., detect and correct an error or change themselves in response to experience) is the fostering of systemic ways of thinking and a climate where crossing boundaries is the norm. Leaders must approach this effort with intentionality. They must create opportunities for people and groups to safely challenge the status quo and explore, feel, and begin to embrace their interdependencies.
And, where information is bottlenecked or not flowing, and the consequences of an action are distant, or out of sight, feedback loops must be developed and instituted.
While there is much more to this puzzle, for now, Dr. Gary Hamel states:
We have to face the fact that any change program that doesn’t address the architectural rigidities and ideological prejudices of bureaucracy won’t, in fact, change much at all.
We can overcome the staying power of the status quo and build organizations that learn—but “only with a bold and concerted effort to pull bureaucracy up by its roots.”
If you have questions, feel free to connect with us and request more information!
Travis Bland is the Associate Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration and an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Administration. He studies, consults, and offers workshops on organizational health, strategic planning and execution, and the management of people. To learn more, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Barzelay, M. (1992). Breaking through bureaucracy: A new vision for managing in government. Univ of California Press.
 Visser, M., & Van der Togt, K. (2016). Learning in public sector organizations: A theory of action approach. Public Organization Review, 16(2), 235-249.
 Mahler, J. (1997). Influences of organizational culture on learning in public agencies. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 7(4), 519-540.
 Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading:
 Scott, W. R. (1998). Organizations: Rational, natural, and open systems. Prentice hall.
 Morgan, G. (1998). Images of organization: The executive edition. Thousand Oaks, CA.