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Turning experience into learning…

Turning experience into learning: the strategic challenge for individuals and organizations

By Cliff Bunning

…can the pearls of wisdom that have been gathered by the old people be given to the young, or must the young always gather their own?…


Why do some organizations which employ so many intelligent people continue with strategies which are obviously not working, or fail to take actions which are clearly called for, or repeat their mistakes, over and over? Why do some organizations put so much time and energy into not changing - into defending the past and avoiding the future? Why is it that large organizations, particularly, have a tendency to bring out the worst in human nature, so that instead of behaving with the collective wisdom of a thousand, management, at various levels, can display a profound commitment to defensiveness and short term self-interest?

The purpose of this paper is not to lampoon organizational life, although it does often lend itself to that, but rather -

  • To advance the view that learning is the strategic variable in individual and organizational effectiveness;
  • discuss the processes involved in individual and organizational learning; and propose ways by which the organizational culture can be made more supportive of learning.

The significance of learning

Learning can be defined as a change in behaviour resulting from experience. Unlike other animals, almost all of our behaviour is learnt, rather than instinctive, which explains why the human infant takes much longer to attain self-sufficiency than the infant bird or animal. Taking a lot longer to acquire necessary life skills is a small price to pay for our enormous strategic advantage over other forms of life. That is, we can learn to do things within a single generation that could not have been imagined when our genetic blueprint was laid down. So what we learn, how efficiently we learn and indeed, whether we learn anything at all from particular experiences, are strategic variables, the effect of which leads to us being who we are at any given point in time.

Formal educational institutions naturally make a major contribution to the learning of those who use their services. However, the period of time you spend in formal schooling (ten to twelve years) and post-secondary formal learning (three to six years, if at all) represent only a small fraction of the average life span. Moreover, most of these learning experiences occur in the first twenty five years of life. For many, formal learning is completely over before their organizational life even begins. So from an organizational point of view, the amount and type of learning that takes place during the persons working life is of critical importance and most of this will be as a result of experience and informal reflection, rather than arising from the occasional, formally organized learning experience such as a conference, training course or higher degree.

If we ‘learn’ things which are unhelpful or untrue from an experience or fail to learn anything at all, then our effectiveness is diminished and our potential not achieved. In the same way, at the collective level, the process by which the organization allows itself to learn from its experiences or avoids such learning is an important determinant of its capacity to adapt and grow or stagnate and atrophy. So the crucial questions are what form of organizational culture and values is supportive of organizational learning and what mechanisms are needed for the learning actually to take place?

Learning from experience
The focus of action
The action context
Fostering organizational learning
Four approaches to learning from experience
Setting up the project
Discovering the four approaches
1.The intuitive approach
2.The incidental approach
3.The retrospective approach
4.The prospective approach
Four approaches to learning from the same experience
What kind of learning?
Triggers for learning
Some conclusions about learning from experience
The project as learning from experience
How about you?
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