Organised Learning…

I have long been an enthusiast of After Action Reviews. After Action Reviews were first institutionalised by the Military. After any military action the team involved will always sit down as a group – all ranks – and will assess what they collectively and individually did well…or didn’t do so well. They leave their After Action Reviews having learned as individuals and as a team. They leave knowing what they will do better next time. There is a big motive here of course; many military actions are – quite literally – a matter of life and death for those involved.

I looked long and hard for an example of After Action Reviews where the motive wasn’t a life and death? The best I have found is professional sports. Masses of electronic data are collected on every event – data that are analysed to work out how to systematically improve both individual and team performance. Sport is definitely not life or death…and the After Action Reviews are definitely all about learning and improving. But this example is another of those dreaded sporting analogies.

So this is where I am – After Action Reviews are carried out amazingly well in the military and in professional sports. I couldn’t find two less ideal analogies if I wanted to. And this frustrates me. The concept and spirit of After Action Reviews is so good and so positive. After Action Reviews are all about openness and learning after completion or delivery. There is no blame. No gloating. No defensiveness. No pulling rank. The focus is only on lessons being learned by every individual involved, and by the team as a whole – good and bad. Learning that can also be shared with others.

Any organisation that capitalise on After Action Reviews has to be a ‘learning organisation’. An organisation where After Action Reviews are systematically applied to all activities – activities by individuals, teams, business units and even by organisation as a whole. Where output and impact of learning is expected and required…shared and communicated…at all levels and on all actions. And where – by default – internal learning is shared with external partners and – wherever possible – with potential competitors.

Most organisations have at least one area in which they apply (in effect) After Action Reviews…and that is to individual performance. Colleagues will sit down – normally twice a year – with a supervisor to review their performance to date (strengths and weaknesses…highs and lows…impact and output). And moreover, this review will include observations and insights solicited from colleagues who have worked with, or observed in action, the individual undergoing the (After Action) Review.

This by itself is very impressive. Done well, such reviews have potential to create an organisation resourced by individuals who strive (and who are expected) to improve and learn and deliver more. But to truly be a learning organisation, an organisation itself has to learn. After Action Reviews would need to be part of the institution. Every project, every program. Every innovation and every activity.  It may sound complicated or time consuming. It doesn’t have to be. The goal has to be for After Action Reviews to become institutionalised – to become part of how an organisation operates every day.

Almost by definition, learning is discovering something we don’t know…and then capitalising on that knowledge. And this then is why a learning organisation has such potential to succeed so much and to progress so far. New learning leads to new solutions, new ideas, new opportunities, new value and new levels of performance.

Learning organisations are amazing places to be part of – engaging and inspiring. Rewarding and developing. Enjoyable and fulfilling.




About Steve Street

I have worked in R&D within the Pharmaceutical industry for over 30 years. Up until April 2012 all of my career had been with one company, but that has now changed. I left that company and took up a new role on May 1, 2012 - still very much within the Pharmaceutical industry and again based in the UK. I have been blogging every week now for over 10 years but only on an external site since January 2012. Email updates of the blogs can be requested using the ‘follow’ option within Wordpress. The blogs are only ever my personal view of what I see, think and feel. I am delighted if you agree and find value; happy if you disagree with my views and overjoyed if you feel motivated to comment. Most of all I am simply grateful that you read. Cheers Steve
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2 Responses to Organised Learning…

  1. Very timely and thoughtful post, Steve. The key is on “After Action Reviews are all about openness and learning after completion or delivery. There is no blame. No gloating. No defensiveness. No pulling rank. The focus is only on lessons being learned by every individual involved, and by the team as a whole – good and bad.”

    After-action reviews are a wonderful idea, but they are only effective when hierarchy and positional power are not allowed to become a factor. That requires an organizational culture that values transparency and encourages diversity of opinion. In other words, it is only effective when meritocracy of ideas, openness, and well-intended feedback (both giving and receiving) becomes an institutional value. When you leave and breath it every day, when you practice it on every encounter.

    This discussion brings back an interesting memory. A couple of years ago, I was approached by an executive recruiter for a fascinating job at the world’s most successful hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. I never pursued it, but the recruiter gave me a description of their culture which I found so intriguing that I started reading up on them. Here’s an excerpt from their Wikipedia page:

    In 2005, Dalio (BA’s founder] saw the firm taking on hundreds of new employees and decided to create a handbook called Principles, which was distributed to all employees. The publication is said to be part self-help book, part management manual, and part treatise on the mechanics of natural selection as they function in a business setting. According to one trade journal, six years after the publication of Principles, the firm’s rapid expansion led to the institution of a “bizarre culture of criticism”. The company acknowledges that employees “often encounter culture shock” when they begin working there and Dalio admits: “it’s not for everyone”. According to the company’s web site, employees are encouraged to be assertive and discussions about disagreements and mistakes are considered an intentional part of the company’s culture because they are felt to stimulate both learning and progress. A 2011 article in New York Magazine described the company as the “largest and indisputably weirdest hedge fund” because of its unwavering commitment to “total honesty and accountability” in its corporate culture. For example, Dalio encourages employees to do “whatever it takes to make the company great” and emphasizes transparency and openness in its decision making processes. All meetings are recorded and can be viewed by any employee, as long as the meeting topic is not proprietary. In addition, Dalio says that he fosters “an extreme meritocracy of ideas”, and asserts that decisions are made about investments without considerations of hierarchy. He says that any employee can respectfully say anything to anyone in the firm but they must be prepared to be challenged in return. The company’s flat corporate structure aims to remove the barriers associated with traditional asset management firms and qualities like stodginess and risk-aversion are discouraged.

    I have the sense that there is something missing in this approach (coaching maybe?), but the ideas are certainly thought-provoking.

    Interestingly, my brand new Lenovo Carbon X1 laptop crashed as I was typing this note. The last time this happened to me was two months ago when I was drafting my farewell note to my colleagues at J&J – literally right in the middle of it. Two days later, the disk passed away for good. Coincidence or divine intervention? I am not a superstitious man, but these things make me stop and wonder. But only momentarily. Then my analytical skills kick in and I look for more scientific explanations. In the case at hand, I think the culprit is the SSD (solid state drive). They are screaming fast, but I find them unstable. So my advice is when you plan to embark on a revolutionary new concept, make sure you have backup.

    • Steve Street says:


      This is really excellent commentary and contribution. The descrpition of Bridgewater and the culture created and operated is as intriguing as it is inspring. Thank you



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