Organisations are made of people. Without people, there can be no organisation. Where people are involved, some learning always takes place. The learning may be good or bad, but it happens all the same. In other words, organisations can and do learn, since their people can and do learn. This ability of organisations takes the shape of strategic and competitive advantage, when you begin to consider that we compete in a world full of knowledge.
Not just that, there is so much of knowledge getting added each day that it is almost impossible to compete on any other basis. For sure, financial prudence and soundness helps, but that is useful only if you can compete in the first place. It therefore makes eminent sense for organisations to create an environment where lots and lots of people learn lots and lots of new things all the time. Yes, companies do recognise this, but they do mighty little about actually getting down to making it happen in big and continuous doses.
There is another completely different advantage of competing on learning. Organisational knowledge is the sum of many parts-the sum of many minds working together. This simply cannot be replicated by the competition. Why?
The reason is quite simple. It is not possible to replicate the same set of circumstances and the same set of people existing in one company into another company. So, even if a few people leave and join forces with the competition, all is not lost. As a result, when discussions centre around return on investment, there is the invariable war cry for cost cutting. Such debates are common in corporate settings, and the outcome is invariably one sided. Since the majority of costs relate to people, let’s seize a hatchet and cut the headcount. Few, far too few, senior managers think about the incredible damage they are doing by taking such an approach. No one pauses to ponder over the loss of knowledge, human capital, and loyalty.
This is where the story of the titmouse becomes relevant. Alan Wilson, a zoologist and biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley, has been studyjng how animals learn. His research has established that there is a certain behaviour that enables primates and songbirds to share the position at the top of the table of evolved species.
Wilson’s theory for accelerated anatomical evolution describes three characteristics that enable learning:
Innovation: As individuals and as a community, they have the ability to invent new behaviour. They are capable of developing skills that enable them to exploit and take advantage of their environment in newer and better ways.
Social propagation: Skills are propagated and transferred in a proper and established way to the entire community through direct communication, not genetically.
Mobility: Individuals of the species have the ability to move around. They use this ability to a tremendous extent. They flock and move in herds, instead of keeping to themselves like hermits.
To determine whether his theory would hold water, Wilson researched studies done on the British titmouse, a small songbird commonly found in Britain. The study is extremely revealing and goes thus: During the early part of this century, milk was distributed to the doors of British country houses in bottles without tops. The cream would settle at the top of the bottles. Two species of birds the titmice and red robin, learned to siphon the cream from the bottles and get an enriched diet. This diet was obviously richer than other food the birds had. The digestive systems of these two species underwent a metabolism to cope with the extra nutrition. By the early fifties, the entire titmouse population had learnt how to pierce the aluminium caps and get to the cream. On the other hand, the red robins simply did not learn how to pierce the caps. There was a stray robin here and a stray robin there that had learned how to pierce the cap, but the species as a whole, simply failed to learn. In other words, the knowledge was simply, not passed to all red robins.
What was the difference between the two species? Basically, the titmice underwent a remarkably successful process of institutional learning, while the red robins couldn’t do so. This could not be explained as a difference in communicating ability. Both species possess the same range of ability to communicate. The difference lies in the process of social propagation-the manner in which titmice disseminate their skills between members of the community. And here is the difference. The titmice live in pairs (male and female) during spring season. They live thus until their brood grow big enough to fly and feed on their own. By the time summer arrives, the titmice can be seen hopping from one garden to another in flocks. Their propensity to flock is so powerful that the groups remain practically intact, roving the countryside. This movement pattern lasts through the summer.
On the other hand, red robins are highly territorial birds. They care for their young ones but have no ability to move as a community. They guard their turf jealously, and the only real communication that takes place is antagonistic and adversarial. Wilson concluded that birds that flock learn much faster. Moreover, everyone is able to learn. This greatly enhances their chances of survival, and speeds their evolution. The lessons for organisational learning from this study are profound, to put it mildly.
How many organisations can you find where the communication is not adversarial? Territorial behaviour and turf guarding are staple diets in corporate corridors. Most organisational structures, in fact, encourage this behaviour, albeit unknowingly. The results are the same, just think, organisational charts have boxes in which people are placed. They then have functions and divisions to make things worse. This is the perfect setting for the proliferation of bureaucracy and empire-building. No wonder Hammer and Champy describe this as “The Humpty Dumpty School of Organisational Management” in their book, “Re-engineering the Corporation”.
Mobility comes from moving people across functions and divisions. That may be the easier of the two criteria. The tough one is social transmission. As long as corporations are organised around functional concepts, social transmission will take place in an antagonistic manner. Here lies the key, then: CEOs who continue to organise their structures by function are doomed to head unlearning organisations. Hey, even the humble titmouse has figured that out. What is preventing the lofty man from emulating the titmouse?