Aristotle was right on the money (as always) when he said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But that’s not the prevailing culture in most organizations today. Instead, it’s all about the individual. That includes attitudes and approaches to learning – the focus is on personalised learning and individual talent. But organizations are made up of individuals, from a handful in small companies to hundreds of thousands in big multinationals, so learning needs to go much broader and deeper, focusing on collective learning and insights, on the constant circulation of knowledge, challenges, and ideas.
Back in the 1900s/early 2000s there was a research movement that advocated a move away from individual learning. Centred in MIT and Harvard in the US and Lancashire University and Salford University in the UK, the researchers felt that as the business world became more and more complex, focusing on individual learning was not enough. Knowledge had to be shared around the whole organization not locked in an individual’s brain. They could see that organizations had to become more agile and smarter at responding to the increasing complexities and that the focus on individuals and individual talent prevented that agility emerging. Expertise and knowledge must be shared right around the organization rapidly.
It’s what Lew Platt, the former CEO at HP, was talking about when he said: “If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” Organizations are more productive, smarter, and more agile when knowledge is shared and amplified, not when it is hoarded.
It strikes me that this need to harness and circulate learning in organizations so that everyone can access it, apply it, and build on it is increasingly important. But that call for collective learning has been lost. Now, the focus is locked onto personalised and self-directed learning and individual talent. Investing in talent is not the only answer. And of course, the focus can only be on a minority of the workforce. It is dangerous to invest only in the few to the detriment of the many, with all those collective insights, learning, skills, ideas, and knowledge going unnoticed and untapped. Knowledge might be inside the organization, but it was impossible to retrieve.
There is a bigger, broader picture: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. But that focus can only happen when the culture of the organization allows it. People need to be able to experiment without constraint, to make mistakes and not be sanctioned. They need to be able to admit to mistakes so everybody could learn from them. People who can ask questions, who are curious and who want to seek out knowledge and solutions and better ways of doing things. To do this, people need to look around and outside the organization for inspiration and ways of working smarter.
Imagine that there is such a thing as an organizational brain. The human brain has a lot of neurons – between 80 and 100 billion – but our intelligence emerges from the connections between them, the synapses. These synapses enable signals to pass from one neuron to the next, with each neuron capable of sustaining up to 1,000 connections. It’s these connections (think 100 billion neurons, each with 1,000 connections) that form the huge, amazing neural network that allows humans to make sense of the world. Imagine the concept of an organizational brain where each person is like a neuron. In organizational terms, the more connections that are made between people and the more those connections can flow freely, the easier it is for collective learning to be shared, stored, retrieved, and acted upon. Just as connections (synapses) facilitate the healthy working of the brain, so do connections between people facilitate the healthy working of the organization. Organizational intelligence is directly related to the density of connections between people, not simply to individual knowledge.
In my webinar, Organizational learning: reimagined and redefined: developing the organizational brain, we will explore this topic much further. And we will look at organizations that have enabled people to forge strong internal and external connections and how that has helped them become smarter, more productive, agile and resilient.
Also under the spotlight in the webinar: