Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Lessons Learned about Lessons Learned

Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Lessons Learned about Lessons Learned

Article excerpt


Organizations capture and deploy what they have learned in one of four ways: Culture, Old Pros, Archives, and Processes. This paper describes the four approaches, their strengths and shortcomings, and their interactions. Along the way, it offers guidance and perspective to assist a management team striving to build more effective organizational learning competence.

Lessons Learned About Lessons Learned

"If only TI knew what TI knows," said Jerry Junkins, former Chairman, President, and CEO of Texas Instruments. "I wish we knew what we know at HP," echoed Lew Piatt, past Chairman of Hewlett-Packard (O'Dell & Grayson, 1998, p. 3). These concerns reveal that capturing, retaining, and applying organizational learning continues to be a daunting challenge.

Consider the following example. Executives at an aerospace business were dissatisfied that their organization continued to face recurring issues with the design and build of test equipment. The test equipment too often was delivered late, did not sufficiently test the product, or significantly overran the original cost estimates. Problems persisted in spite of increased management focus, more conservative estimating ground rules, and the change of a few key personnel. A team assigned to identify root causes discovered during the course of its investigation that fourteen years ago another team documented many of the very same problems. The earlier team had made specific recommendations that clearly had never been implemented.

The executive concerns and example above pose the same questions: Just how do organizations recognize and capture the valuable lessons they learn? How are those lessons retrieved when needed? Do some old and now irrelevant or disruptive lessons learned still linger within the organization long after they are useful? Or has their usefulness been overlooked? In short, just what lessons have we learned abouf'lessons learned"?

My answers to these questions have developed from two distinct but related practices of learning and understanding. First, I have enjoyed over thirty years of experience working in the aerospace industry as an engineer, project manager, functional manager, and general manager. Serving Honeywell International during those years, my responsibilities have required that I interact closely with inter- and intra- company engineering development teams. Some of these teams collaborated on a variety of major projects which included the International Space Station, the Iridium satellite constellations, aircraft navigation simulators, and world-wide communications networks. From the breadth of my participation, I developed an understanding of organizational evolution and participant behavior of dozens of business units across the industry.

Complementing this exposure is an eclectic educational background, which includes a degree in electrical engineering, an MBA a Masters in Human Organization Development (HOD), and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems (HOS). Both my HOD and HOS research focused on leadership and culture in complex organizations. During the course of my research, I referred to The Structuring of Organizations (Mintzberg, 1979) in which the author describes complex organizations as those which deal with"sophisticated innovation, the kind required of a space agency, an avant-garde film company, a factory manufacturing complex prototypes, or an integrated petrochemical company. . .one that is able to fuse experts drawn from different disciplines into smoothly functioning ad hoc project teams" (p.432). Reflecting on this construct, I have been privileged to serve across the "twin helix" of theoretical and practical organizational learning, enabling my ongoing engagement in both the business and academic environments to foster an integrated perspective. Although the literature on knowledge management, information systems, and organizational culture tended to compartmentalize concepts and constructs, I discovered that my work environment continually drove me to understand that real world challenges could best be approached and met with a deep understanding of the interactions among those concepts and constructs. …

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