Are learning organizations possible?

/ 16 February 2014

Learning organizations — are they possible? Lately I’ve begun to wonder about this question. Maybe I’m just becoming cynical?

Clay Shirky has a great line in a recent blog post -- "an organization that isn't learning from its users has decided it doesn't want to learn from its users."

That may sound harsh, but at what point do the "users" in an organization begin to matter? Shirky is reflecting on the failures around, but honestly, I could reflect in similar ways around theological education. Shirky writes:

If I had to design a litmus test for whether our political class grasps the internet, I would look for just one signal: Can anyone with authority over a new project articulate the tradeoff between features, quality, and time? When a project cannot meet all three goals—a situation was clearly in by March—something will give. If you want certain features at a certain level of quality, you’d better be able to move the deadline. If you want overall quality by a certain deadline, you’d better be able to simplify, delay, or drop features. And if you have a fixed feature list and deadline, quality will suffer.

This is a great example of basic assessment, actually, something which numerous accrediting organizations are seeking in higher education. But accreditation is a kind of "all or nothing" thing, where the stakes are enormously high, and the ability to find ways to fail, and then learn from the failure, is almost nonexistent.

Shirky again:

An effective test is an exercise in humility; it’s only useful in a culture where desirability is not confused with likelihood. For a test to change things, everyone has to understand that their opinion, and their boss’s opinion, matters less than what actually works and what doesn’t.

Let me be clear: when I wonder about "what actually works" I am not doing so in a narrow, high stakes testing way, or in a constraining "theological education must be about Sunday school" way. But I am wondering about the lofty goals we set ourselves in our mission statements, and the idealistic outcomes we vote on for courses. What are we doing to actually figure out whether or not learning is happening?