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What Nesta’s learning about learning

Your organisation’s learning culture and its ability to innovate are inextricably linked. Organisational values, conventions, processes and practices have an important impact on how individuals and teams learn and continually innovate. In some cases, creating the right environment for learning is literally a matter of life or death.

The story of Shell in the 1990s highlights this point well. Researchers Robin Ely and Debra Meyerson have written about this particularly interesting point in Shell’s history. At that time, deaths on oil rigs were a far too frequent occurrence. As the company began its build of Ursa -  a $1.45 billion deepwater platform and the world's deepest offshore well - it became increasingly clear that to meet the technological and logistical challenges of a project of that scale, something needed to change.

In Shell’s case it was not so much the level of technical expertise but the working culture that was greatly impeding the organisation’s learning capacity. Shell’s culture was one where mistakes and vulnerability of any sort were not tolerated. With the help of a leadership consultant, a number of initiatives were implemented aimed at encouraging employees to open up. And by encouraging employees at all levels to be more vulnerable about when they needed help or had concerns, interestingly it was other important information which began to be communicated - such as admitting mistakes and the sharing of any lessons learned.

In Shell’s case addressing some of the cultural barriers to learning made a huge difference. According to Ely and Meyerson, ‘the company’s accident rate declined by 84%, while productivity (number of barrels produced), efficiency (cost per barrel), and reliability (production “up” time) increased beyond the industry’s previous benchmark.’

While in Nesta’s case the consequences of failing to learn may not be quite so serious as Shell’s rather extreme example, Shell’s story nicely illustrates the important social component of learning. Not only that, but it illustrates how effective organisational learning requires admitting any failure of past practices or performance whilst undertaking a whole-organisation commitment to changing conditions needed to improve performance going forward.  

What we’re learning about learning…

At Nesta, we’re acutely aware that effective organisational learning strategies can support innovation. In essence, the shorter the learning cycle, the higher the likelihood of achieving innovation. And yet, like other action-oriented organisations, while we’ve got lots of ‘concrete experience’, dedicating the resources and time to the three other essential stages in the experiential learning cycle (see image below) - reviewing our experience (reflective observation), concluding from that experience (abstract hypothesis) and planning future action (active testing) - can be deemed less important than ‘just getting on with the work’.

Image courtesy of David Jones (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

We're not the only ones thinking about some of the challenges of transforming these theoretical insights into practice. With USAID's Development Innovation Ventures, we've started to explore the learning practices of organisations funding innovation in the development space. Some of these, like the Hewlett Foundation, have already written insightfully about their own experiences.

We're also taking inspiration from some of the wide range of other organisations we come across in our work. Some of the interesting examples that have struck us recently include:

  1. Systematic problem solving: The need to move beyond hunches and intuition in order to approach challenges in a more scientific way is an important feature of the learning organisation. The CLEAR IDEAS app and methodology attempts to do just that. Developed by Dr Kamal Birdi, and based on research carried out at the University of Sheffield since 1999, the app and innovation development model offers public sector managers a more systematic approach to problem solving in order to encourage innovation. The approach translates research findings on effective innovation into improved organisational practice by developing the skills of managers to better generate (IDEAS steps – Illuminate, Detail, Erupt, Assess, Select) and implement (CLEAR steps – Commit, Lead, Engage, Align, Review) new ideas in the workplace. The methodology has already resulted in impressive impacts such as: the development of more cost-effective and efficient adult social care services in Sheffield City Council, leading to an estimated saving of £1.7million; whilst the methodology has been adopted to drive the South Yorkshire Police’s continuous improvement strategy.

  1. Experimentation: Given the public sector’s propensity for rolling out big-bang policies and programmes, the cost of learning that an initiative doesn’t work can be huge. It’s against this backdrop, that [email protected]’s idea of 90 day experiments is so interesting. The initiative is explicit in its aim to share lessons learnt through
    these projects across the public sector. And though past 90 day efforts have surfaced useful innovations for the South Australian Government, the real value of the experiments is their aim to build new organisational capabilities - namely the ‘capacity of agency teams to design, implement and evaluate all change projects in a robust way, using sound planning, evidence and analysis, so that we gain the benefits from the projects themselves and also learn how to manage change more effectively over time.’

  1. Learning from past experience: As part of the Centre for Social Action, projects used a variety of approaches to support their organisational learning and development. User Voice, were supported by Us Creates to carry out service blueprinting, to understand their service and reflect on how they have been delivering it to date, and what the user experiences at each point in the service.  By reflecting and sharing on their experiences, and building on these insights User Voice created a process guide for their core work as well as new staff training.  This has enabled them to share organisational learning, and also codify their learning to date.  They also complemented this by explicitly creating ways to share tacit knowledge through line management, work shadowing, team meetings and training. While service blueprinting is in itself quite innovative, well-established approaches like process evaluations can also be really valuable  City Year for example had a process evaluation from Renaisi, which helped them to reflect on the areas of strength, and where they needed to improve. As a result of the insights from their process evaluation they have taken a number of actions, for example implementing new staff structures to better support schools and City Year participants.  

  1. Learning from others: Nesta’s research on corporate-startup collaborations showed how companies like Telefonica, BMW or Barclays have used their experience working with startups to think differently about innovation - and about failure.  Take Enel as an example. The Italian energy company’s leadership team has recently established new programmes to work with startups in order to revive its approach to innovation. One of the aims of this collaboration is to foster an entrepreneurial mindset among Enel employees, and the company now runs its internal Failure Prize. Twice a year, employees are encouraged to submit what they learned from their biggest failures. Submissions are reviewed and the selected winner can opt to work in any department and country of her choice for a month. Enel’s leadership hopes that creating tangible benefits for speaking about failures will create a stronger culture of learning.

There are examples which demonstrate how knowledge can be reincorporated back into the organisation. Take Utah State for instance. They have adopted a State-wide evidence-based approach to innovation and have already shown how evidence of programme evaluations could be used to inform decision-making related to future grant funding and policy. However, beyond the well-known examples like General Electric, few meet the definitional requirements of a ‘learning organisation.’ Indeed, both our experience and research indicates that leaders deeply value organisational learning, but there is still a disconnect between that intention and how organisations effectively shape their current and future practice as a result of learning. We also see that relatively little is shared on how organisations learn and take action or make changes as a result of their learning.  

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing some of our experiences as we embark on our own journey to improve our organisational learning here at Nesta.

Do you have suggestions of what we could try? Please help us gather interesting and impactful approaches to organisational learning by adding your examples into this Google Sheet.

Photo Credit: National Institutes of Health (NIH) via Compfight cc

Author

Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Senior Researcher - Public and Social Innovation

Sophie worked across a number of Nesta’s public services innovation programmes, as a Senior Researcher in Nesta’s Policy and Research unit. She lead on Lab Notes – a monthly digest b...

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Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Head of Social Action Innovation

Carrie is Head of Social Action Innovation at Nesta, leading our work on social action and people powered public services.

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Valerie Mocker

Valerie Mocker

Valerie Mocker

Director, Development & European Digital Policy

Valerie and her team focus on helping policy makers, corporates, entrepreneurs and society make the most of the digital transformation.

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Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Head of Inclusive Innovation

Madeleine Gabriel leads international projects that explore how new models of innovation can tackle big social challenges. Her current work includes a study on whether and how the co...

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