Learning History Research Project

Learning Histories

A "learning history" is a unique approach for helping an organization learn from the experience and implications of its own learning and change initiatives. All efforts to transform organizations sooner or later run up against the challenge of proving their value. Yet traditional "assessment" approaches, reacting to everyday pressures, can easily undermine the original learning effort. As people become aware of being judged and measured, they seek to satisfy the evaluation criteria instead of improving their capabilities. The intrinsic motivation which drives learning is then supplanted by the desire to look successful. Yet evaluation is vital to learning as a feedback process that provides guidance and support. Learning histories were invented in response to this dilemma.

Learning histories are a new form of organizational assessment. In one sense, the learning history is a document, ranging in length from 25 to 100 pages, describing a critical change or learning effort that the entire company might learn from. In the right hand column, relevant events are described by people who took part in them. Managers, factory line workers, secretaries, and suppliers, tell their part of the tale. Each person is quoted directly, and identified only by title. The words are woven into an emotionally rich, coherent story that reminds some people of Studs Terkel's accounts of American life and society.

A learning history is a document that helps an organization listen to what "it is trying to tell itself" about its own learning and change efforts. The documents' contents come from interviews with the people who initiated, implemented and participated in the learning efforts. The history presents their experiences and understandings, in their own words, in a way that helps the rest of the organization move forward, without having to "re-invent" what a small group of learners have already discovered. The history includes reports of actions and results, and the underlying assumptions and reasoning that led to people's actions. A variety of peopleís views and reactions are captured, including those that did not support the learning effort, providing insight into the complex reality in which organizational learning takes place.

As participants later read the learning documents and find that their own points of view are fairly treated, they become better able to understand the many other perspectives of people involved in the learning effort. The way in which different perspectives are captured and reported tangibly documents the range of peoplesí experiences on paper. In specially designed workshops, managers elsewhere in the organization discuss the learning history, to see how they can apply its implications to their own situation.

The learning history draws upon theories, techniques, and skills from action science intervention, oral history, anthropology, sociology, literature and theater. The integration of these theories and techniques, using a philosophy consistent with organizational learning principles, makes this approach unique. The learning history work is a critical element in developing an organizational infrastructure to support learning and the research materials upon which to study how organizations change through learning.

Learning History Example

The following excerpt is taken from a 1996 learning history describing a new car launch (the "Epsilon"), by a large automobile company ("AutoCo"). The document was originally created to help other vehicle development teams at AutoCo learn from and improve upon Epsilon's innovations. This segment deals with the counterproductive behaviors that erupt when traditional measurement systems are used to evaluate organizational learning initiatives § a perennial problem for many corporate change agents.

Struggling to avoid last-minute crises, the Epsilon program managers sought to build unity among the several hundred people in their cross-functional team. They used an approach based on Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline to help a varied group of engineers, suppliers, marketers and finance managers work together more effectively. They used system diagramming techniques, for example, to diagnose and determine where actions might have the most leverage in producing a good vehicle launch. They encouraged openness and trust in talking about problems, and tried hard themselves to be good models of the new behavior they espoused. They developed a variety of techniques for helping engineers communicate clearly enough to forestall costly rework. This segment of the learning history, part of a larger thematic section on "Innovations in a large organization," describes how the use of a computer-based internal reporting system (the "change request" system) was interpreted elsewhere in the company.

The Epsilon Project is "Worse than Red!"

As they practiced their new management approach, the Epsilon product launch team came to feel isolated from the rest of the AutoCo culture. They felt that senior managers sometimes applauded them, sometimes supported them, sometimes ignored them, and sometimes invalidated their efforts. Meanwhile, some senior leaders perceived the Epsilon team as withdrawing into its own "true believer" approach § as if Epsilon leaders felt that they knew how to achieve results that the rest of the AutoCo organization did not. This problem came to a head around "change requests" (CRs) § the engineering reports of issues, problems and impending changes on a part § which reached a count of 524, at a time when a more typical car launch would have a high of 200.

Is it required that other groups share the perception of what a metric means and how it is used? What d"s this require of groups who seek to innovate processes?
Engineer: In the past, engineers would keep a hidden log of their problems. We would make them public only when we knew the answer. To say we were not rewarded for revealing CRs would be an understatement.

Typically more than one person would be trying to solve the same problem. We would not know what each other was doing, because there was no common document that tracked the problem. I might be working to solve something involving sheet metal. The sheet metal people wouldn't know because I didn't make it public on a CR out to the world. I might not even have known it affected sheet metal. When I finally wrote up my solution, they might say: "Wait a minute. We can't do this."

With our new process we were encouraged to get CRs out in the open sooner. Now everyone knew each other's problems in time to work together on a solution. This meant that the Program Manager had to empower us to handle our own problems.

From other perspectives, however, the new CR system created worrisome inconsistencies. Here, a manager outside the Epsilon team expresses his dismay over the visible new signs of stress.

Senior manager: In manufacturing operations we have a metric that starts with green and g"s to yellow and g"s to red. The Epsilon program was "purple," I said. That's worse than red! I've had a unique ability to say what's ready or not, and be right 95% of the time. The Epsilon wasn't ready. The patient was terminal. I recommended postponing the launch date.

What made it difficult for Epsilon managers to explain their strategy and behaviors in promoting early reporting of concerns?
Epsilon team manager: Initially, I felt really good about our CR count. It was fantastic to find out about all these things and have them worked on. "By encouraging engineers to write concerns," I said to our Vice President, "We're actually getting work done earlier and we'll have a better quality product. This is a change in our system and we want to keep it that way. We want it to be not punitive for an engineer to write a concern early." [The Vice President] nodded and listened. But after the meeting he still said the program was out of control.

Vice President's perspective on the same incident is at right. To him, the Epsilon project was not "out of control": it was simply going through the normal expansion and retraction of changes.

Vice President: The ethic that everybody was trying to follow was: There is a right time for change and there is a wrong time. Let us optimize the product and process so we have a quality launch. That's the way it's supposed to work. It never d"s work that way. The engineers keep changing things, most of the time for good and relevant reasons. Manufacturing drives some changes. And so you have this constant battle of late failures, problems, fits, and finishes. There is huge pressure from Manufacturing to drive the change count down.

One year later, under pressure over the high number of change requests, the Program Manager and the Launch Manager instituted a change in procedures. Engineers were told to stop everything else and resolve changes. During an intensive weekend, the engineers reduced the number of open CRs from 350 to 50. At the time, this enhanced the program's reputation. The Program Manager had demonstrated that he was in firm control.

Ironically, however, the appearance of solving problems early may have contributed to an outbreak of late-breaking problems when changes that had been "pushed underground" resurfaced later in the game.

What sort of agreement or "buy-in" is appropriate to ask for from other organizations and non-team members ahead of time?
Engineer: But when management takes that approach you drive your engineers underground. Nobody will write a CR that they don't have a solution for if they know that their supervisor has been told to come to them three times a week to ask them about their open CRs. The engineer won't tell me about it. Thus, after we got through the VP build it reverted back to the old "hidden" system.

In physics there is a law which specifies that any action is met by an equal and opposite reaction. D"s this law from the physical sciences also apply to the behavioral arena of managerial action? What would be your reaction to pressures to reduce CRs?
Epsilon team manager: From then on, we tried to talk informally about our concerns. But that's not what you really want.

You really want a formal system in place that lets everyone know when there is an issue. Once the whole company system knows a concern exists and it's a problem, they can all think about, "Now, how might that affect me?" Everybody can work on it together.

I even went back to [the Vice President] and said, "The magic of this system is we capture everything, I mean everybody knows about it from the day we capture it."

He thought that sounded terrific, but he still didn't like open concerns!

The AutoCo Learning history has been used by hundreds of people at AutoCo as well as by people in other organizations to consider the implications of learning initiatives for themselves and their teams. Organizational learning means improving performance by developing peoples' innate capabilities. This, in turn, often means emphasizing individuals' aspirations, which may clash with traditional corporate measurement, monitoring and management "control" systems. By using a learning history in group reflection, teams which embark on a learning effort can anticipate the issues that they might encounter, learning from those who have gone before them on this perilous but compelling and rewarding journey.

Learning History Research Project

After several in-depth learning history projects, the work from this research has reached a point where it is necessary to test and further develop the approach under more rigorously exacting conditions. In order to better understand the diffusion of the innovative management practices, and consider situations beyond those found in the large corporations which sponsored the MIT Center for Organizational Learning (and now the Society for Organizational Learning, SoL), I am seeking financial support and company settings for a set of studies on learning history form and practice.

A learning history extends beyond the written document that is created and used by one company. It is an approach to organizational reflection that encompasses interviewing, distillation of themes, and dissemination of "what the organization is trying to tell itself" through carefully designed workshops and other sessions. Published works would include analytical commentary by leading scholars (for example, a manuscript for a book based on the AutoCo Epsilon learning history includes Peter Senge's commentary based on a system thinking and organizational learning framework, Rosabeth Moss Kanter's commentary based on a large scale organizational change framework, and George Roth's commentary based on an Action Science and organizational change framework).

I propose learning histories as a particularly appropriate vehicle for assessing democratically-based improvement efforts which depend upon the insights and actions of organizational members. Facilitating learning processes in the service of achieving better results and improving functioning is an approach which develops the capabilities of individuals and organizations to collectively operate more effectively. Yet conventional assessment approaches, particularly when tied to evaluation, such as ethnographic methods, survey studies and focus group interviews, tend to undermine the learning of the people involved in the process of change. Assessments are often conducted mid-way through a learning process, and people "perform for the assessment" which reduces their willingness to take risks and try new ideas. Many organizational change agents suggest that the easiest way to kill a systemic improvement effort is to prematurely assess it. Yet people want to know how an initiative is progressing, what it is achieving, what mid-course corrections to make, and eventually how to replicate it. Feedback and evaluation is inevitable, and indeed desirable § or else there is no way to judge the impact of the organizational improvement approach.

In the next stage of developing a learning history approach, I would like to systematically study organizations who wish to learn from their own and other's past experiences by creating field research projects using learning histories that are used to document, assess and diffuse innovations. This setting would both create valuable documentation and allow me to test and study the learning history effectiveness, particularly in comparison to other techniques and management strategies in these critical arenas:

  1. Helping organizations involved in improvement efforts develop and enhance their capacities to reflect upon and learn from their past in the service of achieving their future goals;
  2. Increasing the skill and awareness of managers, in the process by which they select data from their experience and examine their own reasoning processes, and the implications of their assumptions on their actions;
  3. Producing reports that capture and document the learning of an organization or part of an organization;
  4. Allowing other groups in the company to learn from what an experimental group has done, in an in-depth manner, influencing the scope and nature of their own experiments productively;
  5. Study how innovations are (and are not) transferred across groups and the factors that influence the diffusion of learning in business organizations.

I propose using learning history processes to assess improvement efforts and aid in the diffusion of successful innovations as we study these efforts. To do so would involve initiating a number of projects simultaneously, testing how variations in context and process provides insight about the effectiveness and limitations of a learning history approach. For more information on this research initiative, and current status of funding and sponsors, contact George Roth (groth@mit.edu).

On line resources:

George Roth and Art Kleiner

Learning about Organizational Learning - Creating a Learning History (18.001 April 7, 1995)

George L. Roth

"Learning Histories: Using documentation to assess and facilitate organizational learning" (18.004 January 26, 1996, Revised May 3, 1996).

George Roth and Art Kleiner

The Learning Initiative at the AutoCo Epsilon Program 1991-1994" (May,1996) (Executive Summary and Chapter 1 on-line only)

George Roth and Art Kleiner

Learning Histories: A New Tool For Turning Organizational Experience Into Action," (May 9, 1997) (To be published in the Harvard Business Review, 75th Anniversary Edition, Sept/Oct 1997)

George L. Roth and Peter M. Senge

"From Theory to Practice: Research Territory, Processes and Structure at the MIT Center for Organizational Learning" (18.002 1995) (published in Journal of Change Management, Vol. 9, Iss. 1)

CCS Home  |  21C Home  |  Process Handbook