The Learning Buisiness | Scoins.net | DJS

The Learning Buisiness

Here I do not mean education, though it is not impossible for an educational institution to also be a Learning Business.

A learning business is one which learns from its experience and uses this to improve its performance. Many will  immediately say 'But we all do that'. No, we don't. Learning requires us to reflect on past procedure and performance and to ask, in a very open-ended way, if the objectives were achieved, whether the results could be somehow improved, whether even the objectives are the right ones, how the objectives are stated and measured, how the resources used are described and measured - and whether this affects the result or the objectives themselves. For example, if the target is 'best possible', that implies that use of resource is no object, or that all available resource is to be used. It leaves very open when any state of completion has occurred. It may well be altogether more effective to declare some sort of 'satisfactory' state and use that as a target to meet or exceed.

Trust is an essential element of a learning business. Without trust the business will not learn and so the ethos of the business has to create situations where it is very easy to offer improvement, very easy to work independently and somehow at the same time relatively easy to recognise when unproductive effort is occurring. That mutual trust makes it likely that work is task-based, even when these tasks are open-ended. It makes metrics difficult and it is likely that many of these are subjective measures ("We did that well", "We got that wrong"); it requires reflection, which in turn means there is time put aside for recognition of the learning that has occurred and, perhaps extensive record of that having happened. Many of these attitudes run counter to 'old' management attitudes.

Learning businesses do not / cannot tolerate selfishness. Some forms of 'protected space' need to disappear. There are issues with hierarchy. Cross-relate to earlier chapter.


Indeed. I think as a society (as well as within organisations) we need to find a much better way to allow people to admit they got something wrong. It seems to me that we spend very little time interrogating how an error occurred - the emphasis is often on 'lessons learned', but how can lessons be learned without that interrogation? If and when I make a mistake when working for a customer, I really try to drill down into exactly how it happened so that I can a) apologise in a meaningful way and b) avoid it in the future. I'd say in about 60% of cases this process involves the revelation that I didn't actually make a mistake (e.g. they sent me the wrong version of a file, or they are using a Mac and didn't tell me, or a setting has inexplicably reset, or similar), and when an error *is* revelated the customer is greatly reassured by being told exactly what the error was, how it happened and how I've fixed it (e.g. I recently conflated two Jewish societies in an index for a book about Jewish societies. They had very similar names in English, German and Hebrew but were in fact two different things. The author confessed that she had also mixed them up and we added a note to the index to help the reader avoid the same error. Overall, then, the error had a positive effect on both the index and my relationship with the author *because* I interrogated it; if I had just tried to cover up the mistake that would have been far worse).

I had a similar one last year with a book that contained two men called Joseph Rowntree (the famous one, and a less famous one). The author flagged this in the text, so I disambiguated them in the index, and then had to have a fight with the idiot publisher who thought this was an error (at one point I wrote the immortal line, 'I suggest you try reading the book before you assert that you know where its defects lie').


Academia, especially at university level may be in the business of learning but consistently fails to be a Learning Business. A lot of this (failure) follows immediately from academics being in competition with each other. That ought to leave all of university administration available to become a learning business but this too fails to occur. Some of that follows from it being very difficult to remove people from a post; the system has allowed many layers of protected space to develop and so there are topics of responsibility whose guardians act as if they answer to no-one. Challenge is defeated in the best buck-passing (in circles) bureaucratic style and, in many ways, within the administration the purpose of the university is simply to continue to keep the administration in employment – and at some elevated levels, in the style to which they have become accustomed. This sort of institutional behaviour is almost unable to change; it would require remarkable external change to create any situation which the university powers would notice enough to act on and it would take a vice-chancellor of extraordinary power to be able to cause change to percolate through the layers of the bureaucracy - and stick.



Possible chapter on working from home, but see it's done already:

The shorter week. See The Atlantic June 2021  

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (book) Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Worldhas written that the current version of office work, defined by long hours and “always-on electronic chatter,” seems poorly suited to cognitive labor.

Keynes was right: Productivity has grown enough to allow for expansive amounts of leisure—it’s just that, as a society, we’ve channeled these productivity gains toward other ends. Nowadays, working less is not front of mind. Because median wages are so low, many workers want higher pay or more hours, which means more money. “If the minimum wage had continued upward, linked to productivity, it would today be [close to] $25 an hour,” Lichtenstein told me. “If you were in a revolutionary moment, you could say, ‘Let’s double the wages.’”

But you can argue that many at the low end of the pay spectrum (those paid hourly, for instance) would take every chance to grab the shorter week at no reduction in pay and then go find other work, because their pay simply isn't enough. one-fifth of all respondents said they wouldn’t be able to finish their work in that time. Instead, the most common concern was that a four-day week “won’t help some kinds of workers.” If the point of the shorter week is to have higher productivity, safer working environments and happier staff,  this doesn't work (well or better) if sections of the employment market continue to turn up to work already tired. So we might argue and even recognise that a four-day week might well widen existing inequalities. Make it work for the unskilled, and this is an idea whose moment has arrived. Advantages, in terms of hours being wasted at the office, are that all those personal activities such as booking a health visit or a maintenance worker, are done away from work —none is insisting that the four-day working week is contiguous, only that the working week is shorter; part of the 'deal' here is that the workplace is 'open' but the staff are working flexibly.

So the issue with this whole idea is that there are places and businesses where this can work, but not uniformly. That then is likely to widen existing inequalities.  To be an effective strategy at a national level, this has to provide benefits to all; the additional time should not conceptually be opportunity for more work — not more of the same, anyway, since it is likely that many already skilled would pursue additional qualifications or do voluntary work, so the unskilled and disadvantaged would be encouraged to absorb more education, though one suspects they'd perceive the need to have more income, always, being the not-quite-managing. This continues to illustrate a general societal problem that I'd like to call simply unfair. We need levelling up and, expensive though it might be, I don't see how we can call ourselves civilised until we pull the bottom edge to nearer the middle.


I'm concerned that 'more leisure time' or 'less work time' is a continuous scale, that however short we were to make the working week, the point at which workers want it to be longer is a very far way off. How short a week do we have at one job before many of us take a second or a third job? This is not necessarily a bad thing, but let us not lose sight of the initial position here, that shortening the hours per week was done to increase productive time at work, such that the total work done is very much the same as with the longer week. In many senses, work is made more efficient by discarding the waste.

For the purposes of Management from Underneath, one supposes that demonstrating to supervisory management that there are more efficient ways of working—the same production in less time—is a two-edged sword. In a 'good' environment, efficiency would be rewarded (more pay, fewer hours), but in a 'bad' environment the result would be simply to move the goalposts, reduce staff and/or increase expectations. These bad environments are what cause people to 'work to rule', to gear their work to meet the target and prefer to drive the targets toward lower productivity. That is because, largely, it is in the interests of the worker to protect its space (earlier chapter) and because it has no iron in the fire, no incentive to work on behalf of the employer, the business. I continue to see that as a general failure of management to appreciate what the leadership role is.

why?  Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2021