Topical & Tangible: Organizational Learning with Ali Mostashari (COMPASS)
In January 2013, Ali Mostashari, Director of the Center for Complex Sociotechnical Systems (COMPASS) at Stevens Institute of Technology, shared his thoughts on the “challenges and potentials” for organizational learning in international development.
Dr. Ali Mostashari began his presentation by asking two key questions:
- Why does robust organizational learning for international development never seem to take off, despite heavy organizational investment and focus?
- Why does academic scholarship on organizational learning and knowledge “management” come up with a body of knowledge that does not address the situation?
In seeking to address this gap, Mostashari argues that true organizational learning is less about technology (which often co-opted knowledge management in KM’s earlier years), and more about organizational culture, policies, and structures. He points out several challenges inevitable when trying to address learning through organizational culture:
- Learning is hard to measure and therefore, allocating scarce resources towards it is difficult to justify
- Learning initiatives are often an “add-on to the cognitive workload of staff” and thus, rarely incentivized
- Learning does not happen across organizational silos, yet stovepipes are practically inevitable
- Changing organizational culture and structure is incredibly difficult
But Mostashari offers good news as well. Although he believes that “managing knowledge is impossible” and likens it to trying to control a teenager, he states that “fostering knowledge creation and enhancing its usefulness is quite feasible.” Here’s the key:
“The right principles, incentive structures, and tools can create a fertile environment, but one has to let go of outcome control. That doesn’t mean learning can’t be measured, just not engineered. To create an organizational learning process that caters to all of the organization is impossible and dilutes effectiveness. Sometimes, it is better to more effectively engage the (usually) 25-30 percent of people within the organization who have a personal drive for learning and sharing, and have the rest adapt.”
Mostashari concluded by offering a tangible tool to help people develop better organizational learning: shared systems models. By using these models to visually map causal linkages—between problems, their underlying factors, the interventions necessary to ameliorate those factors, and the resources needed for those interventions—development practitioners can accumulate and synthesize knowledge generated across similar interventions.