4 keys to making your police agency a learning organization

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be

We’ve all heard that “We have to learn to do more with less.” I‘d like to offer an alternative: “We have to be more efficient with what we have.” 

How many times has a chief or sheriff – or other executive staff – attended a conference and returned with the latest and greatest concept for improving the agency? The “flavor of the month” seems inherent in just about every organization and I think it breeds frustration and a turn-off for most employees. With this in mind, is there a program that can teach your agency to learn?

Learn What, Exactly?

How does an organization learn? Who teaches it? Who’s responsible? Will there be resistance to this process? Will there be questions, apprehension, excuses and just plain “who cares” attitudes? 

In order to be more efficient with what we have and to be better stewards of that which the public has bestowed on us, we need to develop in our leaders, both current and future, a business mindset. Contrary to popular belief, my agency and yours as well are businesses and utilize business processes – or they should. To better understand and prepare your agency for this change in philosophy, an understanding of organizational learning has to take place. 

Organizational learning is not new – in fact, it was at one time a management fad. Back in the day, developing a learning environment was the rage, but was rarely implemented. This was in large part due to the fact that the emphasis was on highlighting the virtues of a learning organization rather than on teaching folks how to do it. Thus it was viewed as theoretical, something nice to know. 

The analogy for a learning organization is “continuous improvement.” We understand that people can learn and improve but can an organization or agency actually learn? To better understand this concept, two key components need explaining:

  1. An organization’s “theory-in-use”
  2. Its institutional knowledge

An organization's theory-in-use consists of the current operating strategies, processes, assumptions and norms that govern decision-making and the actions of the organization’s members. In other words, the thinking behind how we do business. You may think of this as the administration of the organization. Your agency’s theory-in-use is captured in its “institutional knowledge,” which in part is documented in the organizational charts, policies, procedures, systems and technology, as well as other records.

We’ve all heard the saying that if so-and-so leaves, we will lose all their “institutional knowledge.” That individual’s memories, their personal images and patterns of thinking about how things get done, may not be passed along.

Four Keys to a Learning Organization

As ideas, technology, management and other actions change the way an organization does business (its theory-in-use), the organization is learning. All this might sound academic. While some of it is, let’s look at several issues as we attempt to continuously improve the organization.

  • If organizational learning involves changing our practices or processes – our theories-in-use – we need to make sure our organization has a culture and structure to support and embrace challenging the status quo. We need to encourage and support our people to look for ways to improve how we do business. We need to create an atmosphere that propels people forward with new ideas. As with leadership, we have to give up power in order to encourage people to challenge the way things are done.
  • We must quickly and efficiently capture improvement ideas and implement them into not only actions but into our documentation, policies and procedures and the organizational psyche. Even slight delays can render a great idea impotent if it’s not rapidly instituted.
  • We must set up systems that help the organization at all levels to constantly learn. In other words, the rank and file or line personnel identify problems and issues and are encouraged and supported by the middle and executive levels to come up with solutions. All this must be part and parcel of their daily work.
  • All ideas, solutions, gains and losses, everything must be 100% transparent, available for all to see at any time. Every idea, no matter how insignificant it may seem, needs to be tracked and acted upon. Online suggestion boards are one way to do this. Everything is viewable by everyone at all times so that there is accountability on progress or the lack of. No longer is it acceptable for suggestions to languish in some black hole with no accounting for its progress.

While these concepts are simple, they are not necessarily easy to implement. Continuous learning and improvement mean change and change is frightening to most organizations. However, once it begins and becomes part of the organizational culture, it’s virtually unstoppable and you’d be surprised at the creativity and responsiveness of the organization's personnel. 

Remember, failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.

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