Why Organizations Can’t Learn 3: What Does it Mean for an Organization to Learn? – Karl Weick

As is typically the case with business buzzwords, “learning organization” means different things to different people. As a relatively new concept that is frequently misunderstood, the term “Organizational learning” needs some careful grounding. Our approach will be to assemble a definition after considering the perspectives of four of the field’s pioneering thinkers. This article focuses on another major voice in the ongoing conversation about the nature of learning organizations: Karl E. Weick.

Karl E. Weick

One of Karl E. Weick’s most important contributions is his notion of organizational sense-making, the social process of making sense from chaotic circumstances. As Deborah Anocana of the MIT-Sloan School of Management put it,

“Sense-making is most often needed when our understanding of the world becomes unintelligible in some way. This occurs when the environment is changing rapidly, presenting us with surprises for which we are unprepared or confronting us with adaptive rather than technical problems to solve. Adaptive challenges— those that require a response outside our existing repertoire—often present as a gap between an aspiration and an existing capacity—a gap that cannot be closed by existing modes of operating.” (Anocana, Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, p.4)

Sense-making is an adaptive response to circumstances that in the present moment cannot be understood but nevertheless demand urgent action. The product of sense-making is a shared narrative that enables the organization to escape paralysis and move forward. Like the hypothesis of a scientific inquiry, the purpose of the sense-making narrative is to explain phenomena. However unlike a scientific hypothesis the merit of the sense-making narrative is not judged in terms of verifiable facts. What is important is that the narrative helps the organization take action that ultimately leads to successful navigation of the precipitating circumstances. At the end of the day, whether or not the initial narrative was “true”  in a scientific or legal sense is not especially important.

In Weick’s words,

“Explicit efforts at sense-making tend to occur when the current state of the world is perceived to be different from the expected state of the world, or when there is no obvious way to engage the world.”

As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, confronting the unexpected and inexplicable is becoming the norm for more and more organizations. Although sense-making is a natural if not instinctive response, some organizations are more suited for its effective practice than others. For example, effectively responding to complex emergent conditions is the core mission of high reliability organizations (HROs), such as nuclear power generation plants and air traffic control centers. Since, HROs can be viewed as “harbingers of adaptive organizational forms for an increasingly complex environment.”, Weick believed their study would yield insights from which other organizations could benefit.

It turns out that HROs and non-HRO approach organizational reliability very differently. To paraphrase Weick: To remain reliable HROs must handle “unforeseen situations in ways that forestall unintended consequences”. The traditional approach to organizational reliability built on concepts such as repeatable processes and reduction in variance falls short because it expects that the past can be treated as an effective proxy for the future. “The problem is, unvarying procedures can’t handle what they didn’t anticipate.” The effectiveness of HROs “comes not from stored procedures…but in having stable cognitive processes.” Organizational reliability then is “more grounded in adaptive human cognition and action than is the engineering definition that equates reliable outcomes with repetitive cognition and action.”

In other words, the trick is not to develop a comprehensive inventory of perfected procedures that can then be applied without thinking or as Weick would say mindlessly but to develop the ability to mindfully think under duress and adapt procedures accordingly in the moment. Stability comes not from stable production processes but from stable (collective) thinking processes. Weick suggests that “failures in process improvement programs built around reliability (e.g., Total Quality Management) often occur because the cognitive infrastructure is underdeveloped.” Organizations with developed cognitive infrastructure such as HROs differ from more typical organizations is several important ways.

HROs not only legitimize but depend on diverse perspectives for effective sense-making. Non-HROs have a single legitimate POV that authorizes, refines and standardizes procedures. HROs depend on innovation in the field to adapt existing procedures as needed. Non-HROs limit field response to pre-existing procedures and as Weick says, “if people are blocked from acting on hazards, it is not long before their “useless” observations of those hazards are also ignored or denied, and errors cumulate unnoticed”. In other words, you get the very opposite of organizational learning.

One of the hallmarks of mindful organizations is “preoccupation with failure”. Even though by definition successful HROs experience failure with less frequency than non-HROs, they systematically repress the expectation of future success to guard against overconfidence. In contrast, mindfulness is often “underdeveloped in non-HROs where people tend to focus on success rather than failure and efficiency rather than reliability.” Weick quotes Starbuck and Milliken in their account of what led to the Challenger’s disaster.

‘“Success breeds confidence and fantasy. When an organization succeeds, its managers usually attribute success to themselves or at least to their organization, rather than to luck. The organization’s members grow more confident of their own abilities, of their manager’s skills, and of their organization’s existing programs and procedures. They trust the procedures to keep them appraised of developing problems, in the belief that these procedures focus on the most important events and ignore the least significant ones.” (Starbuck and Milliken 1988, pp. 329–330).

Examples such as this one make clear how cultural factors are intimately connected to operational effectiveness and can either block or promote organizational learning.

Organizational mindfulness not only reflects the ability to learn but also reduces the need for what might be termed conventional organizational learning. Operational capability can be thought of as the ability for workers to enact effective procedures. The traditional approach to organizational learning has emphasized storing institutional knowledge within standardized procedures. Although mindful organizations also do this, they put more emphasis on sustaining tacit knowledge and effective cognition in the minds of workers. Freed from carrying the full burden of what is deemed institutional knowledge, procedures can be lightweight. Empowered workers attuned to a continuously changing environmental context configure procedures as needed at run time. Since the organization has anticipated the need to learn and prepared itself to do so the organization is able to enact new learnings without delay.

Weick’s contributions of sense-making and the mindful organization provide a detailed account of organizational learning processes and the conditions that are needed for organizations to learn. The HRO is not the perfect prototype for organizational learning, since their need to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure limits their ability to conduct exploratory learning and, as the heart of innovation, exploration is central to business agility. However, HROs do exhibit other essential qualities of business agility such as organizational responsiveness, resilience and adaptability.


Karl E. Weick is just one of the luminaries to have contributed to the definition of organizational learning. Read about Peter Senge’s contribution here. In the next two installments of this series, we will look at David Snowden and Nassim Taleb, respectively. Read more about why organizations can’t learn here.

Read more of the series:

Part 1: The Need to Learn

Part 2: What Does it Mean for an Org to Learn? – Peter Senge