BOOKS: Do we know what we know? - In the knowledge economy every idea counts. This challenging book argues that learning is political and problematic, says Richard Reeves. The Learning Organisation by Bob Garratt - HarperCollins Business pounds 14.99

BOOKS: Do we know what we know? - In the knowledge economy every idea counts. This challenging book argues that learning is political and problematic, says Richard Reeves. The Learning Organisation by Bob Garratt - HarperCollins Business pounds 14.99 - Th

by RICHARD REEVES, director of futures at the Industrial Societyand a Guardian columnist
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There are famously two activities that no-one is willing to admit they are bad at: sex and driving. L-plates on a car are bad enough, but a Learner Lover label is social suicide. Men, in particular, like to imagine they know all there is to know in these areas. The truth, of course, is that we are learning all the time, even at the office.

Bob Garratt is concerned with the last of these. The Learning Organisation (a revised version of the book, first published in 1987) lacks the colourful title of his previous work, The Fish Rots from the Head, but it beats the pants off most of the mountain of volumes on skills, knowledge and intellectual capital.

For a start, Garratt does not pretend that the need for companies to learn is new. He also recognises that becoming a learning organisation is a journey without a destination. The book rightly criticises the 'impulse to action rather than to reflection and learning', which is especially welcome in a world gone dot.com mad.

Garratt attacks the notion, promoted by the Government, that learning equals qualifications, and argues that corporate existence is about more than profits and shareholders; instead, a 'triple bottom line', embracing social, environmental and financial results, should be the goal.

Learning is political. Learned workers often make life uncomfortable for managers and directors. Not all learning has immediate bottom-line pay-offs for the business, and workers and owners will frequently be in conflict over training.

The book has the odd purple patch, including the appearance of one of the hoariest cliches around - the factory manager quoted as saying: 'For every pair of hands I get a free brain!' An occasional slip into trendy jargon rests uneasily with the clear simplicity of most of the prose.

But Garratt makes two major and telling points. First, he argues a passionate case for the professionalisation of directors. He reckons that only one in 10 has the strategic vision to lead their firm. This is not because of intrinsic weaknesses in the people themselves, but rather a failure to see direction as a specific skill requiring time, training, recognition and appraisal.

Lacking new skills, directors revert to managerialism, irritating their subordinates and paying insufficient attention to broader trends. Directors are too scared to be 'intelligently naive', to admit they don't know something but be bright enough to ask the right questions. Board meetings, as a result, 'tend to be mechanical, legal and uncritical, with a country club atmosphere where many things are assumed rather than tested openly for fear of causing offence'.

Garratt also shows that a learning organisation is more than a collection of learned individuals. Only if the people with the skills and knowledge are aware of their abilities and share them with colleagues can a learning organisation begin to take shape.

Dubbed 'conscious competence', this nirvana is contrasted with 'conscious incompetence' - you know you're no good; 'unconscious competence' - you're good but don't know or share it; and, most dangerous and familiar of all, 'unconscious incompetence' - you're hopeless but you think you're good.

If the book is strong on description, it lacks punch on the prescriptive side. But what recommendations there are make for pleasant reading. Garratt points out that it is the job of directors to assess the external environment, and that reading the paper, for example, should be seen as a positive indicator of leadership rather than a sign of slacking.

And he says that managerial staff would be better able to create learning environments if they were freed from the 'tyranny' of annual budgets. Imagine it ... bosses leafing through the FT, department heads without annual budgets to worry about. Now that really is a vision.

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