As a new manager, the idea of a ‘learning organisation’ was very attractive. There was in Probation a strong current of hostility to and suspicion of management. The trade union was enamoured with the idea of the leaderless team, as if there would be an effective organisation that lived in an innocent paradise of goodwill, away from the burdensome oversight of ‘authority’. Whilst I had never taken such a view, I shared in the suspicion of ‘management’ not least because for a long time, what they did was a mystery to me.
A model of the Probation Service as a ‘learning organisation’ was therefore very appealing, even if looking back years later, it seems the attraction was a rather naïve self-justification for my move into a management role. That said, there were a couple of features of this idea that were useful to my own developing understanding. First of all, it involved thinking of the organisation as a whole system not just as a set of organisational structures and processes. It was a way of thinking that could connect the different departments – HR, computers, property, research and information, service delivery etc., into an inter-connected system and the potential for a shared organisational culture.
Secondly, it helped me think about organisations as creative and human, where truths about psychology also applied. It had already been clear to me that learning was key to emotional survival as a probation officer, and as a person in trouble. The ability to learn from from a traumatic experience for example was an important protective factor in avoiding long term damage. (This is of course a tricky truth since the traumatised can easily feel that to talk about their learning in those circumstances is to suggest they are responsible in some way for their trauma, but that is another discussion.) It seemed clear that if a probation officer was not continually learning and discovering, they would be ‘going backwards’. This also seemed true to an organisation, which if not continually learning, would be in danger of failure and collapse.
This gave me a theoretical underpinning to a number of features of organisational life to which I gave priority. This was not about staff training in the traditional sense of sending people on courses. (Formal training provision is sadly not always promoting learning but can be used as a substitute for real learning, as a means of encouraging organisational conformity, or as a diversionary activity to avoid conflict.) It was about building learning into the mainstream activity of staff, especially through regular professional supervision, the use of team meetings to discuss practice, the inclusion of staff in organisational problem solving, the need to value the voice of all staff and so on.