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The police service as a learning organisation


Chris Daniel is an Inspector in South Wales Police and an Associate member of the Institute of Management (IM). The Institute publishes Professional Manager, a monthly magazine sent out to each member. New or recently published books on a broad range of management topics are reviewed in this journal and Chris has looked at ‘Facilitating Learning Organisations’ by Professors Victoria J Marsick and Karen E Watkins.

This article looks at a number of concepts that contribute to a Learning Organisation and applies some suggestions to the context of the Police Service. The benefits of participation in outside organisations and the use of such networking can improve lateral thinking. Diversified development of staff and the use of technology is a major source of competitive advantage. It is suggested that to encourage electronic communication within organisations (and outside where appropriate) promotes dialogue for continuous improvement. A caveat to this is the foundation of a learning, rather than blame culture. The need for ubiquitous dialogue within an organisation to facilitate continuous improvement is aptly justified by the assertion that ‘each person who touches information walks away with a slightly different interpretation of it’. Some specific suggestions for moving the Police service forwards as a learning organisation are offered and the use of Information technology in some of these initiatives are linked to the concepts of Best Value.

Whilst carrying out this review, consideration has been given to how the police service can be described as a learning organisation and some perspectives are offered. Membership of institutes and organisations outside the Police service are beneficial in developing lateral thinking, creativity and innovation skills.

Moreover, ‘lateral thinking about the internet will be the major source of competitive advantage. Managers who look only within their sector or job function will soon grind to a halt. Those who make real progress will look sideways into other areas’. (Management Today, May 1998. p 84) As W T Gallwey states in ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ [1979] ‘if the conscious mind can be kept in a quiet non-judgemental state of observation and playfulness, the sub-conscious picks up new capabilities most rapidly’, – “destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate unrelated forces” as quoted from ‘The Fifth Discipline-The Art and Practice of a Learning Organisation‘ – P.M. Senge, 1997.

Senge further elaborates on the need for learning by reference to Mental Models viz – deeply ingrained assumptions generalisations or picture/images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. ‘Very often we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effect they have on our behaviour’. (These assumptions may be negative or discriminatory views, or neutral / positive perceptions of the organisation and its current relationship with the environment.)

The point is that without participation or observation in organisations outside the Police service in whatever capacity, lateral thinking is not grown to its full potential that will allow thinking outside the box. (Current Police membership of the Institute of Management is some 850 officers.) The discipline of working with Mental Models starts with turning the mirror inward, learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance enquiry, where people express their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others. ( See case study referred to below ) Another of Senge’s disciplines is Team Learning which starts with dialogue. What is required for learning is ‘Metanoia’ – a shift of the mind. This is because ‘learning has come to be synonymous with taking in information, which is only distantly related to real learning’. It could not be true to say, I’ve read a book about interviewing – now I’ve learned that. After taking in information there is a need to review, use and re-assess and continually practice this to continue – expand learning.

Effective learning is drawn from a multiple of sources, not just distance learning material, courses with personal interaction, but also from past students of previous courses. It has long been practice to seek feedback from courses but this has been on completion without time to reflect or put into practice the lessons learned. A learning organisation would I suggest, have an intranet web page to post comment and practical experience for all to benefit. ( including those not yet having been allocated a course and those who have attended previously ) Such technology provides for updates to course material to be posted for access by everyone within the organisation. There is a need to prevent courses or training becoming ( an expensive ) one-off experience that is not supported or updated after its delivery, thus creating an on-going learning community with ‘communication’ leading to one (big) learning team.

Facilitating Learning Organisations (FLO) suggests that intellectual capital is built by developing continuous learning in individuals, teams and the organisation by using systems to capture and share learning in order to create and manage knowledge effectively. There are seven imperative actions to achieve this viz ;

  1. Create continuous learning opportunities. – applies to the design of work in such a way that people can stop and learn from problems, challenges and mistakes while on the job. Also the use of incentives to support formal and particularly informal learning.
  2. Promote enquiry and dialogue. – concerns skills that are needed to learn more effectively from others. These skills enable people to present their thinking clearly with illustrations from what they have observed, to listen to others and to probe beneath the surface. These skills must be supported by a culture that permits, enables and supports continuous learning.
  3. Encourage collaboration and team learning. – refers to continuous learning within groups and to values that must be in place to support sharing of information across boundaries.
  4. Create systems to capture and share learning. – may or may not be linked to Information management technology.
  5. Empower people toward a collective vision.
  6. Connect the organisation to its environment. – people can play a key role in scanning the changing environment but to do so they need help in interpreting what they find and linking it to other people and processes in the system.
  7. Single out leaders who model and champion learning. – it is those who most easily identify and share best practice across the organisation in support of desired changes.

Marsick and Watkins (FLO)define a learning team as one in which coaching and mentoring is expected. Most managers would accept as part of their responsibilities the need to coach and develop their staff. I would offer the advantages of mentoring as a progressive level of such development and suggest that mentoring systems should be in place and mentors trained and recognised as an integral part of a Police learning organisation.

The theme of continuous professional development for managers is one to which I am fully committed as chair of South West Wales CPD group. (for practising managers at all levels across sectors/organisations) Eric Hoffer (US Philosopher) aptly captures this ethos in his quote “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists“. Hoffer would appear to support post course feedback and learning for all to benefit. (electronically)

FLO describe pro-active learning measures in some organisations who develop reward systems to encourage the identification of mistakes. The message coming from this is a change in culture from blame to learning. ( eloquently covered in ‘Police Force Reorganisation; Getting it Right’. – Nicholls 1996. Police Research Group )

One case study referred to a company that had a powerful vision to drive its renewal which involved everyone in the company talking to another employee about what they thought would make it a great organisation. Lengthy paper based, time consuming surveys take place when major change occurs. (which is forever increasing) This could be expedited considerably and more effectively if staff views were emailed onto an Intranet and grouped under common themes, thereby allowing each employee (a part of the organisation) to learn and contribute from the views of others.

Marsick and Watkins advocate the use of inquiry based approaches to learning which they call ‘dialogue’. Dialogue is a means of getting everyone’s views on the table – it is non-judgemental and involves a level playing-field where people can state anything that is on their minds. By collecting the ideas in this way a mental model or map is created of collective thinking. People are supposed to speak from their heart not engage in a debate with others about their views. Professor Guptara (MIMgt) Group Director of organisational Learning, Union Bank of Switzerland has initiated a number of think tanks where participants can think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. The organisation, UBS is less hierarchical and faster moving. It is going through fairly radical changes with the need to make even more radical changes in future (as is the Police service). However it is important to get the culture or climate right first or there is likely to be a dearth of opinion expressed.

The authors further advocate that such communication illustrated in this suggestion by the assertion that ‘each person who touches information walks away with a slightly different interpretation of it’. Knowledge is managed by the use of Information technology however they suggest that it ismore accurate to speak of ignorance management. (than knowledge management) People need to make relatively quick judgements about the over-abundance of information in their worlds. They need help in deciding what information they can screen out (Information overload).

This could be achieved by the integration of computer systems so that related information is prompted rather than searched for. A summary of suggestions to address some of the imperative actions and enhance the Police service as a learning organisation are ;

  • Update information on course content and opinion available on practical experience gained for all to view.
  • Intranet comment pages on theme headings/topics.
  • Encourage and acknowledge membership of Organisations and Institutes. Record this on a skills database for consultation with staff of relevant external experience.
  • Recognise learning effort taken outside of the box by the inclusion / use of designatory qualifications. (such as MIMgt)
  • Take part in some initiatives suggested by the Campaign for learning – at work day (contact tel. 0117 966 7755 or

In so far as ‘connecting the organisation to its environment ’ including the principle of Best Value – Compare and Consult; link up departments within the organisation with other forces via email forums. “Email has become one of the most effective sources of providing rapid feedback and has promoted spontaneous informal discussion between peers that can result in generating ideas and real problem solving“ (Peer Assisted Learning Systems[PALS] Ltd.) ‘Best Value requires a cultural change and demands the removal of intra and inter-organisational barriers’ (Professional Manager, May 1998. p 17)

To be singled out as a leader who models and champions learning; encourage the transition to a learning culture as Marsick and Watkins describe those who most easily identify and share best practice across the organisation in support of desired change.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and comments are welcome to [email protected]

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