What is a Learning History?

A learning history is a document embedded in a consultation process.

The product

The document, typically 50-150 pages long, is a retrospective history of significant events in a company's recent past, described in the voices of people who took part in them. Researched through reflective interviews and quote-checked scrupulously, the learning history uses reflective story-telling to help a company evaluate its progress in learning (and accelerate that progress).

The flow of the document is meant to call to mind a tribal gathering: a group of people sitting around a campfire, each with a different perspective. Managers, hourly workers, union leaders, senior executives, suppliers, consultants, and customers are all included in the circle --identified only by position, as anonymously as possible. In this way, the document creates a record which allows people to recognize their own blinders, and to see their own point of view in the context of a larger, shared understanding.

We use a two-column format to tell the story:

For a larger, more readable example of a learning history (as shown in the Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 1997), use this link.

The right-hand column contains narrative by the participants of those recent events, describing their perceptions, assumptions, attitudes and responses.

The left-hand column contains analytic commentary and provocative questions, designed to make the editorial process transparent and to spur and help learning by readers of the document.

The process

The value of the learning history comes not so much from the document itself, but from the consultation process that is built around it -- the conversations held throughout the organization, in which people create shared meaning, deepen their understandings, and talk through possibilities for more effective action. Our approaches to planning, interviewing, distillation, writing, and dissemination are all carefully designed to stimulate an organization's members to reflect upon, and evaluate their own situations.

In the first planning stages, for instance, the question is raised: What "noticeable results" are visible and significant to the entire organization? ("Noticeable results" might include such "hard" measures as good quarterly performance and high quality results; it might also include such "soft" measures as people reporting that they respect their bosses more, or get along better with their spouses.) The learning history then can capture the varied ways in which different people have interpreted the meaning of those results.

In the end, after the document is completed, people throughout the rest of the organization meet in "discussion groups" -- somewhat like book reading clubs -- to talk through one or more sections of the document. Some groups have used learning histories as a basis for systems thinking conversations. Others have started to ask: "What does the learning history show about the difference between our espoused values and the actual values embedded in our company's behavior?" And others have used it to spark innovations that build upon the experiences of others, without being bound by others' prescriptive direction.

The parameters

The first learning history, at a large automobile company ("AutoCo"), took roughly a year to complete and begin disseminating. Most of that time was spent pulling the team together and gaining organizational approval and support for the process. The team worked intensely on the interviewing, distillation, writing and validation phases for three to four months. It took another year for it to percolate through the appropriate channels to be released for the outside world.

The cost of learning history projects vary widely depending upon the scale and scope of the effort. Projects we have undertaken have ranged from $25,000 to $300,000 in cost, much of this depending upon the extent to which the organization has relied on "internal" learning historians, who must take partial time away from their other duties for a period of several months. This is greater than the cost of a conventional assessment effort; it's more akin to the cost of a strategic consultation, which in fact it is -- except that the organization is engaged in consulting to itself.

And how do we evaluate the learning history itself? Like a strategic study, the value of a learning history depends upon its bottom-line benefits. These are perhaps best measured in the innovations engendered in the firm as a result of the learning history. A Senior Vice President at AutoCo put it this way in his introduction to the document:

For me, this learning history is about a beginning, not an end. We are building on what we've learned... by applying the methods and tools in two other vehicle programs. Additionally, there are many other organizational learning projects going on in the Company outside of product development. Perhaps this will enable us to see the connections among all these efforts and move to yet another level of understanding.

The audience

This diagram shows the potential audiences for a learning history. The target audience, for our work, is audience C: The rest of the organization. Audiences A and B, by themselves, do not justify the expense of a learning history. We believe that most organizations already know what they need to hear, somewhere within themselves; but they lack the capacity to listen to themselves. By focusing on Audience C, we help to build that capacity.

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Reflection Learning Associates Background

What is a Learning History?

Learning History Characteristics

RLA Products and Services

The Learning History Process (JPEG graphic)

"What we don't do at RLA"

Biographies of RLA Principals and Associates

A learning historian's bibliography -- our influences and publications, including published learning histories.

Fifth Discipline Fieldbook Home Page

MIT Learning History Page

George Roth's Home Page

Art Kleiner's Home Page