Robert Paterson's Radio Weblog
What is really going on beneath the surface? What is the nature of the bifurcation that is unfolding? That's what interests me.

Becoming a Learning Organization - What BP's Story can tell you

What did BP do and How does this help You?

Phase 1. They tackled the tough questions about the future - Lord Browne and his senior executives struggled with the types of questions that maybe you have in your organization. In so doing, they identified the trends that were predictable in their future. They also narrowed down the list of tough questions to the few that would define the type of organization that they needed in the future.


BP’s trend analysis can be summarized as follows. They knew that they were in the “end game” for oil. This meant that they knew that being a leader in the oil business over the next 20 years would demand a much greater skill in the technical, the political and the operational fields than ever before. Why? Because they knew that all the easy oil had been found. In future, oil would be found in more challenging geology, in more challenging political environments and in more challenging environmental conditions.


Winning the end game in oil implied not only a financial effort but, above all, an intellectual effort. All that was most familiar in their past could not help them with these challenging technical questions. To win this end game would demand an exponential increase in intelligence and in capability. They had to find a way of tapping into the collective knowledge and wisdom of the entire organization.


This need to learn in a new way was magnified as they understood their business risks of trying to win the oil end game. They wanted to win this race but also recognized that the risk of focusing all their attention on the oil end game might cause them to look up after 20 years and discover that oil was over and that alternatives such as hydrogen and renewable power such as wind and solar had overtaken them.


So the learning bar had to be set even higher than winning the oil end game. BP’s leaders recognized that their future, their survival, was dependent on BP becoming technical leaders in fields that were so new that no one had the book, the chair or the place to teach it. They would have to learn all of this themselves. BP had to become the thought leaders in fields that were outside not only their own experience but beyond the ken of any person. They knew that they could only learn fast enough to win on all fronts if they set BP up as huge learning organism.


So then the big question was left. How were they to do this? Was there a pathfinder? Was there an example that they could learn from of another large bureaucracy that had been successful in transforming itself.? They found such a pathfinder in an unusual place, the US Army. They established, from looking at the US Army’s work, that the key was to begin with a focus on culture. They understood from the Army that the first step was to create a culture that would promote collaboration. They then could create an operational doctrine and infrastructure where this learning could be captured and further deployed by the enterprise..


So what does this mean for You?



2. They made the shift to their culture – What is at the heart of the culture issue? It is this. Real men don’t ask for directions. Real men don’t ask for help. Real men don’t share or cooperate. Browne and his team knew that they had to solve this cultural block in a masculine society of engineers and scientists. BP warn others that collaboration will not occur only as the result of installing technology.  They are clear, the culture has to be changed first to make collaboration the norm. If we are honest with each other, we will recognize that we also share this traditional culture that will get in the way of collaboration and of collegial behaviour up and down the hierarchy..


BP went to the best tool and the best teachers who had found a successful process that would open up the culture where “straight talk” between colleagues up and down the organizational hierarchy became the new cultural norm.


The tool was developed by the US Army. Called the After Action Review (The AAR) it is a very simple learning process where 4 questions are asked as a matter of routine after any event. These are:

    • What were the desired outcomes?
    • What were the actual outcomes?
    • Why were the outcomes different to those planned?
    • What was learnt


The AAR looks deceptively simple. But understanding how it works provides us with the  understanding of how to change a managerial culture. The key to the AAR is that it is a facilitated process. What is does is over time change the norms of inter level conversation in a hierarchy


The key is to recognize that in traditional organizations we are deeply encultured in the power hierarchy. A look, a tone, a word is enough to fit participants back into their power ranking and their power behaviour. It is not possible for participants to “see” through this habitual behaviour on their own. They need a facilitator to change the quality of the conversation and to keep the environment safe.


What do the US Army think of it?  Brigadier General W (Scott) Wallace, formerly in command of the NTC, has observed that the AARs have "instilled a discipline of relentlessly questioning everything we do. Above all, it has re-socialised three generations of officers to move away from a command-and-control style of leadership to one that takes advantage of distributed intelligence”.


How might an understanding of how the AAR help you?


Designing and Building the New Operational Doctrine – BP have built a new type of learning organization that underpins the traditional structural organization charts. In essence, BP’s Intellectual Capital is grown and contained in a series of interlocking Communities of Practice that extend across geography and time ( they even include retirees!) where specialists in related fields and in cross disciplinary teams learn from each other.


BP saw early that the issue was not to manage information but to make it easy for people with a question to find a colleague that had an answer. This is their insight – Knowledge Management is not about databases of explicit knowledge but is about facilitating conversations between those that have the tacit knowledge. Has this worked? BP’s European Facilities team, that build gas stations, saved over $700 million US in its first 2 years by learning from their experience as they repeated the task of building new stations. BP have  also, by using this learning process, met their 10 year Kyoto emissions target in only three years with no incremental cost to the company.


BP have built an impressive technology platform to support this learning process. Holland College at this point will need also to review its technology choices and plan and build  a collaborative learning platform that fits its needs.


What would be the anticipated result of this process? – You would become a collaborative learning organization designed to keep abreast of a rapidly changing world.



© Copyright 2003 Robert Paterson. Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.
Last update: 26/01/2003; 2:01:24 PM.