By Steve Kelman

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Bureaucracies as learning organizations

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Bureaucracies are not great at learning how to do things better. We've all heard the phrase "bureaucratic inertia" to describe the tendency of organizations to stay on well-worn paths and persist with old routines. Every government manager has heard the pushback to suggestions for trying something new that "we have never done it this way before." There is a literature among organizational scholars advocating "learning organizations" capable of figuring out over time how to do their jobs better, but the question is whether government bureaucracies can ever fit that bill.

I recently came across a story from an unusual source about a bureaucracy that was indeed a learning organization: the California Division of Highways in the 1950s, not a domain normally associated with organizations searching for new ways to do things.

My unusual source is Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance 1950-1963, the penultimate volume of a great series of eight books on the history of California by Kevin Starr, which I have been plowing through over the years with great enjoyment. One part of the book discusses the development of California's highway system.

The engineers in the Division of Highways, Starr writes, "seemed almost paramilitary in their uniform dress: double-breasted suits and rimmed glasses for the middle-aged; crew cuts, horn-rimmed glasses, and short-sleeve shirts for younger engineers.… In an age of conformism, they were model conformists, working in a standardized environment, paid at standardized rates, motivated by the same retirement package, living in tract housing, driving similar makes of automobiles."

Yet in the early years of the new California highway system, these bureaucrats were repeatedly looking for ways to learn how the system could work better. Signage on highways? "Motorists traveling at high speeds had to be able to read freeway signs quickly and accurately if they were to negotiate the system.… Initially, capital letters were exclusively employed before a return in 1949 to a traditional use of capital and lower-case letters. Signage on the Arroyo Seco Parkway had been found to be too small. By 1948 the Division of Highways had begun to demand large overhead signs that could be seen from all lanes of traffic, were not obliterated by glare, and were properly lit at night. After some experiment, a background color of green was chosen."

How should the highways be marked to differentiate lanes? "Experiments continued on various techniques until a successful solution -- pavement dots that emitted a rumbling noise when crossed -- was decided on." Glare? "The first solution was to emplace large plants in the dividing strip, but these plants did not prosper under the fifty-mile-per-hour winds created by opposing lanes of traffic. A low fence alternating with plants was then tried, but the problem was never fully solved."

As I read these examples, they suggest a particular model of a bureaucratic learning organization. Improvements did not come from flashing insights of creativity, like the invention of the computer mouse or the smartphone. This organization was deliberate in moving forward, even plodding, systematically scanning the environment for problems and then trying to find solutions. They are in the business of continuous improvement. If organizations such as the Division of Highways do well, they are the tortoise rather than the hare. 

One sees in the examples of the book repeated use of experimentation, patiently and doggedly trying possible solutions until one is found that works. In many ways, the bureaucratic learning organization reminds me of an approach often suggest for effectively using performance measurement to improve organizational performance, where the metrics are used to identify problems, and then the organization experiments with various changes to their processes until one is found that works. A bureaucratic learning organization may even be better than other kinds of learning organizations in situations where systematic examination of alternatives is especially valuable, and favored over flashes of creativity.

It is fair to argue that it was easier for the Division of Highways to be a learning bureaucracy because it was often dealing with problems for the first time, without the legacy of "we've always done it this way." One thing that can continue to drive learning later in an organization's life is the commitment of members to performance improvement.

An important reason for government bureaucracies not being learning organizations is that often performance expectations are too low, which fails to motivate learning. Starr notes that what impelled these boring engineers to help their organizations learn was "an evangelical zeal born of their profession and of their belief in freeways and in California's future." That continued even after the first round of learning was completed.

Learning bureaucracies are possible, but If we want them, government managers need to promote that commitment.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 02, 2019 at 6:48 PM


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