Organisational Development and Learning from Workplace Errors

Dr. Dee Gray

OD Practitioners should be supported to learn and share learning from workplace errors.

The emerging expertise of Organisational Development (OD) practitioners is becoming ‘professionalised’ as OD knowledge becomes codified within academic study and the application of that knowledge is utilised in organisational practice. As an emerging profession, knowledge is gained, refined and augmented by individual and group learning; sometimes this involves learning from error.

We are well aware that the NHS is a complex, fast paced and ever changing environment; we appreciate in this context that clinicians make mistakes but what about OD practitioners? OD practitioners are at the heart of any organisational change; by the nature of the work OD practitioners are change agents, but what happens when government reforms propose the sort of radical changes we have seen of late? Can OD practitioners deliver these changes and manage the process when existing lines of accountability are removed? And not just lines of accountability but members of staff to carry the changes forward are reducing so that fewer people are available to deliver the same quality service.

Issues around knowledge succession demonstrate that moving one member of staff from their area of expertise to another will result in only average performance, and that when in a new environment staff need to time to adjust and de-routinise previous learning through reflective episodes. These repeated reflective episodes lead to the sort of reflexive performance that delivers the innovation and momentum any change activity needs.  If the OD practitioners in charge of bringing about change are themselves suffering from organisational change fatigue then this will play out through commission or omission that will have knock on effects for the organisation. The NHS has become familiar with root cause analysis and ’looking upstream’ for multiple causes of workplace error, recently this systems approach to learning has shown that upstream of many errors are managers who inculcate a blame culture, who operate in secrecy, who bully staff into not talking about workplace conditions and beyond them are politicians who set unrealistic targets that set many NHS organisations up to fail. OD practitioners have the sort of situated learning that they know intuitively when something is wrong in a department, a ward, a unit or a whole organisation.  While OD practitioners are required to model and bring about adaptive learning in their organisations it is currently difficult for them to achieve if learning from their own errors are excluded. For learning to be transformative and generative within the organisation it needs to be more than the single loop type which stays ‘with the individual’ and does not move to the wider organisation. OD practitioners require the same support to enable them to learn from their errors and to share that learning with others, if the organisation is to benefit then OD practitioners should not silo their sharing with other OD practitioners but should inculcate and practice a whole systems approach and dare to be open about how they may have contributed to an error that has surfaced downstream.