What Learning Organizations Are(n't)

Bloom's taxonomy (1956) provides a handy framework for assessing learning. The classification consists of six stages, describing the various phases through which people travel as they learn. In most professions, people do not progress past the Application phase, for no other reason than a lack of curiosity.

The Knowledge phase, stage 1, is where we begin to learn and recall facts, terms, basic concepts, and theories. For me, this is the phase I find myself on the subject of quantum mechanics. I know there are things called quarks, something referred to as string theory, and a cat belonging to Schrodinger. Aside from basic terminology, though, I am completely lost.

The Comprehension phase, stage 2, follows knowledge. In this phase, we understand the facts we previously learned. We can organize and describe them. We know why the various facts are fundamental and which are more important than others. As a man who raised teenage girls, this is the level I find myself on the topic of women's clothes. I know not only the apparel names but also how to assemble outfits which do not invite social suicide. The Application phase, stage 3, follows comprehension, where we apply our understanding within the real world. We can solve problems, make connections, and identify relationships between ideas. I find myself at this level with cooking, in that, I can follow a recipe, fix some seasoning mistakes, and generally keep myself alive with tasty, nutritious food.

The Application phase is where most people stop learning. I often see companies who claim they are "learning organizations" because they have begun investing in training. Peter Senge aptly states, "90% of the time, what passes for commitment is compliance" (1991, p. 218). Indeed, if you are paying people to attend training, they will. Regrettably, every teacher knows that attendance does not equate to learning. 

Curious people constitute learning organizations — only the enthusiastic progress past the Application phase of learning. We reach different levels within each area of our lives. You can usually identify how meaningful a subject is by distinguishing the learning level a person achieves. Obviously, I do not care much for quantum mechanics. Unquestionably, I care more about feeding myself than dressing like a teenage girl. On these three subjects, you know which is most and least important to me.

These facts are why we encourage people to do what they love. Anything about which you are passionate will drive you past the application phase. People tend to be curious about the things they love, which is why teenage boys hide in bushes outside pretty girls' windows. As you look around your workplace at whom to promote, pass over the people who are at the Application phase or lower. The adage "promoted to the level of incompetence" describes elevating people stuck at or below the application phase to a position higher than their knowledge, comprehension, or skill. They have ceased learning and will fail to meet the challenges of their promotion.

Next week, I'll tell you the rest. For now, take a look at your life and define the areas where you are at the Knowledge, Comprehension, and Application phases. Where are you with relationships, parenting, money management, retirement planning, or even your job? It should not surprise you to realize that you do not care much for these areas in comparison to the things which drive your curiosity. Most of these areas will be necessities like I describe above... feeding yourself or existing in close proximity to teenage girls. 

If you can't wait until next week, you can find the books to read below. Learning organizations are peeking into the windows of the world, sometimes hidden behind the cover of bushes. The people within are giggling with excitement at their latest discovery. They bubble over with emotion when explaining their passions to others. What are the regions of your life where this describes you too?

Continuing with Bloom's taxonomy, we now arrive at the exciting bits. Stage 4 is the Analysis stage. This stage reminds us of the kid taking apart the toaster to see how it works, but they do this with their relationships, their organizations, their religion, their field, or any and all of the above. These people love to analyze things. When hiring someone at the Application stage, you should find they are capable. When hiring someone at the Analysis stage, you never know what you will get. They are also capable, but these people's curiosity generates growth and continuous learning. The person you hire today will get better and better in a month, a year, and ten years. These people are where learning organizations start and where you want to start hiring.

Stage 5 is the Synthesis stage. These people have progressed beyond the Analysis stage in several areas. Having analyzed several areas, they start swapping out pieces and parts from different fields. Elon Musk, possessing degrees in physics and economics, represents someone at least at this level. His understanding of physics and economics synthesized into Tesla automobiles, Tesla factories, and SpaceX. These are the people who look at a wagon and ask, "why can't we replace the horse with an internal combustion engine?" The youtube video of the guy on the skateboard propelled by a gasoline-powered leaf blower? That's the synthesis stage in action.

Stage 6, the final st is Evaluation. This stage begins but never ends. At this stage, people have analyzed and synthesized so many subjects that they are in a position to evaluate entire systems. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were great examples of this level within science. If you look at many notable people, regardless of field, you will see that they have traveled through the stages and ended up at this one (given enough time). The Beatles' musical library moves through these stages, as does Picasso's art. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have traveled these stages. 

Actual learning organizations retain people at the top three stages of learning, especially for the highest positions on the organizational chart. The future is learning and learning organizations. If your organization remains at the application stage, you should not expect a long and enjoyable future. If you have stopped at the application stage, anticipate many of the same difficulties. 

One of the best explanations I have ever heard of compound interest extends to intelligence and learning. Ongoing learning and education is the interest you earn on what you already know, like compound interest. Yes, in the beginning, it starts slowly, and the growth is abysmal. Twenty or thirty years into your career though, Wow! When you see someone middle-age or older with significant areas of expertise, these people have accomplished this using the compounding power of intellectual interest. Don't worry. You can start earning intellectual interest today. Find something about which you are curious and learn more.

Stepping back for a moment, whom would you prefer? A doctor at the synthesis stage or application stage? How about as an attorney or a mechanic? Moreover, whom would you want for the job you have and at what level are you? These are some things to think about which, I hope, will help you focus on what is important to you. I want you to have what you want in life.

You deserve it.


Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive domain. New York, NY: McKay.

Senge, P. M. (1999). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. London, UK: Random House.

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