Barriers to learning – good article

Just read this –

Elliot, D., Smith. D. and McGuinness, M. 2000. Exploring the failure to learn: crises and the barriers to learning. Review of Business, 21, 3/4 pp.17-24.

Dead useful for something I am investigating at the moment.  There are lots of juicy bits.  Though the authors don’t use the term,  they are basically talking about people (and organisations) having ‘helmet fires‘.

Here’s a quote, with numbers added and [comments in brackets]

Many barriers to learning have been identified within the crisis management literature. These include:

  1. rigidity of core beliefs, values and assumptions [see also ‘smugosphere’ and the hierarchy of deep core and core policy beliefs within Advocacy Coalition Framework]
  2. ineffective communication and information difficulties [classic, when communication is top-down and regimented – “only the registrar can talk to the doctor, only the chief nurse can talk to the registrar…” #recipefordeath]
  3. failure to recognise similar or identical situations that happen elsewhere (“isomorphic” properties) [“but that disaster happened years ago, in another country, of which we know little…”]
  4. maladaptation, threat minimization and environmental shifts
  5. cognitive narrowing and event fixation [see also helmet fires]
  6. centrality of expertise, denial and disregard of outsiders [“you’re not from my tribe/you’re insufficiently obsequious, so piss off.”]
  7. lack of corporate responsibility
  8. and focus upon “single-loop” or single-cause learning.

(Elliot et al. 2000:18)

There’s an intriguing reference to United 232

In the aftermath of the accident, other flight crews placed in a simulator all failed to cope with the demands of the event.
(Elliot et al. 2000:20) [Just googled this]

And ‘after action reviews’ are often simply arse-covering and the drafting of fantasy documents

However, during the crisis of legitimation, the construction of reality is often achieved through the “lens of the powerful” – as those in positions of power seek to (re)write history to serve their own short-and long-term interests. Such an environment may provide major barriers to learning, which must be overcome if learning is to be effective and incubation avoided.
(Elliot et al. 2000:21)


Basically, we’re chimps.  If our identity gets threatened, we circle the wagons, change the subject, shoot the troublesome priest and take credit for the good luck that precedes the next disaster, which is of course, not our fault…

See also Deborah Stone’s 1989 article on causal stories and the formation of policy agendas


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