Organizational Learning and Occupational Safety
By Madison Hanscom, PhD
The world is changing, and it is vital to prioritize organizational learning both during times of adjustment and during sustainment periods. Exemplar knowledge sharing and learning are critical components in leading a successful business, and it is also a determinant in leading a safe one.
There is a clear connection between organizational learning and a safe work environment. For instance, according to the OSHA standards, organizations should implement procedures to investigate and analyze incidents in order to learn, determine preventative action, and identify opportunities for continual improvement. This is why when we think of organizational learning in the context of safety, usually the first thing that comes to mind is putting lessons into practice by preventing future safety incidents. This is a large part of learning and safety. Many severe safety disasters have a commonality in that there was an inability to share and interpret information from other precursor incidents. This could have presented early warning signs that would have allowed preventative measures.
Organizational learning can also help combat safety complacency by creating a higher awareness of risk and failure/near misses. This concern with failure helps the company to acknowledge the role small problems play as signs of larger problems. This awareness also helps to avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that can happen when there are not safety issues for a long time. Keeping employees engaged in the learning process will keep them thinking about risks and all the things that could go wrong at any time, even if it has been a while.
Both the people and the process will determine if it takes hold.
Knowledge sharing and learning success will be determined by both physical and psychological factors. The physical or structural components must be in place for learning to take place. For instance, there must be modes of communication and memory systems built for individuals to share safety information, disseminate it, and learn from organizational knowledge. However, a company might have the perfect system in place to be a learning organization, but if the psychological climate surrounding knowledge sharing is not supportive — it will not succeed. Team members and leaders alike must be willing to actively participate in the ongoing process.
What can leaders do to strengthen and sustain organizational learning in the safety context?
• Have the right tools in place for knowledge management. The basic needs for employees to share near misses and other critical learning moments will include a shared memory system (somewhere to store centralized information, lessons learned, and improvements based on lessons) that is easily accessible.
• Put learning into a larger context. Things usually can’t be prevented by a single person changing their attitude or behavior. Safety tends to function within a larger system composed of a group of individuals and practices/systems within the company. Think about how all of these things are related and influence an outcome during learning sessions.
• Pay special attention to how management responds to failure. It is likely that learning will not be as effective if management responds in a negative way when things go wrong. Instead, these should be approached as learning opportunities. If employees live in fear, it will be very difficult to be a learning organization because experiences will not be shared due to poor psychological safety. Create a blameless reporting environment so people can discuss error without fear of blame.
• Don’t just investigate after the fact to instill learning, think about what can be learned and applied before an incident occurs. This is an ongoing process and should be happening all the time.
• How leaders walk the talk show employees everything they need to know for how to behave in the future. If they encourage discussion and sharing, this will signal to employees they should always bring it up. If they reprimand and punish, employees will stop speaking up and try to cover up incidents.
• Stop thinking about employees as the problem and think of them as the solution. If you have the frame of mind that employees cause incidents and need to be controlled, this will not lead to constructive solutions or relationships. Instead, think about what they do well the other 99% of the time, how to learn from that, and how to create more successes. We are all human and everyone makes mistakes. It is not realistic or productive to expect anything else.
• Listen. Too often leaders forget how listening can go a long way. Actively listen, watch, ask questions, and learn from workers. Not only will this be a great thing for safety, it will build trust and collective understanding.
• Get creative when it comes to sharing knowledge and distributing information. A collective memory system is essential for tracking information, but think of other ways to share and create knowledge. These might be lunch and learns, internal social media posts, a “town hall” meeting, or companywide video updates from management.
• Give daily positive reinforcement when employees engage in behaviors that support organizational learning. This signals to employees that this should be continued and is valued in the company.
• Ensure you have a good understanding of the work. If there are blind spots in what people are doing across the team, you won’t know what you don’t know. When there is a shared understanding of what tasks are being completed across the team and what information exists in the shared memory system, this strengthens the collective intelligence and the ability to more effectively use and access information.
• Be a role model. Once agreed-upon standards are in place for organizational learning, it is up to leadership to role model these behaviors. Frequently engage in knowledge sharing and take time to pause and reflect on what has been learned in meetings or other conversations.