Becoming a learning organization
What is a learning organization and why should the criminal justice community care? The National Institute of Justice defines a learning organization as “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future” (NIJ 3). This is a powerful statement that describes how we, as criminal justice professionals, are responsible to ourselves and the community for the time and effort we put into solving problems and creating that future. The past — including our mistakes and achievements — should help shape our future decisions as we move on to other community and organizational challenges. Without learning from the past, we may be doomed to relive our mistakes and miss opportunities to have a positive impact. In addition, we waste valuable time, money, and resources.
This learning, however, should not just take place at the top echelon of the organization. Patrol officers — the ones first on the scene of any major incident — should have access to and knowledge of how others responded to similar circumstances. They should understand the challenges others have faced and how their decisions impacted the situation. Creating a mechanism to stimulate learning among all levels of the organization about both the good and the bad will create an organization that evolves and learns as it grows.
After Action Reports: A Necessity for Learning
• What did we set out to do?
By answering these questions, we will start preparing for the next time a similar event occurs. It is important, however, for the information not to remain in some filing cabinet in a commander’s office. These documents are lesson plans for the future success of the organization. They should be discussed when the opportunity permits or utilized to create training scenarios during normal in-service training. The documents must be reviewed by everyone so that all may learn from both the mistakes of others as well those decisions that led to the best outcome.
Maintaining Institutional Memory
The transfer and promotion of employees occurs frequently in most criminal justice agencies. When employees are transferred, promoted, or leave the organization, the tactic knowledge goes with them leaving a black hole in the organization. When employees leave a position, particularly those in specialized positions, the knowledge they’ve acquired during their tenure leaves with them. Criminal justice organizations must devise a system to retain or transfer that knowledge to the incoming employees.
This can be accomplished through the use of mentor or shadowing programs before employees are transferred or otherwise leave the position. Having time with the outgoing officer will be critical to pass on formal responsibilities as well as the informal knowledge gained by the incumbent officer. In addition, agencies can place employees in these positions on temporary assignment as staffing and work load permits. Officers can gain valuable first-hand experience by these temporary assignments and be better prepared to take on the challenges of that new position.
An Atmosphere for Learning
It is important to bring in different viewpoints and perceptions of what the problems and issues are in the organization. Ideally, the employee will feel free to discuss the issues in person but the suggestion box would be there if needed. Any suggestions that are worthwhile should be researched and, if feasible, put into place as soon as practical. As officers begin to believe that their suggestions and concerns are taken seriously, they will be more apt to bring these issues forward.
In addition, we must understand that individuals who are allowed to take risks will fail from time to time, either in the implementation of solutions or the solutions themselves. Failure itself is not as large of an issue in a learning organization as what is learned from the experience and how they turn those lessons into successes. Officers should be encouraged by their supervisors to think outside the box, identify different approaches to a problem, and take risks (Garvin, Edmondson, & Francesca, 2008). These risks may lead to unintended consequences for their actions but they should not be penalized for these failures. Officers will need time to both work on these problems as well as time to reflect on their solutions so they may analyze what occurred.
They are still, however, accountable for their decisions and solutions. The use of the disciplinary system should only be used for circumstances that are clear, voluntary violations of policies.
Benchmarking with Other Agencies
While problems may not be exactly the same, there can be a base of characteristics established between the two comparable problems. From there, agency and community leaders can construct a solution tailored to the specific cause. For example, if a neighboring agency has identified a practical solution to a crime problem in a residential area, another agency may begin its efforts with a solution that has already been proven in lieu of starting from scratch.
An electronic bulletin board could be created, posting information about current initiatives, after action reports, and overall strategies being utilized for various problems. The information produced from the lesson learned center would be disseminated and discussed during agency staff meetings, roll calls, or division meetings. In addition, it would be beneficial for the information to be available in the officer’s vehicle through their MDT. Having access to the information, however, is only part of the solution. The information must be reviewed by everyone to become part of their experience base in which they make decisions.
Becoming a learning organization is not an overnight event. Like developing future leaders, it is a continuous process. To become part of the agency culture, this process must remain a priority of the organization. The long term benefits will be invaluable to the agency as they continue their efforts to solve problems in the community and successfully resolve critical incidents. The consequences for failing to learn, however, could lead to costly errors and redundant efforts.
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