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
After action reports (AAR’s) for all problem solving initiatives, departmental training scenarios, and real-life critical incidents is important to organizational learning. The review, dissemination, and accessible storage of AAR’s will be a critical component of agency learning. Any identified deficiencies or best practices identified in these documented events should be utilized as a tool for learning for the next critical incident or situation. During each after action review, those involved in the event should ask:

• What did we set out to do?
• What actually happened?
• Why was there a difference?
• What are we going to do next time?

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
One major aspect of organizational learning is maintaining the institutional memory of the organization. This organizational memory “resides in people and in the information systems the organization maintains” (Mahler & Casamayou, 2009, p. 206). Organizational memory is part of the organizational learning process and maintained as either tactic or explicit knowledge.

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
The creation of an atmosphere susceptible to learning will start with the management and leadership of the organization. The leadership must create a supportive environment for learning where employees feel comfortable sharing information and bringing problems to the table. This is especially important as teams critically review their performance during critical incidents. Information about problems and any identified or proposed solutions should be discussed openly without fear of reprieve. This exchange can occur formally during roll call training events each shift, during staff meetings, and in departmental meetings between divisions. In addition, a virtual suggestion box can be used for the proposal of new ideas and the identification of agency problems.

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
In addition to creating an environment for information sharing, organizational leaders should utilize and identify benchmarks and best practices for comparison with other organizations. A team of officers and supervisors should identify specific measures of effectiveness that really matter to the community and agency (Geller, 1997). Many problems that a police department faces are universal problems that have been dealt with before by other agencies and communities. In the past, we have approached each problem as if it is unique to our own jurisdiction. Many times, we fail to benefit from the experiences of other organizations. In an effort to move to a learning organization, future problems should be researched with other agencies to identify if they have any similar occurrences.

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.

Lessons Learned
In addition to the information being captured, the formal knowledge must be made readily available to all members of the organization. To do this, a research and development or lessons learned center could be created. The purpose of this center would be to research, document, analyze, and catalogue the available information and after action reports. The goal is to aid in decision making, leading to “more rapid and more accurate identification of problems and opportunities” (Brown & Brudney, 2003, p. 32).

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.


Learning organizations in the public sector? A study of police agencies employing information and technology to advance knowledge (Brown, M. M., & Brudney, J. L. — 2003). Public Administration Review, 63(1), 30-43.
Is yours a learning organization? (Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C., & Francesca, G. — 2008). Harvard Business Review, 1-10.
Suppose we were really serious about police departments becoming "learning organizations"? (Geller, W. A. — 1997). National Institute of Justice Journal, (234), 2-7.
Organizational learning at NASA: the Challenger and Columbia accidents (Mahler, J. G., & Casamayou, M. H. — 2009). Georgetown University Press.

About the author

Sergeant Joe Binns is 17-year veteran with the Garner (N.C.) Police Department, currently serving as a patrol supervisor. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from North Carolina State University and recently completed the requirements for his Master’s of Justice Administration from Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Joe has served in many positions within his department, including investigator, D.A.R.E. officer, public information officer, and training coordinator. He is currently a state certified law enforcement instructor/trainer with specialty certification in firearms and physical fitness. He teaches in-service and advanced training through his agency as well as the local community college system.

Contact Joe Binns.

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