Demanding Change: Where does learning take place? Richard Veryard (from a conversation with Harish Jose and others)

Harish Jose tweeted “Organizations do not learn. Organizations are not humans. #Stacey #Complexity(?)”

And this generated an interesting set of responses, and the blog below from Richard Veryard.

My own initial response was to respond to this response from @fluffbuster: “Their ability to replicate their essential identity from moment to moment, irrespective of who works for it – looks a bit like – processes we explain as being enabled by ‘memory’ in the brains of living organisms. It’s a metaphor. Procedure manuals. Patents, databases, brands etc”

I said:

“Yes. This, to me, is one of those phrases ‘making one good point’ but then gets (haha) reified and misapplied (including by Stacey), leading to more misunderstanding than the original good point. The paper seems the same to me – a good point, heavily burdened by bad points.”

Between the tweet, the discussions, Richard’s typically thoughtful blog, and the original paper, there are a lot of big ideas being discussed here.

(Original paper: – which references lots of things, including Hegel in a particularly confusing way, not that that’s hard)

My original response was simply that it is important to recognise, as Stacey surely wants us to do:

  • that if we say that ‘organisational learning’ is in essence *the same thing* as ‘human learning’, we are making a category mistake
  • that is we that that ‘organisations’ ‘exist’ in the same way as ‘humans’, we are making a category mistake
  • that both of these mistakes are misleading and likely to be dangerous (and potentially ‘dehumanising’)

And I want to add that of course that is true, but that does not mean that it is invalid to talk about ‘organisations as learning things’, despite what Stacey says.

Amongst other good points, Richard relates this to ontological arguments about existence and location, and the possibility of emergent learning (all good points, I think) – and uses the inevitable non-definability of distinction-making at boundaries to (rightly) call into question where you could call humans ‘entities’ and see them as capable of decision-making, either.

But I want to just take a step back from this and say:

  • this whole discussion illustrates how it is important to be impeccable about what our words mean in the context in which we are using them, and the need for far greater collaborative patience and better branching conversation structures in this kind of conversation than either twitter or blogs allow, especially asynchronously; we would really need to work together through a branching clarification structure to fully work this through, otherwise we are at risk of constantly talking at cross-purposes, with different definitions and contexts and implications in mind
  • the ‘oppositional’ stance that Stacey uses in the quote and paper are particularly prone to this; it would be better (but less dramatic) to carefully delineate what learning is used to mean and why it can apply in that way in one context or framing or emergent situation or language game, but not another
  • this kind of conversation is what makes people thinking hard about important things look like obtuse and obscure men with nothing better to do than argue amongst themselves – but it’s an almost inevitable result of a starting-point framed as controversial.

My perspective is that, first of all, it’s important to make a clear distinction between how humans can be understood through their agency, and how organisations can be understood through the concept of ‘agency’.

But this does not mean that it’s never helpful or meaningful to talk about organisational purpose, or, indeed, organisational learning.

If the perspective of seeing an organisation (accepting that it is a constructed, conceptual entity) and thinking of it learning – in ways analogous to humans (or perhaps animals or plants or teams) learning – i.e. responding differently to its environment over time in ways consistent with having realised something about its interactions with the environment and redirected its actions as a result – is useful, then it’s useful, full stop.

Of course there is a risk that this can lead to dangerous reification, to conceiving of the organisation as ‘more’ than the people who make it up (not at all irrelevant, because people often behave in these ways – but also, the belief that this is a risk is party a category error of taking ‘other than the sum of the parts’ as ‘more than the sum of the parts’ and ‘more’ as ‘more important’ rather than ‘different from’).

But there is also a risk in the other direction; if you limit yourself strictly to only conceptualising entities based on their constituent parts – even if those consitituent parts are, as Bateson says, ‘parts of people’ – you lose insight which can only be gained at the emergent level, the ‘logical level’, the level of ‘hierarchical thinking’, of conceptualising the behaviour of the whole.

You can understand a lot about organisations by thinking of them as made up of people interacting and making decisions (and of processes, technology, internal and external interactions, mythology, symbolism, artefacts and assets) – but not the same things, in the same way, as you can by thinking of them as agents in their environment.

All of the arguments which seek to limit ‘seeing as’ are ideological traps – if there are risks in ‘seeing as’ in certain ways (and of course there always are), these need to explicitly to be part of the picture.

I’m a big fan of the remind that ‘systems don’t exist’ – how we understand things is based on our perspective, framing, pre-existing knowledge, biases, tools and measures, etc etc etc. But that should never be taken as a prohibition about useful ways of ‘seeing as’. Particularly because – taken completely literally – it would also problematise talking about ‘people’; the jumbled mass of (mis)understandings and preferences and decisions and understanding and memory and learning and so on that we are.


  • Organisations are not humans – to act as if they were would be a mistake.
  • Systems, organisations, society, ‘don’t exist’, but that is a reminder to be aware of our perspectives and preconceptions, not to deny that it is useful to think as if they exist, nor to deny the importance of the conceptual entities on people’s understandings and behaviours.
  • The essence of sytems | complexity | cybernetics is to explore our terms, our understanding and what we understand at different conceptual / logical / hierarchical levels and framings, considering emergence as well as perspective (and all the other things that make up an understanding).
  • There are meaningful ways and contexts in which it can be said that organisations learn (and even, famously, that buildings learn). This does not mean that we are making the mistake that organisations have brains and are human.

Here is Harish Jose’s tweet:

Richard Veryard’s blog post:

Demanding Change: Where does learning take place?

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Where does learning take place?

This blogpost started with an argument on Twitter. Harish Jose quoted the organization theorist Ralph Stacey:

Organizations do not learn. Organizations are not humans. 


This was reinforced by someone who tweets as SystemsNinja, suggesting that organizations don’t even exist. 

Organisations don’t really exist. X-Company doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about its place in X-Market. @SystemsNinja

continues in source:

Demanding Change: Where does learning take place?