Why organisational learning fails

Why organisational learning fails – a lesson from NASA

Why organisational learning fails

Why organisational learning fails: Running a safe and efficient space programme is one of the highest risk jobs of all. A new report shows that investigations into organisational learning with regard to the Challenger and Colombia space shuttle accidents at NASA have shown that fundamental organisational constraints are frequently the greatest impediment to learning.

[This Research Briefing was sent to members in February 2017]


The accidents in question

For many children of the 1980s the Challenger space shuttle explosion at launch in 1986 is burned on their memory forever. The 2003 Colombia accident, while different in nature, came down to very similar organisational problems and signified that the lessons that should have been learned in 1986 were not.





Managing risk

One of the reasons these two accidents are routinely looked at by scholars is that the investigation and analysis into what happened has been rigorous and meticulous. Further, the implications in the aerospace industries of failures of learning can be fatal and managing that risk in order to carry out the mission is core to that mission.


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Two types of problems associated with learning where risk is present


  1. There can be a case of accepting too much risk (Type I) and
  2. Being too cautious (Type II).


If one limits Type I then one increases Type II, but increasing Type I one reduces Type II.

The researchers found that improving resources can better manage both Type I and Type II problems.



Two types of problems associated with learning where risk is present


Safety vs efficiency and innovation


Putting seven people on a giant can of explosives and firing them into space is a risky business. After the Challenger Accident Investigation Board, safety became such a focus at NASA that this came at the expense of other important factors such as efficiency and innovation. However, research shows that even in business after a knock to an organisation’s confidence one tends to regain one’s focus on the task at hand. This isn’t unlike the metaphorical rider being a bit shaky for a while after getting back on the horse that bucked them off.


Dynamic safety model – Why organisational learning fails

Rasmussen’s developed the Dynamic Safety Model that can be seen in Figure 1 below:


Rasmussen’s dynamic safety model

Why organisational learning fails




Fig 1. Rasmussen’s dynamic safety model illustrating how a system can operate safely inside the boundaries of the envelope but is always under constant threat of drifting towards the boundary to performance failure

The ‘operating point’ can be seen between the three arrows, a dynamic position that can be altered by adjusting efficiency, least effort and the counter gradient from a safety standpoint. One would always drive toward a higher performance but without increasing the risk to those involved.


why organisational learning fails

High reliability organisations


In order to repeatedly send people into a risk situation one needs to be a high reliability organisation. High reliability, the researchers found, is created by


  1. “Awareness,
  2. Making critical decisions,
  3. Sharing information,
  4. Puzzling,
  5. Worrying and
  6. Acting”.


Too cautious = too much bureaucracy


However, the organisational response to the Colombia investigation was to impede these through adding new layers of bureaucracy. Key to maintaining the six factors above that make a high reliability organisation what it is, is to improve those factors rather than to take resources away from those processes to oversee them. In the eyes of the report, the safety investigation “imposed new standards… while ignoring the imposed standards that make it impossible to be [a high reliability organisation].”

How leaders lead organisational learning – Research Briefing


Bureaucracy increases costs


All bureaucracies suffer the same sickness, summed up by the researchers found that, “…elements of the way certain organizations are structured, funded, and overseen that will impede their application of the principles of high-reliability organizing.”

With bureaucracies come a culture that can often move contrary to the mission at hand.

One fundamental constraint that both created and ultimately destroyed the shuttle programme was finance. The shuttle programmer was set up in 1972 as a cheap and effective way of the US sending people to space. However,  the costs associated with safety and the bureaucracy that ended up surrounding the increasingly risk averse culture, amongst other things, grew unchecked.  This in turn increased the costs of the programme to the point at which it became financially unviable and led to the whole programme being killed off.


Reference – available to members



This paper shows the problems associated with striking a balance between safety and risk taking. At one extreme is the culture and mind-set around staying 100% safe and at the other is innovation, risk-taking and fast iterations of low cost prototypes.  The 100% safety end often becomes bureaucratic, slows things down and increases costs and the fast innovative and dynamic end is full of risk and can be dangerous.

The trick is to manage the balance, accept risk whilst still being safety conscious.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page