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Dialogue as a Mechanism of Organizational Learning

By Jason Combs

A key principle that some proponents of dialogue assert is that dialogue does not expect participants to engage in collective action.  These proponents often emphasize that while dialogue can inform action, action is not a requirement of that process. Placing an expectation of collective action on participants can foreclose the exploration of views for the purpose of achieving mutual understanding, which is so integral to dialogue.  In the extreme, certain participants might assume that understanding already has been reached and press others for a decision to be made. Collective action, moreover, requires participants to have reached some agreement with each other, and agreement and mutual understanding - which is the purpose of dialogue - are not the same.

That being said, dialogue and action are not entirely unrelated.  In fact, dialogue can be a valuable part of a larger process of collective action.  Through dialogue, participants can build mutual understanding before, during, or after specific steps are taken.  In such cases, dialogue can infuse a line of action on the part of a group or organization with the potential for individual and collective learning.

One way in which dialogue can serve this function is by providing a space for collective reflection after a decision has been made and carried out.  A notable example of such a process can be found in the U.S. Army’s “After Action Reviews” (AARs). An AAR is “a guided analysis of an organization’s performance, conducted at appropriate times during and at the conclusion of a training event or operation with the objective of improving future performance. It includes a facilitator, event participants, and other observers” (Combined Arms Center - Training, 2013).  AARs can vary in terms of their formality. Their primary purpose is to provide a space where reflection can occur after some collective action takes place, whereby those who participated in that action can learn from experience how to act with greater effectiveness in future efforts.

An After Action Review essentially addresses four questions:

  1. What did we set out to do?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. Why did it happen?
  4. What will we do in the future?

A facilitator leads the group through collective reflection on these points.  The goal is not for the facilitator to critique what happened, but to create a space where candid reflection can occur among the participants.  If participants come to any agreement about what happened, why it happened, or what they can take away from the experience with regard to future action, then this convergence of views must occur through candid self discovery:

Leaders avoid creating the environment of a critique during AARs. Because Soldiers and leaders participating in an AAR actively self-discover what happened and why, they learn and remember more than they would from a critique alone. A critique only gives one viewpoint and frequently provides little opportunity for discussion of events by participants. The climate of the critique, focusing only on what is wrong, prevents candid and open discussion of training events and stifles learning and team building.  (Combined Arms Center - Training, 2013)

By following decision making and group action with candid self-discovery, AARs allow for a process of collective learning to take place that is fundamentally tied to action.  Due to the success of this process, AARs have been adopted by many organizations outside the military, including emergency response personnel (U.S. Fire Administration, 2017) and businesses (Darling, Parry, & Moore, 2005).  Indeed, as some research has shown, when teams that work in extreme conditions when immediate compliance with the directives of an authority is necessary - such as fire fighters - do not have a space for asking questions and examining in a more critical manner what took place when the situation is less urgent, breakdowns in the chain of command can happen with detrimental results (Alder, 1997).

Departments, offices, teams, committees, and other groups at the University of Dayton do well to consider how they might incorporate a component of dialogue into their general processes for making and implementing decisions.  After Action Reviews provide one example of how dialogue - in this case, as candid reflection among group members following collective action - can strengthen an overarching process of organizational or group action. There are other frameworks for incorporating dialogue into a process of collective action in an organization.  Organizational units at UD might look to the Dialogue Zone to serve as a partner as they think about their plans for action and improvement. Facilitators can assist in developing regular spaces for collective reflection, separate from decision-making and implementation but fundamentally tied to these as elements of a larger process of strategic action.  Organizational leaders themselves can benefit from training in techniques for facilitating dialogue, similar to the unit leaders in the Army who carry out After Action Reviews. While dialogue itself must remain generally free from the expectation that participants will agree with each other or come to consensus about specific action steps, it can be paired with action at key moments to create a space of learning, so vital to achieving ever higher levels of organizational effectiveness.



References

Alder, G. S. (1997).  Managing environmental uncertainty with legitimate authority:  A comparative analysis of the Mann Gulch and Storm King Mountain Fires.  Journal of Applied Communication Research, 25, 98-114.

Combined Arms Center - Training (CAC-T) (2013).  The leader’s guide to After-Action Reviews (AAR).  Retrieved from https://www.nwcg.gov/sites/default/files/wfldp/docs/army-leaders-guide-to-aar.pdf  

Darling, M., Parry, C., & Moore, J. (2005).  Learning in the thick of it. Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2005/07/learning-in-the-thick-of-it 

U.S. Fire Administration (2017).  After action reviews: The good, the bad, and why we should care.  Retrieved from https://www.usfa.fema.gov/current_events/111617.html 

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