Episode #15 - The Best Learning Method Ever Devised: After Action Reviews

The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.

––Andrew Carnegie

Between 1644 and 1737, in the small northern Italian town of Cremona, lived Antonio Stradivari, who made over 1,000 violins, violas and cellos; a harp; and a couple of lutes that bear his famous name. These instruments are the most sought-after, and expensive, in the world, regularly selling in the millions of dollars.

Today, even with all the advances in modern technology we still cannot replicate the musical quality of an instrument handcrafted over 300 years ago. The knowledge—known as “the Stradivarius secret”—has been lost.

With the so-called Graybe Boom, the average age of the workforce in the rich world is increasing at the same time many of the Boomers are anticipating retirement, making them the first wave of knowledge workers to do so.

Companies lose knowledge from people leaving, forgetting, retiring, and so on. Knowledge also becomes obsolete (what Alvin Toffler calls obsoledge) and must be constantly replenished. No one knows what the cost of this lost knowledge might be. Given the coming demographic trends, how can knowledge organizations capture some of that valuable knowledge before it is lost, like the lost Library of Alexandria?

Before we can leverage this knowledge, we must first understand how knowledge is possessed.

We Know More Than We Can Tell

A teacher tells one of his pupils to write a letter to his parents, but the student complained: “It is hard for me to write a letter.” “Why! You are now a year older, and ought to be better able to do it.” “Yes, but a year ago I could say everything I knew, but now I know more than I can say.”

Michael Polanyi, drew a distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge. To illustrate tacit knowledge, he said, try explaining how to ride a bike or swim. You know more than you tell.

Tacit knowledge is “sticky,” in that it is not easily articulated and exists in people’s minds. It is complex and rich, whereas explicit knowledge tends to be thin and low-bandwidth, like the difference between looking at a map and taking a journey of a certain terrain. It is the difference between reading the employee manual and spending one hour chatting with a coworker about the true nature of the job and culture of the firm.

Explicit is from the Latin meaning “to unfold”—to be open, to arrange, to explain. Tacit from the Latin means “silent or secret.” Try describing, in words, Marilyn Monroe’s face to someone, an almost impossible task, yet you would be able to pick her out among photographs of hundreds of faces in a moment.

Germans say Fingerspitzengefühl, “a feeling in the fingertips,” which is similar to tacit knowledge. The French say je ne sais quoi (“I don’t know what”), a pleasant way of describing tacit knowledge. The highest levels of knowledge and competence are inherently tacit, being difficult and expensive to transmit.

This type of knowledge transfer is a “social” process between individuals, and is especially important in knowledge organizations where so much of the intellectual capital (IC) is “sticky” tacit knowledge.

One of the most effective ways to capture knowledge is by utilizing an After Action Review.

Knowledge Lessons from the U.S. Army

The Army’s After Action Review (AAR) is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised.

––Peter Senge

We are not taught how the evaluation is ultimately more important than the experience. The average knowledge worker is so busy doing they do not have the time to reflect on what they have done, let alone discover major breakthroughs. But action without reflection is meaningless.

In Latin, reflect comes from the verb meaning refold, implying the action of turning things inward to see them in a different way. Reflection without action is passivity, but action without reflection is thoughtlessness. Combine experience with reflection, and learning that lasts is the result.

The Army’s use of AARs began in 1973, not as a knowledge management tool but as a method to restore the values, integrity, and accountability that had diminished during the Vietnam War.

Perhaps we ignore innovations in the military because its mission—to break things and kill people—is so divergent from that of a civilian organization. But this is far too parochial an attitude; and once again we discover a useful practice from another sector.

In fact, because the AAR is such a useful method for turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, not to mention to foster learning and sharing of knowledge throughout the organization, I highly recommend you read Hope Is Not a Method: What Business Leaders Can Learn From America’s Army, by Gordon R. Sullivan and Michael V. Harper’s .

Here are the questions you need to ask in each AAR:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • Why actually happened (the “ground truth”)?
  • What were the positive and negative factors here?
  • What have we learned and how can we do better next time?

The Army suggests you divide your time in answering the AAR’s questions into 25-25-50: That is, 25 percent reviewing what happened, 25 percent reviewing why it happened, and the remaining 50 percent on what to do about it and how can you learn from it to improve.

The objective is not just to correct things, but rather to correct thinking, as the Army has learned that flawed assumptions are the largest factor in flawed execution—another way of saying there is no good way to execute a bad idea.

The AAR could be videotaped, audio recorded, or summarized later in a formal report, any of which could be deposited into the organization’s knowledge bank. The Army also recommends answering the following summary questions to wrap up the AAR:

  • What should the organization learn from this experience of what worked and did not work?
  • What should be done differently in the future?
  • Who needs to know these lessons and conclusions?
  • Who will enter these lessons in the knowledge management system, or write the case up for future use?
  • Who will bring these lessons into the leadership process for decision-making and planning

Imagine the benefits of having a library of AARs for almost any type of project, process, or method the company may encounter. Imagine a culture that understands AARs are real work, where time is spent on not just doing the work, but also improving the way work is done.

Perfectionist cultures, however, resist this type of candid reflection, as they tend to be intolerant of errors, and mistakes are associated with career risk, not continuous learning. Confucius said “being ashamed of our mistakes turns them into crimes.” The medical world has an appropriate axiom for mistakes made: forgive and remember. Fear is another reason for learning not taking place.

AARs mitigate fear, if they are used not as a method to place blame but to learn from mistakes so they do not happen again, and identify best practices so they can be spread throughout the organization.

Your firm’s intellectual capital is the most important source of its long-term wealth creating capacity. It must be constantly replenished and created to build the firm’s invisible balance sheet. Constantly focusing on doing rather than learning, creativity, innovation, and knowledge sharing is the equivalent of eating the firm’s seed corn.

Capturing the tacit knowledge that exists in the heads of your human capital and making it part of your organization’s structural capital will insure that your firm knows what it knows, and can deploy it quicker and at a greater value than the competition. This is why former HP CEO Lew Platt said, “If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as profitable.”

The After Action Review is the best method to achieve these objectives.

Other resources

After action review meeting agenda