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Learning from Damage

How is (greater) damage, i.e. the negative consequences of past decisions, processed in organisations?

Organisations cannot, like people, get annoyed or state that this could have been foreseen. Instead, two variations are available to them.

They search for a scapegoat, a well-tested procedure which has been in operation for centuries. This could be a victim from the lower echelons of the hierarchy, or else someone at the top of it takes responsibility and resigns. The benefit of this first variation is that within the organisation everything can then remain as it was. Nothing needs to be changed in the decision-making programmes. The damage can, in an individual case, be classified as unlikely and in the future, also, it does not influence the rules and control mechanisms. Although this variation is often criticised, it is conspicuously persistent. This has something to do with the difficulties of choosing variation two.

If individual cases are programmed into the general rules, i.e. the organisation learns, then, inevitably, this leads to more intensive control procedures, lengthening of the decision-making processes and the avoidance of risk at the expense of opportunities. Whether this is a favourable method of learning very much depends upon the type of possible damage. This is evaluated differently in the nuclear power station than with a complaint from an individual customer. Insofar as the decision-making programmes, for reasons of a single damage incident, are shaped to be more risk-averse, this means that in consequence, during ‘normal’ conditions the organisation becomes more cumbersome, more clumsy and rigid.

It then becomes discernible that organisations can only react, once again, with risk-bearing, if their risky decisions cause obvious damage. Either they learn too much and can no longer perceive their chances so easily, or they learn too little and the damage can repeat itself.