Photo of a keyboard key that says 'Know How'

Learning to know about organisation design

Steve Hearsum 28th November 2019

In my last blog post, I considered what actually learning about Organisation Design entails, and where to focus. I began by suggesting a number of principles that might usefully underpin your approach to learning about and how to ‘do’ Organisation Design, and in this post I am going to unpack what learning really means in this context.

Maureen O’Hara and Graham Leicester describe learning in  21st Century organisations and leadership as being a function of four modes:

  • Learning to know;
  • Learning to be;
  • Learning to be together;
  • Learning to do.

In this post, I want to focus on the first mode and what this means for organisation design.

Learning to know

It is important at the outset to make the distinction here between knowledge and knowing.

Knowledge can be defined as:

  1. acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation; general erudition
  2. familiarity or conversance, as with a particular subject or branch of learning
  3. acquaintance or familiarity gained by sight, experience, or report
  4. the fact or state of knowing; the perception of fact or truth; clear and certain mental apprehension
  5. awareness, as of a fact or circumstance.

Typically, knowledge is equated with what is learned at school, then by extension at university and on through further adult learning. So, learning (a sufficient amount) about the models and theories associated with Organisation Design is important, but is that enough?

The short answer is an unequivocal no. Is it important to learn about approaches and models? Absolutely, but it is not sufficient. If it were, then you could go to University, study for a Masters or PhD in Organisation Design and you’re off. To offer a slightly extreme metaphor, wielding a Galbraith Star Model without understanding more than simply what it is intended to do is like asking a trainee neurosurgeon to operate on your brain having qualified purely in an academic rather than practice-based manner.


This is where we get to ‘knowing’. Knowing in the sense I mean here is to suggest that experience is the most primary form of knowing, which gets translated further through our meaning making, and ultimately, we get to a form of knowledge in action (Tosey, P. & Gregory, J.: 2002). Crucially, that knowing is participative, as  the surgeon is not operating in a vacuum: there is a patient. Similarly, when you wield your methodology or play with people’s spans of control you are by definition engaging in a participative activity. That is true even if your approach is to impose change on others., for the simple reason that participation is still required even if it is only in the form of resentful compliance.

The implications of this are that when you consider what you might need to learn in order to ‘do’ Organisation Design, and start with an assumption that it is all about models and theories (which a surprising number of people I work with seem to think, or tend to), the trap you fall into is one akin to cramming for an exam – “I need to understand all this stuff and acquire all this knowledge before I do Organisation Design”. Limiting ‘learning to know’ as a form of data upload is to miss a fundamental point, namely in order to do Organisation Design you need to:

  1. Understand change in human systems
  2. Know how to intervene in human systems

In that context, a PhD is in and of itself not enough if it comes without experience and practice, unless is possibly a professional practice or similar PhD.

The difference that makes a difference

The best Organisation Design consultants I know, as well as demonstrating points 1 and 2 above, also have a crucial additional capacity, namely that of being reflective practitioners. This means they have the ability to reflect as they act, to wield their tools and instruments and do so whilst simultaneously being open to data and feedback from the system they are operating in, adjusting their approach appropriately to the needs of their client(s).

In summary

Any field which has a degree of complexity and complication inherent to it has the capacity to evoke anxiety in those who wish to become proficient (“I need to know ALL THAT?!”). That is understandable. One way of managing anxiety is to contain and constrain it with models and theories, which explain away that complexity and offer, at least in theory, a degree of certainty. The ultimate example here is, of course, the organisation chart, and it’s no surprise that some senior leaders seek solace in them as they are intoxicating in their apparent offering of a clear answer to often complex challenges.

The reality is rather different. Anyone who has held down a job in an organisation of more than five or six people rapidly learns that the organisation chart does not reflect the reality of what you need to do to get things done at work.

The ask, therefore, is to acquire knowledge whilst engaging your critical faculties and understanding that applying this in reality will be a relational and participative endeavour. This requires the other modes of learning, which I shall turn to in the next two posts.