Organisational Learning and the Structural Fallacy

In a previous article I wrote about some of the things we could potentially do to overcome our ‘L&D Uncertainty Paradox’, to take the first steps towards moving beyond just the ‘training’ landscape into a wider future, there were six points that I pulled out, namely;

  1. Broaden our data sets of both inputs and expected outputs for the business.
  2. Allocate more time to interpret, analyse and to try to see things ‘as they are’, rather than as they are perceived to be.
  3. View things not as a process or technology driven exercise, but as activity within a human people-performance system.
  4. Invert the ‘requests pyramid’.
  5. Be hyper-connected and get past silos, particularly with other people and data management/intelligence functions.
  6. Be proactive to move beyond needs assessment and into needs identification.

I will certainly treat each one of these points separately in upcoming articles, but I thought I’d first attack a slightly higher level component which perhaps moves beyond learning and into a wider operational space, but nonetheless I feel pertains to all of the above points; as what we’re talking about is a mindset change and a shake up of the mental models which guide our actions.


If I was to ask you to describe your organisation in a picture, what would you draw? Before you read further, have a bit of a think about that…


More than likely you would come up with a hierarchical tree-branch structure somewhere along the same lines as the one below.

Image result for different types of organisational diagram
Image from

We’re very familiar with these structures. They are implicitly or explicitly the way we organise our work, deliver services, determine who should make decisions, delegate power, sell products, strategise….the list goes on.

We often struggle to conceptualise of another way of seeing the organisations in which we work, indeed if you type into Google images ‘organisational structure’ you will see these diagrams appear in pretty much all the results.

Now let me ask you a different question: What does a social structure look like?

Image result for social network maps
Image from

Not sure what you could have drawn there, but perhaps it could have been something like the above. Totally different, right?

This pattern of groupings can also be referred to as a tribal group, more on tribe formation and leadership can be found in talks from Seth Godin and David Logan at TedX.

For the last couple of decades we have now had the ability to begin to map human interactions and to see the interplay between individuals. I was awoken to how these structures hold together when I worked with a China-based company, Reyagroup who specialise in using these maps to determine organisational culture, they did amazing things that showed power structures, communication, collaboration, values, amongst others.

When you look at these diagrams we can immediately see that they don’t follow the same rules.

Key things to understand when we view things in hierarchies:

  1. They typically only show one variable within an organisational context – command structure
  2. They are linear. They have a start and an end, usually starting at the top and moving down.
  3. They attempt to simplify a complex landscape
  4. They are static- remove/add one component and the structure remains the same

Key things to understand when we view things as social network structures:

  1. They can show any variable – e.g: values, influence, leadership structures
  2. They are non-linear and connectivity based, and can start anywhere
  3. They attempt to represent complexity, or at least hint at one part of a wider landscape.
  4. They are dynamic – remove/add one component and the whole structure will reshift

So what’s the point? How does this connect to L&D, HR, OD, Talent Management, Change Management or any other discipline that is involved with helping an organisation to change and adapt? ie: Create learning organisations? (NB: I’m talking learning in it’s wider sense of an organisation’s ability change and respond to an environment here, not just the ‘discipline’ of learning)

Well, here’s a blindingly obvious statement:

Organisations are social structures.

Much as we would like to see them as hierarchies they simply aren’t when you dig an inch past the surface, or at least not in the clean way that our organisational diagrams portray. People connect with each other, they transgress typical power structures and make any organisation messy, difficult to understand and impact what we do in ways we often won’t expect or perhaps comprehend.

By not acknowledging this and thinking of things in hierarchical terms, are we inherently hamstringing ourselves?

I call this the organisational structure fallacy. (There may be a more correct formal term for this, but I’m running with this for now.)

When we conduct an intervention to make change, are we using the right mental models to be able to cope with the complexity of our organisations? Are we incorporating sufficient information into our operating models to understand what the net effect was, not just to the espoused outcomes, but the really interesting stuff like engagement, group cohesion, leadership, agency and ownership etc.?

Of course I’m not saying we all need to be mapping our tribal landscapes in the same way as the above diagram, though that’d be cool, it’d also be really time consuming and challenging unless you have some very specific capabilities in-house or in your supply chain.

What I am saying is our mental model of the underlying organisational structure needs to shift to accommodate for complexity and we need to get over our ideas of the traditional organisational structure. Only when we do that will we be able to implement our strategies effectively.

Perhaps in writing this article to describe the points I started with above, I’ve now added a seventh.

7: Change your mental models around how organisations work

In changing our mental model of how organisations really work, and perhaps by beginning to visualise things in a different way we can begin to see the ways where change can be made, and indeed enact the activities to move people operations into a more proactive, rather than reactive space. More on how we may be able to approach this in later articles.

I’d love to hear from you on any of the above, feel free to get in touch with me or leave a comment below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *