Learnings

Foundations are far from alone in their fascination with LEARNINGS, the plural form of a noun meaning “something learned.” It is certainly correct to use the word as a noun, though the usage is still uncommon outside of business schools, consulting firms, and (lately) foundations.

The popularity of the word derives from the equally popular phrase LEARNING ORGANIZATION, which burst noisily upon the management consulting scene in the late 1980s, championed by organizational theorist Peter Senge, among others. Effective organizations, the doctrine goes, are those that constantly incorporate what they learn (their LEARNINGS) into making better products, improving production methods, and generally understanding their customers and competitors better.

On the substantive merits of this idea, we can maintain a respectful silence. (We are not about to cast our lot with those luddites who ran the world before 1985, when everyone presumably believed that organizations should bar the gates to any information they did not already possess.) The trouble with LEARNINGS is not its substance but its form. Apart from being insistently trendy, the word’s main offense is that, most of the time, it’s just a needlessly exotic euphemism for the common terms “information” and “knowledge.” Yet LEARNINGS tantalizingly seems to connote something more than those other words, some deeper meaning, which often fails to materialize.

“The Foundation will document our learnings from this grant,” says one perfectly ordinary memo. What does that mean, on close inspection? It implies that we don’t simply want to record what happened when we made Grant X, but more impressively, we want to document our learnings about it. And what might those be? Ahem,… well, as it were, we’re going to learn what happened.

Like most jargon, LEARNINGS is used too often, and consequently is used where something simpler would do just as nicely, without seeming to promise undue surprises and wonders. Outside its specific context of organizational management, the word is often just a clumsy disappointment. Even inside, it frequently presumes more than it delivers.

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