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Nurturing Insights: A Comprehensive Approach to Lessons Learned in the Wake of COVID-19

1 November 2020
Dr. Moria Levy

In May 2020, as the initial wave of COVID-19 ended, the State of Israel began its journey back to normalcy. Numerous organizations recognized the importance of extracting insights from the lockdown period and economic challenges. In Israel, there is a collective awareness of the need to glean lessons from experiences, a sentiment ingrained in a nation where nearly every family has a member who served in the army, fostering a culture familiar with learning from various situations. The media consistently underscores the significance of drawing lessons, especially during a malfunction. Many managers, having grown up in the military and possibly serving as commanders, possess firsthand experience with lessons learned, encompassing both failures and successes.


Recognized as a pivotal tool for organizational development, lessons learned serve as a foundation for learning by analyzing past activities and formulating systematic future courses of action, whether in response to failures or successes. Regularly incorporating lessons learned is a primary driver for continuous improvement and the pursuit of excellence. Moreover, it fosters improved communication and collaboration among teams and units, promoting shared responsibility for work, learning, and enhancement.

ROM Knowledgeware tactfully encourages its customers to consider the existence of tailored lessons-learned processes for their unique situations. Some organizations comply with this approach, and the company is acknowledged for guiding various entities through the lessons-learned journey, spanning private, public, and non-profit organizations, irrespective of their size. Despite the diversity, commonalities emerge in learning methodologies, encountered challenges, and ultimate learning outcomes.


Building upon these insights, here are some recommended steps for effectively extracting lessons from such periods:

  1. Initiate the learning process.

  2. Conclude systematically.

  3. Understand and address the challenges associated with the period.

  4. Evaluate methodologies' necessity, feasibility, and potential adaptation to enhance learning.

  5. Adopt or refine learning principles suitable for general productions, tailored specifically for the given period.


These steps outlined above are put into practice by organizations that have chosen to extract valuable lessons after the initial wave of COVID-19 during the summer of 2020. We had the privilege of accompanying these organizations throughout this learning process.


Methodological Lessons Learned

The process of lessons learned is the analysis of past activities by an individual or team, resulting in formulated recommendations for future conduct (Levy, 2017). In his doctoral dissertation on learning from experience, Jarvis presents a complementary definition of learning from experience as a review of past events to gain insights for future decision-making based on errors and successes (Jarvis, 1999). Bunning (1992) states that learning involves behavioral change resulting from accumulated experience. This implies that acquiring new knowledge is insufficient; a behavioral change based on this knowledge is essential for authentic learning. The definitions of learning and organizational learning evolved significantly at the end of the 20th century, emphasizing that learning in organizations is linked to future performance improvement (Fiol & Lyles, 1985).

These definitions underscore the crucial first step of drawing methodological lessons—lessons learned that lead to new knowledge, sharing, and application for performance improvement.


Despite the high awareness of lessons learned in the State of Israel, as of May 2020, we observed varied processes across different organizations and levels. Some organizations provide instructions to draw lessons, leaving each unit to decide how to implement them. In contrast, others manage the entire process, establishing schedules and collection processes, but the practical application remains less defined. Many organizations rely on an intuitive production methodology, engaging in discussions and summarizing as a production report. Unfortunately, this approach often leads to unmethodical management systems, resulting in incomplete conclusions and less effective recommendations that may not fully address future improvement needs.

Importance of Methodological Lessons Learned

Methodological lessons learned hold significance for several reasons. Firstly, they are goal-oriented, emphasizing an examination of past events and a focus on extracting valuable insights for future benefit. Secondly, a methodological approach enhances the potential for effective production by directing practitioners to delve into and comprehend the root factors that led to specific outcomes. Many organizations, especially those relying on intuitive production, often fail to uncover root causes, resulting in limited chances of learning and behavioral change based on accumulated knowledge. A methodological production increases the likelihood of meaningful learning.


Thirdly, methodological lessons learned provide tools for learning from failures and successes. Regardless of an event's success or failure, elements must be learned and applied for future improvement. For instance, during the 2020 Corona period, amid mistakes, successful ideas emerged, such as the notable ability to work remotely. A methodological process of concluding equips organizations with tools to analyze and learn from successes, which are inherently more challenging to dissect.


Fourthly, methodological lessons learned are more effective, consuming fewer organizational resources and time. This efficiency enhances the likelihood of successful execution, completion, and the attainment of valuable insights. Additionally, during emergency periods characterized by uncertainty, the methodological production process, as part of defined conduct, provides a crucial time-out for reflection, thinking, and learning. This is particularly essential when clarity of thinking may be compromised due to uncertainty.


Various methodologies can be adopted for lessons, with the After Action Review (AAR) methodology being notably popular. Originating from the US Army (US Army, 1993), this methodology focuses on expectations, assesses the outcomes relative to those expectations, identifies gaps, analyzes root causes, and formulates recommendations for the future. While the AAR methodology is prevalent, the key is to employ any methodology that systematically analyzes past activities and provides recommendations for future improvements.


Challenges of the Period and Coping Strategies

The unique emergency period faced by Israel in 2020, coupled with China's experience at the end of 2019, presents unprecedented challenges that many organizations never anticipated. This unpreparedness is evident across various dimensions, and while there are lessons to be learned from past crises, the distinctive nature and prolonged duration of this emergency set it apart from previous experiences in most countries and organizations, particularly in the era of modern management.

Amid these challenges, a notable characteristic is the apprehension about externalizing failures. This concern, prevalent in public and private organizations, is heightened during emergencies, impacting the nerves of those involved and creating a more delicate foundation for knowledge management professionals. This heightened fear, especially in public organizations, stems from the anticipation of public scrutiny and potential future inquiries. Engaging in lessons learned during crises necessitates a high level of sensitivity to address these concerns.


However, the nature of emergency periods, marked by overload and time constraints, often leads to postponing activities unrelated to the immediate situation. Some argue that the unique circumstances of the emergency have already imparted the necessary lessons, questioning the need for further action. To address these time-sensitive challenges, three recommended approaches include:

  1. Management Guidance: Provide clear directives from the organization's management to complete the lessons-learned process within a specified timeframe, establishing a clear deadline.

  2. Scheduled Meetings: Organize regular meetings with the individual responsible for lessons learned, whether an insider or consultant, to support and actively guide the ongoing productions.

  3. Creating Feasibility: Foster a sense of feasibility for the lessons learned initiative by emphasizing its relevance, even amidst ongoing challenges, such as facing a second wave. This helps maintain focus and commitment to an orderly learning and improvement process.


In organizations with a well-established culture of learning, where lessons are seamlessly integrated into everyday work processes, time pressure tends to have a lesser impact, as production is accustomed to being an integral part of everyday operations.


Enhancing Lessons Learned Processes

During the lessons learned phase, a common phenomenon observed is the tendency to " search under the flashlight," particularly evident in remote work. This entails adopting a new and commendable idea, implementing it swiftly, and structuring the entire production process without comprehensively exploring its various facets. To address this, accompanying production processes with a professional, whether internal or external, becomes crucial. This entity expands and deepens the learning experience, determining when and how remote work should be allowed.


Learning from an entire period, especially one marked by numerous occurrences and modes of action, is not straightforward. Unlike a focused crisis or local failure event, the challenge lies in adapting the method to extract meaningful insights from the situation's complexity, as elaborated in the following chapter.

In times of emergency and crisis, the inclination to emphasize and externalize positive actions becomes pronounced. Despite the official goal being to learn lessons, individuals often perceive the process as a test of their success and goodness, expecting a positive evaluation on this figurative exam. The emergency period is characterized by heightened goodwill, dedication, and substantial investment, and it is expected that lessons learned should acknowledge and address these aspects, not just during the production phase but prominently in the presented results.


Recognizing the human element involved and the desire for practical application of lessons, it is advisable to not only focus on insightful lessons for the future but also include, in the concluding chapter and summary accompanying the report, an emphasis on acknowledging and highlighting the positive investment made during the crisis/emergency period.


Refined Emergency Learning Methodology

While lessons learned methods applicable to routine, such as the After Action Review (AAR), can be universally suitable, given the emergency period's distinctive characteristics and challenges, consider customizing the methodology and adding emphasis to the unique circumstances we are navigating. An organization comprises diverse domains: research, engineering, development, production, marketing, sales, bookkeeping, procurement, and more. Lessons learned hold relevance for each of these realms, urging everyone to conduct their lessons learned assessments.


The essence of drawing lessons necessitates extending the insights gained. Rather than confining learning to identical or closely similar cases, it is essential to explore the broader applicability of each lesson. This involves questioning the relevance of a lesson in various contexts and categorizing it in a comprehensive lesson base (Levy & Salem, 2020; Levy, 2017), aligning with the diverse situations it should inform in the future.


A critical stride in learning lessons from an emergency or crisis is to extrapolate the learning for the benefit of the subsequent emergency or crisis and for routine operations. For instance, recognizing the value of providing greater independence to field operations, allowing local decision-making, and reducing hierarchical structures has proven beneficial. This decentralized approach, practical in scenarios like schools or local authorities making independent decisions, need not be confined to emergencies or crises alone. In conclusion, it is imperative to explore different contexts and conditions where decentralization of decision-making processes is preferable, identifying the types of decisions that warrant decentralization, applicable not only during emergencies and crises but also in routine situations.


The overarching goal of lessons learned extends beyond the anticipated scope, encompassing learning for emergencies and routine scenarios. To achieve this, it must seamlessly integrate into the applied methodology, becoming an integral and continuous part of organizational improvement efforts.

To enhance the focus on learning, it is recommended to distinctly examine three axes of learning that characterize the emergency period, offering potential insights:


The first axis revolves around decision-making processes. Crucial questions, such as the frequency of consultations, involvement of partners, centralization or decentralization of decisions, the utilization of data, and adaptation in decision-making agility, need a thorough examination. Analyzing these changes, which are applicable for future emergencies and routine scenarios, presents valuable learning opportunities.

The second learning axis scrutinizes work processes and interfaces. Assessing how processes were conducted differently, typically more efficiently during emergencies, helps evaluate whether establishing fixed, shortened processes for crises is appropriate. It also prompts consideration for permanently streamlining specific processes, acknowledging the potential for efficiency gains in professional work processes.


The third learning axis addresses management methods encompassing super management, resource management, and people management. Notably, during the 2020 emergency, some organizations discovered improved employee-manager relationships due to altered management routines enforced by physical distancing. This axis becomes integral to the overall learning process.


Given the significant interconnection between units during emergencies, a comprehensive managed process is recommended. This organized work plan enables parallel learning in various units, facilitating the identification of lessons with systemic potential, followed by aggregation and integration.


The learning approach is primarily bottom-up. By encouraging individuals to highlight noticeable changes in contrast to routine practices, the initial focus allows for exploring deeper aspects. Systematic analysis of the nature of changes, examining the order of operations, elements waived, or new components added, contributes to formulating recommendations and defining relevant conditions or criteria for the proposed changes.

Alongside questioning changes, considerations regarding the challenges to basic assumptions during the emergency are crucial. Identifying assumptions that may no longer be applicable or need stringent adherence allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the situation. For example, reevaluating assumptions related to virtual meetings or complex decision-making processes becomes pertinent. Recognizing the opportunity within emergencies, it is essential to extract the maximum benefit and not merely absorb the difficulties of the period.


Key Principles for Success in Challenging Times

To ensure the success of the learning process, specific conditions that are universally correct and relevant must be in place, with added emphasis on the specific characteristics of the period:

  1. Positive Atmosphere and Eagerness to Learn: Creating a positive atmosphere and fostering a genuine desire to learn are crucial. This is especially significant given the existing concerns, the importance of collaboration throughout the process, and, not least, during the subsequent implementation phase.

  2. Result-Oriented Approach: The learning process should be result-oriented, ensuring effectiveness and providing learning guidance in future emergencies/crises and routine scenarios. A focus on tangible outcomes helps drive meaningful improvements.

  3. Fast and Efficient Process: Given the time constraints and limited attention spans, a swift and efficient learning process is essential. Implementing lessons immediately, particularly during the ongoing challenges, is crucial for adapting conduct promptly.

  4. Active Listening to the Field: Listening to the field is paramount, as it holds valuable insights into what has genuinely changed and may only appear to have changed. Understanding the positive impacts and areas of concern is vital, as the field is directly connected to practical implementation.


Incorporating these fundamental principles enhances the learning process and ensures that lessons are applied promptly, contributing to the ongoing refinement of organizational conduct.


Looking Ahead: Lessons Learned from COVID-19 and a Call for Collaborative Learning

This article details the steps taken at various organizational levels to implement a lessons-learned system in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19 in 2020. In addition to outlining the methodologies developed and applied, a crucial realization emerged: organizations, despite their perceived uniqueness, share common lessons.


Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, many organizations faced similar challenges, leading to recurring lessons:

  1. Decentralization of Decision-Making: Empowering units and field operations.

  2. Employee Management under Pressure: Navigating workforce challenges during a crisis.

  3. Streamlining Bureaucratic Processes: Accelerating approvals in emergencies.

  4. Adapting Emergency Procedures: Updating protocols based on newfound insights.

  5. Remote Work and Meetings: Embracing flexible work arrangements even after the crisis.


Despite these commonalities, the reluctance to openly share lessons learned persists, hindering collective progress. The article concludes with a call for increased collaboration in sharing insights, challenging organizations to break the taboo surrounding lessons learned and work towards a more interconnected learning community.


Sources:

  • Bunning, C. (1992). “Turning Experience into Learning: The Strategic Challenge for Individuals and Organizations.” Journal of European Industrial Training, Bradford 1 . 6: pp. 7–1.

  • Jarvis, C.B. (1999). “Learning (or Failing to Learn) from Experience: The Dysfunctional Implications of Counterfactual Thinking in Reviewing Past Events to Improve Marketing Performance.” PhD diss., Indiana University.

  • Levy, M., & Salem, R. (2020). Implementing a Knowledge Management-Based Model for Lessons Learned. In Knowledge Management Practices in the Public Sector (pp. 196-219). IGI Global.

  • Levy, M. (2017). A Holistic Approach to Lessons Learned: How Organizations Can Benefit from Their Knowledge. CRC Press.

  • Fiol, C. M., & Lyles, M. A. (1985). Organizational learning. Academy of Management Review, (4), pp. 803–813.

  • U.S. Army (1993). “TC25-20: A Leaders Guide to After-Action Reviews


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