Work Learning In

by Matthew May

"Today, I’m at my desk getting things done. I’m working. Tomorrow, I’m going to an off-site workshop. I’ll be learning.”

Work today, learn tomorrow, and never the two shall meet, right? That working and learning are two separate activities is one of the worst misconceptions in business. In fact, this is often an either/or proposition—you have to stop working before you can start learning. Sadly, many managers reinforce this belief by isolating learning in special events instead of building it into everyday activities.

Fortunately, you can reverse this trend in your office by following the example of one very large organization that is well ahead of the curve on workplace learning: the U.S. Army. By embedding a process known as after action reviews (AARs), the Army builds learning into every experience, from conducting inventory at a base kitchen to facing enemy fire. As Nancy M. Dixon points out in Common Knowledge, the practices that make AARs effective for the Army can be applied to any team or project.1

AARs are elegant in their simplicity. Each review is designed to answer three questions:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. How do we account for the difference?

While those may seem like simple questions, getting candid answers can be a tricky and complicated process, especially when what actually happened isn’t entirely good news.

With that in mind, the Army built in five important guidelines to guarantee each AAR is an open, lively and meaningful learning experience:

  1. AARs aren’t special meetings. If the Army called AARs for only certain exercises or projects, team members might suspect it was just an excuse to place blame. The routine nature of these meetings lays those fears to rest. AARs must be a regular discipline, an integral part of all work, to be effective.
  2. Everyone involved in the action must attend. If 10 people participate in an action, you have 10 valuable perspectives on what happened. Mandatory attendance for the entire team acknowledges and respects each viewpoint, sends a message of shared responsibility and ensures everyone will benefit from whatever knowledge is gained.
  3. Comments shared cannot be used in any kind of personnel action. If people fear recrimination for criticizing the actions of others, or if they’re worried about their own reputations, they may not speak up. By guaranteeing that whatever is said in an AAR stays among the team, the Army promotes the kind of candor that allows sensitive and critical information to flow more easily.
  4. Notes taken are for the team’s use only. As with the previous guideline, the purpose here is to create a safe place where team members can speak openly. Information must be recorded to preserve what is learned, but each team member is assured the notes will not be forwarded up the chain of command.
  5. AARs are facilitated by a team member. This is one more step toward preserving the integrity of the team and ensuring any airing of dirty laundry stays among its members. The agenda for an AAR is very straightforward—just answer three questions. Sophisticated facilitation is not necessary.

According to Dixon, British Petro-leum so admired this knowledge transfer process, it incorporated the process into its business practices, but with a significant modification. Since many of its projects have several distinct phases, BP holds AARs at different steps along the critical path. A single project might entail more than 10 AARs, all beneficial, all valuable.

Does your business routinely conduct assessments of completed projects or steps? Whether you call them AARs like the Army, reflections like Toyota, lessons learned like Bechtel or standing meetings like Bio-Tek Instruments (so named because everyone stands to ensure brevity), they all serve the same vital function of capturing and sharing common knowledge critical to project success. When these meetings are built into your workday regimen, they prove working and learning can happen at the same time.


  1. Nancy M. Dixon, Common Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

MATTHEW MAY is a senior advisor to the University of Toyota in Torrance, CA, and the director of Aevitas Learning, a management education firm in Westlake Village, CA. A member of ASQ and a certified quality auditor, May is also the author of Absolute Impact: The Drive for Personal Leadership (Peloton, 2003).

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