Article: Pearl Harbour and the Learning Organization

Learning & Development

Pearl Harbour and the Learning Organization

The concept of the learning organization was propounded for the first time by Dr. Peter Senge, a leading authority on organization development and business strategy, in his path braking book "The Fifth Discipline", in 1990.
Pearl Harbour and the Learning Organization

It was a Sunday morning on December 7, 1941. The sun had come up and the American garrison at Pearl Harbour in the Hawaiian Islands was preparing for their morning chores. Many were getting ready to attend the Sunday mass after a sumptuous breakfast.  The sea was calm and the sky was clear…. a perfect weather for a spin in the aircraft or for a sailing trip on a yacht or for a picnic on the beach!! Then at 7.48 am, there was a distant drone of the engines…. the sky was full of airplanes approaching Pearl Harbour. The American soldiers were curiously staring at the sight from their billets. Suddenly a couple of the aircrafts went into a steep dive as they approached the battleships anchored in the harbour. They launched their torpedoes one after the other. The fighter escorts started machine-gunning the curious Americans staring at them from below.   

A mayhem broke out. The torpedoes found their mark and exploded throwing a huge fireball. More torpedoes were released by the incoming bombers. Soon the entire harbour was engulfed in fumes, smoke, and multiple explosions. Japan had successfully attacked United States of America to announce its entry into the world war II.  The attack comprised of 353 fighters and torpedo bombers in two waves, launched from a fleet of six aircraft carriers commanded by Admiral Yamamoto. He successfully led the Japanese fleet to the shores of Hawaii, thousands of miles away from Japan, completely undetected by a mighty U.S. Navy.

At the end of the day, the USA lost four battleships, other eight were severely damaged along with many other cruisers and destroyers either sunk or damaged. The Americans lost around hundred and eighty warplanes, over two thousand four hundred personnel died and around eleven hundred injured. Compared to this, Japanese losses were abysmal… only twenty-nine airplanes, five midget submarines lost, sixty-four of their personnel died and one was captured. 

It would be interesting to know the mind-sets of the players involved in this colossal event. The American naval staff felt that the Pearl Harbour was impregnable due to the mighty battleships of the US Pacific fleet. They felt that Japan did not have capabilities to strike at such a distance from its shores without detection. Also they had a proven intelligence that Japanese torpedoes were effective only beyond a depth of 40 feet. The Pearl Harbour had an average depth of fewer than 40 feet. 

The Japanese government was of the opinion that the Japanese armed forces were invincible. Japan had not lost a battle for the last two thousand years with any foreign power. A blow to American navy and quick victories in Pacific would force Americans to negotiate for peace. This would help Japan to overcome the trade sanctions imposed by the USA due to its aggression in China and consolidate the spoils of war as a great power. 

Admiral Yamamoto who successfully carried out the attack firmly believed that the war with the USA would bring disastrous consequences for Japan. He had strongly opposed the war till the end and only accepted the verdict when it was confirmed by Emperor Hirohito. 

It would be also interesting to examine some historical facts prior to Pearl Harbour. The Pearl Harbour was attacked twice before, in 1932 & 1938. On February 7, 1932, on a Sunday morning at 7.30 am, the carrier-based aircrafts attacked the fleet and airfields when the navy personnel was relaxing or getting ready for a mass.  The attack was led by Admiral Harry Yarnell in complete radio silence without the discovery of the fleet.  The only difference was instead of live ammunition, the attacking airplanes dropped flour sacks and flairs as it was a war gaming exercise.  Admiral Yarnell’s fleet had sailed from San Diego couple of days ago.  The opposing force had completely failed to detect their movements.   Once again in 1938, there was another successful attack simulation led by Admiral Ernest King.

Japan redesigned the fins of their torpedoes in Early 1941 to make them effective under the depth of 40 feet as they had an intelligence on the exact depth of Pearl Harbour. These torpedoes were then successfully used in the attack.  A Japanese midget submarine was discovered and sunk by USS Ward, US Navy destroyer at 6.30 am on December 7, 1941 just outside Pearl Harbour. However, it was treated as a “routine incident” and no alarm was sounded. The incoming Japanese planes were spotted by American radar but were ignored. The operators were told by the navy brass that these would be the US planes…even though there was no record of any US aircraft sorties on that fateful morning.  

The above example is among many others wherein the concerned decision makers were failed to see the obvious. There are multitudes of such examples in the history as well as in business. The important question is why such incidents arise? To develop a deeper understanding of such behaviours within the organizations, we need to explore the concept of the “learning organization”.

The concept of the learning organization was propounded for the first time by Dr. Peter Senge, a leading authority on organization development and business strategy, in his path braking book “The Fifth Discipline”, in 1990. In 1997, Harvard Business Review identified “The Fifth Discipline” as one of the “seminal management books of the previous 75 years”. In this book, Dr. Senge talks about building an organization that rejuvenates itself through continuous learning and growth. One of the impediments to this, are our perceptions or the mind-sets. If they are fully ingrained in us, then we choose not to see the obvious. Dr. Senge called such mind-sets “mental models”. In the situation at the Pearl Harbour, the top brass of the US Navy in the 1930s failed to understand the emergence of a new technology – the aircraft carrier and its impact on the naval tactics. The mighty battleships which had held the sway from the days of Trafalgar were losing their importance to the airplanes to decisively fight the naval battles.

Also, the Admirals held on to their belief that the enemy battle fleet could not sail and attack the Pearl Hharbour without any detection. Even though they were proved wrong amply through the war games; they failed to comprehend the new realities resulting in failure to sound alarm in spite of the early warnings of the Japanese attack.  Also their complete disregard for the Japanese technological abilities led to the false assumptions about the inferiority of torpedoes. The ultimate result was a catastrophic disaster for the Americans.  

The mental model of invincibility also let the Japanese imperial command and the government to ignore caution suggested by Admiral Yamamoto. They totally ignored the tenacity and the industrial superiority of the Americans and went headlong into a world war II. It eventually brought Japan a nuclear devastation and complete ruin.     

So how do we avoid such situations at work or in business? Dr. Senge has led out the following principles of a learning organization that we may like to consider. 

1. Systems thinking: we must make an effort to see a big picture by understanding the change in the surrounding environment and recognize emerging patterns. 

2. Personal Mastery: It is a development of internal competence and patience to look at reality in an objective manner. 

3. Mental Models: We must challenge and change our ingrained assumptions about the factors influencing business situations.

4. Shared Vision: Formulate objectives that we would like to achieve and strategize to move forward through developing various scenarios and planning for contingencies.

5. Team Learning: Champion dialogue, group discussions, cohesive relationships within teams. Accelerate team learning about business realities by bringing in different perspectives and achieving synergy.  

The concept of learning organization and its characteristics help us to be aware and examine our mental models and current realities, build individual and team capabilities, develop a vision as to where we want to reach and create a strong learning culture in our teams to bring out best of the ideation to fulfil our objectives. Thus we avoid situations like the Pearl Harbour!!!


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Topics: Learning & Development

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