by Dr Ian Clarkson

Is Your Organisation an Ass?

We've all got those anecdotes or stories we know but can't recall where we first heard them or what they are actually called – we just know the content (which has often been changed or embellished over the time you've been telling them).

One such story I use is to talk about how people often compartmentalise things. I tell the story of when Robert De Niro was short of money and asked Al Pacino for a loan (or was it Al Pacino who asked Robert De Niro for money?). It was in Robert's apartment in Brooklyn (or was it in Al's apartment) and Robert had 3 money jars labelled 'rent', 'food' and 'bills'. The first two jars were full but the 'bills' jar was empty, and Robert was asking Al for a loan to pay the bills. Al asked Robert why he didn't just take money from one of the other jars and Robert replied "then I wouldn't have any money for food or rent". In other words, Robert De Niro had compartmentalised his money for certain things and wasn't prepared to change these compartments. Or something like that!

I can't remember where I heard or read of this story, and some of the detail has got hazy over time (in case you hadn't guessed from my story telling above) but nonetheless I keep telling it. If anyone knows of this story's provenance, please let me know (especially if you are Robert De Niro or Al Pacino reading this)!

Another such story is that of Buridan's ass. According to Wikipedia:

Buridan's ass is an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will. It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision between the hay and water.

In essence Buridan's ass is a story about the paralysis of indecision. The way I tell it, it involves a hungry donkey and two bales of hay (rather than hay and water). The hungry donkey doesn't know which bale of hay to eat first, and so paralysed by indecision the donkey starves to death. I always knew of this story, yet couldn't recall how I knew it or that it was called Buridan's ass. I only found out it was called Buridan's ass by searching online for 'Donkey and 2 bales of hay'.

I should add that it is really two identical bales of hay that would cause the donkey's indecision, yet I have embellished this story even more to make it fit typical organisational behaviour.

What I find sometimes when talking to organisations about their learning needs is that they know what business outcomes they want to achieve and maybe have identified a number of different options they would like to do to achieve them, yet they can't decide which to do. See the analogy with Buridan's ass? Now, I'm not saying the organisations will 'starve' as a result of this indecision, yet doing nothing is clearly not an option (well, strictly speaking doing nothing is an option, just not much of one if something needs to be done)!

The question becomes how to choose between the various options? The classic way of doing this is to create a business case for decision makers detailing the return on investment (ROI) from each option, and the recommended choice. Sounds easy enough, until it comes to quantifying and measuring the benefits from each learning option. And that's not easy. In a business case, what you are saying (in a very simplified form) is "these are the estimated costs and these are the expected benefits, and we hope the benefits outweigh the costs". So, you send 12 people on a training course, what's the ROI? We can easily find the costs, yet how to we calculate the ROI from these 12 people attending this course? Do we actually need to quantify the benefits of learning? What about: just happier staff? Or: more skilled staff? Is it enough just to have these in our business case and not quantify them?

Have you come across 'The Service-Profit Chain'? In a classic Harvard Business Review article 'Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work', the authors define The Service-Profit Chain as:

...establishing relationships between profitability, customer loyalty, and employee satisfaction, loyalty, and productivity. The links in the chain (which should be regarded as propositions) are as follows: Profit and growth are stimulated primarily by customer loyalty. Loyalty is a direct result of customer satisfaction. Satisfaction is largely influenced by the value of services provided to customers. Value is created by satisfied, loyal, and productive employees. Employee satisfaction, in turn, results primarily from high-quality support services and policies that enable employees to deliver results to customers.

Now, of course, it could depend on what industry you are in and the reference to 'profit' may seem like it is only applicable to commercial entities. What if you were in the public sector, for example? Will you need to re-define the right-hand side of the diagram so it is not 'Revenue Growth' and 'Profitability' – maybe, something related to efficiencies, or increased funding - or maybe it is enough to stop at 'Customer Satisfaction'?

So, back to Buridan's ass, and choosing what to do. One way to decide is to look at the left-hand side of this diagram and think "how does the learning options build skill levels to contribute to increased Internal Service Quality?" And The Service-Profit Chain then gives us a path to the ultimate ROI. Maybe not an easy path, but a path nonetheless.

And at the end of the day, it's easier to get to where you are going if you know what path to take. Which is my huge (and shameless) embellishment of the Alice in Wonderland quote:

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

If you would like help working out what learning needs best suit your organisational goals, please get in contact:


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