What Will it Take to Make Police a Learning Organization

 A thought came up during a relaxed reading of a very interesting book, ‘Moonlighting with Einstein’ by Joshua Foer. The book raises a curious question. Why don’t we keep on improving our speeds at typing, running, or whatever skill one is learning, if practice, as we are told, improves performance. So continued typing at work or continued practice for track competitions etc should theoretically lead one to continued better timings. But instead, after achieving a personal best speed, the performance stays put at near about that level. The book mentions that performance in skills typically goes through 3 stages. A first phase of cognition, when one is learning and constantly mentally questioning the manner of achieving goals and the levels of achievement, the 2nd phase when one goes into the automatic mode of performance, called the autonomous mode, and one doesn’t need to think actively through the performance as one did in the 1st phase. This phase leads to a sense of satisfaction and results in a ‘OK plateau’ after which there is no mental push for performance improvement. Most people and professions stop at this level. But expertise actually begins after this phase. If there is dogged practice on the difficult parts, in the skills involved in games or styles of management or leadership etc, it results in expertise.
In professional life, a practical application of these insights, is in the critical importance of feedbacks in continual improvement of performance through constant learning of failures. The book gives an example from the medical profession where radiologists have very little natural feedback obtaining opportunities due to their distance from the actual patient and the progression of his disease. Therefore, expertise setting in isn’t easy unless the radiologist purposefully seeks a feedback from the treating physician/surgeon. In contrast, the surgeon gets natural feedback on the surgery done by seeing the patient improve or deteriorate. And this gets intuitively inbuilt into the surgeon’s subsequent surgeries.

This got me thinking-is there any hope for Police or Forensic scrutiny to achieve expertise levels in crime detection and public agitation management? The court’s feedback on their performance is practically non-existent due to long drawn out court trials and judgments. In December 2014, there was news about a criminal trial taking 40 years to complete! And this was just the trial court stage, with appeal before the higher courts still a possibility in that case! So there is clearly no immediate possibility of feedbacks from court trials to be working on expertise development in police and forensics. Currently, the only feedback is the media led criticism of police actions/inactions. And criticism only makes the department defensive.  Can we devise any other manner of feedback on our performance so that we can constantly learn from our failures and improve?

I think we can look at people for that feedback. The Crime Victimization Surveys that I’ve been advocating since a few years now, shows that glimmer of hope for Police departments across India to get feedback on safety and security in police station jurisdictions, from people actually consuming those services of the Police department. A 6-monthly or yearly such survey, can point us quantitatively to our successes and shortcomings. And working on solutions for the problem areas in our performance, can give us feedback in the next  surveys. Failing and learning are important to growth and policing is no exception to this rule.


4 thoughts on “What Will it Take to Make Police a Learning Organization

  1. Similar thoughts crossed my mind when I read Checklist by Dr Atul Gawande, a renowned writer in the US. He refers to practices in aviation, medicine and so on. (incidentally, in my view Gawande’s Being Mortal is a Must Read for all of us.
    Yes, the feedback loop is now recognized as vital in all spheres of life, especially the Police. I don’t know too mush about your Survey, but all I can say is instead of periodic surveys, how can you make it ongoing with constant monitoring and built in remedy mecahnism.
    Thanks for your original thoughts and valuable contribution, Pradnya.
    S S Vaidyanathan
    Guj 1959


  2. Police organizations need to be less punitive, and therefore less risk averse, if they want to become learning organizations – at the moment no officer wants to admit to a mistake to avoid punishment; only when she is assured that the matter would be examined only as a lesson for the future would she be forthcoming for evaluation.


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