What can Laos teach us about organizational learning?

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A collection of photos in the Champassak provincial office of Électricité du Laos shows the blue-shirted employees in action. Photo: Naazneen Barma/The World Bank
The hallways of the Électricité du Laos (EDL) provincial offices in Champassak Province are filled with posters bearing bar charts and diagrams illustrating the public utility’s remarkable success in delivering electricity to the country’s still heavily rural population.

It is easy to see that data is crucial to the agency’s operations. Sitting down with EDL’s employees and managers—all wearing the agency’s signature blue-shirt uniform with pride—it also becomes apparent that the science of numbers and the art of managing people have gone hand in hand at this agency. This combination has enabled EDL to make organizational learning a central pillar of the agency’s success.

Institutions Taking Root, a recent report of which I’m a co-author,  looked at nine successful institutions in fragile and conflict-affected states that share a core set of internal operational strategies. 

One crucial element of this repertoire is fostering self-evaluation and learning. The two cases examined in Laos—Électricité du Laos (EDL) and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport’s (MPWT) road sector—demonstrate how being a learning organization requires a blend of both science and art, balancing systemic data-driven planning tools with a team-based approach to evaluation and action.

EDL maintains a thorough data collection and analysis system and makes operational decisions based on these tools. Genial mid-level managers in Champassak explained to the report team their recent success using this system to address the province’s electricity losses, which fell from 26% in 2006 (back then, the highest level of provincial losses by far) to 5% in 2011 (the lowest level of losses by far).

Data analysis revealed that faulty conductors, equipment, inadequate switching stations and stealing electricity through unauthorized connections to the grid were the key sources of loss.  All district branches within the province met to discuss these challenges and elaborate a concerted strategy for addressing them.

The strategy was implemented in concert—district branches drew up their own plans of action, the management team at the provincial office handled prioritization and supervision of the strategy, and EDL headquarters assisted as necessary with training. The technical elements of electricity loss and its solutions were diagnosed through careful data analysis. Strikingly, too, all employees were apprised of the issue and dedicated to working on it together.

Organizational learning is also central to Ministry of Public Works and Transport’s (MPWT) success. In the 1990s, the agency’s core mission shifted toward an emphasis on road maintenance, which required attention to data management and administrative oversight skills as well as the engineering capacity needed for construction.

So the ministry deployed its Road Maintenance System (RMS), a sophisticated data collection and management system for maintenance of the Lao road network. It performs to international standards, and has been adapted to the Lao context. It is used to measure the performance of the road network as well as serve as a planning and budgeting tool that determines the allocation of road maintenance funds and helps define sector strategy. Data is submitted at the district level and analyzed at the provincial and national levels. Provincial units are granted a high degree of autonomy, being tasked with analyzing their own data and developing solutions for identified problems. In short, the MPWT has the capacity and tools to analyze its performance and plan and allocate resources on the basis of hard data—which, in turn, enhance the ability of the ministry to garner high-level government support for its plans.

As in EDL, the human element is crucial to the success of the emphasis on numbers. MPWT’s leaders are focused on improving their service and have emphasized a hands-on, learning-by-doing, and problem-solving approach to the ministry’s work.  Staff throughout the organization report having generally clear terms of reference along with relatively free reign to do their jobs. In turn, they expressed a pride in their role bringing success to a sector that is so crucial to Lao’s economic development and to people’s daily lives.

My single most lasting memory of our weeks of focus groups and interviews in Laos was a poster in a provincial unit of the MPWT that said, “Love your nation, maintain the roads.” The Road Maintenance System embodies the science used to do just that—and the shared vision and commitment on the part of employees and management serves as the necessary art in the equation.

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