Any organization can benefit from organizational learning because it increases systems thinking skills, innovation, and adaptation of a company. Traditionally, people go to grade school, high school, and college or trade school. When they enter the workforce, there is a learning curve, in which they have to be trained in the processes, policies, software, tools, and techniques at their new job. Once they have surmounted that initial learning curve, learning wanes and they typically setting into a daily rhythm of work. Months turn into years. There are exciting times where they learn new things. There are stressful times when they are forced to learn a new technology or adapt to a sudden business change. After that change, though, things settle back to normal and learning slows down. Learning really plateaus as they “get back into the groove” and flow of work.
Individual Learning and Engagement
In my experience, I find that normal work is when my team clocks in and does their 9am-5pm, putting in a minimal to comfortable amount of effort, and then they go home to their lives. Their 8 hours at work are routine and methodical. It is, quite literally, the daily grind for them. When I set an expectation for a technical certification, they say they don’t have time to study. We pay for the certification test, provide the study materials, and then give raises if they accomplish their certifications, but they still resist individual learning. Most of them have deprogrammed themselves from learning. They don’t want to put in the effort anymore. Learning was for childhood. Learning was stressful. Now, they want to die in the daily grind without any more learning. They feel comfortable there and don’t want to change.
I, myself, am constantly up to my neck in new things. I dive right into new ideas and innovations. I grab things and own them and try to change and improve them. I mentor my team and teach leadership classes for them. I tackle problems and then I come home and study, learn, and write. Learning is constant for me. Certification and technical training is always important for me, too. The work day is too busy for me to spend any time studying, but I make time to work on new technical certifications when I come home. Learning is a part of who I am and I never stop. I realize that I am in a constant struggle to stay relevant, to learn, to grow, to innovate, to evolve, to improve, and to show may value. I excel at what I do in business only because of constant reinvestment in myself.
Organizational learning takes similar energy and engagement from staff. They need to want to learn and grow. They need to seek out learning as a way to improve the daily grind. They need to reprogram their brains to learn again, to think critically, and to consider things outside of their own 9am-5pm life. They need to re-learn how to learn.
Re-learning how to learn? Yes. They need to learn critical thinking, the scientific method, the idea of hypothesizing, data analysis, problem solving, systems thinking, and root cause analysis. They need to learn how to document and write up what they learn. They need to learn how to teach, coach, and mentor. They need to learn how to give and receive feedback. Being a learning organization takes a lot of learning! In order to be effective in the organization, the team needs to be trained how to learn and share their knowledge. They need to learn how to document what they learn and train others so that what they learn is not lost and forgotten. They need to create mechanisms and pathways to share with other teams across the organization, whether in trainings or monthly discussions. They need to be rewarded and recognized for innovation and capturing new learning.
How Can My Organization Implement Organizational Learning
In Victoria Marsick’s paper, The learning organization: An integrative vision for HRD, she emphasized five elements of a learning organization: continuous systems learning, knowledge creation and sharing, systemic thinking, increased participation and accountability in learning and innovating, and a culture and structure of communication and learning (Marsick, 1994, p.5-6). Implementing organizational learning can be divided into building blocks, according David Garvin, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino’s Harvard Business Review article titled Is Yours a Learning Organization. These building blocks, broadly, are:
- Creating a supportive learning environment
- Having learning processes and practices
- Having leadership which reinforces learning (Garvin, 2008).
In my organization, which is a technical organization of highly-skilled developers, network administrators, system administrators, project managers, and support technicians, it has been apparent that each of these mountains needs to be (continually) approached and overcome. For instance, a supportive learning environment, according to Garvin, has a high degree of psychological safety, openness to new ideas, time for reflection, and appreciation of differences (Garvin, 2008). In other words, people have the capacity and ability to try new things, not fearing failure. This can be very difficult in a performance-based organization, where failure is punished. This can be very difficult in an over-subscribed tech support system when there are absolutely zero free seconds to breathe, let alone innovate. In order to accomplish organizational learning in my organization, we are having to purposely build in time for discussion, meeting, and feedback. We are also being very deliberate about creating fast feedback loops across departments. From DevOps to Sales to Projects to Remote Support, feedback loops are being built.
Building learning processes and practices are more difficult. We formed a training committee to do internal training. We hold classes after work on skills-based training. We push for individual certification and training. We have weekly team meetings for exchange of information. Still, we are finding that we have 1000x more great ideas than we have time to implement any of them. One of the key pieces of building an effective learning process and practice is to find ways of retaining those good ideas.
Lastly, leadership needs to reinforce and encourage learning. This means that leadership has to be willing to risk performance in order to innovate and learn. Executives need to be willing to try new things and fail, and they need to encourage their team to do the same. Risks should be calculated, ideally, but it is important for organizational learning to be guided by the company values, mission, vision, and goals. The entire organization needs to learn together not only at an individual level, but as a system that shares knowledge. This can be difficult, as I mentioned before, since taking risks can be at the cost of performance, in the short term. Becoming a learning organization is a long-term plan, so constant experimentation, learning, and growth needs to happen, understanding that there is not always a short-term win with organizational learning. It is a constant and methodical process of leveling up.
Garvin, D., Edmondson, A., Gino, F. (2008). Is Yours a Learning Organization? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization
Marsick, V. (1994). The learning organization: An integrative vision for HRD. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/9678174/The_learning_organization_An_integrative_vision_for_HRD