Continuous acquisition and application of knowledge, skills, and beliefs by individuals, teams, and the GreatWallPicture1 whole enterprise is an essential aspect of high performance organizations. However, barriers to this learning are common in organizations. These barriers must be overcome in order for organizations to have long term success. Twelve of these common barriers are:

  1. Program focus – new programs and services are evaluated in isolation rather than as interdependent parts of the whole organization, e.g., a diversity workshop is evaluated by the participants at the end of the workshop, not by everyone in the organization weeks and months after the workshop
  2. Limited resources – learning is not given adequate funding and support, e.g., staff are not given resources to experiment with new ideas before risking large scale implementation
  3. Work-learning dichotomy – producing and selling things is valued whereas learning is merely tolerated, e.g., little involvement of supervisors in the training of their direct-reports
  4. Passive leadership – leaders don’t ask themselves the hard questions and their boards and co-workers don’t question their actions, e.g., a hospital CEO continues to push for hospital expansion while nobody asks, “Is expansion in the best interests of patients, employees, doctors, and the community?”
  5. Non-learning culture – organizational values, assumptions, beliefs, behaviors, and norms do not support learning, e.g., recognizing (praise, reward, promotion, etc.) individual success but not recognizing team success
  6. Resistance to change – trying new ways of doing things is not encouraged, e.g., individuals are told to be creative and innovative but not allowed to implement their ideas
  7. Not discussing the un-discussable – everyone has a shared but un-spoken understanding that certain issues are not to be confronted and resolved, e.g., one employee’s negative attitudes are bringing down morale of the organization but nobody will talk about this problem for fear of retribution
  8. Need for control – managers intentionally and unintentionally use organization charts, policy manuals, rules and regulations, performance evaluation, compensation, budget and expense monitoring, security systems, and work-space arrangements to constrain and limit sharing and applying knowledge, e.g., lines of communication are enforced within an organization to the point that a manager in one department may not talk to a manager in another department
  9. Focus on short-term, simple solutions – managers taking the most expedient course of action without solving the long term problems within their organizations, e.g., doing multi-person layoffs to reduce costs when the real problem is not offering products and services that customers want
  10. Skilled incompetence – the tendency of managers to avoid embarrassing or threatening interactions, place blame on others, and not accept responsibility for problems, e.g., the leader of a team that failed to complete an assignment avoids asking himself, “What is it about what I am doing or saying that contributes to other people behaving in ineffective and destructive ways?”
  11. Blame, not gain language – employees tend to use mostly language that is judgmental and punitive rather than language that facilitates learning, e.g., when something goes wrong, the first words out of a manager’s mouth are, “Who is responsible for this problem?”
  12. Selective attention – not seeing (literally) and, therefore, not learning from unexpected events, e.g., two employees attend the same presentation by their CEO but understand the new organizational direction in very different ways

What additional barriers to learning have you observed in organizations?