The culture of most organizations prevents them from learning. And without learning they are destined to have disengaged employees, high turnover, low performance teams, unproductive workplaces, inadequate responses to competitive pressures, an inability to keep up with the pace of change, and an unsustainable business. They might survive, but without continuously acquiring new knowledge and skills, enhancing competencies, and adapting to a rapidly changing environment, they cannot perform at the highest level.
What prevents organizations from learning? Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats, in an article for HBR titled Why Organizations Don’t Learn, provide us with some answers. They write:
Why do companies struggle to become or remain “learning organizations”? Through research conducted over the past decade across a wide range of industries, we have drawn this conclusion: Biases cause people to focus too much on success, take action too quickly, try too hard to fit in, and depend too much on experts.
The authors argue that organizational learning depends on overcoming these biases. Companies should embrace failure. They must see failure as a growth opportunity. Companies should take time to slow down and reflect on their actions and learn from that reflection. Companies should respect non-conforming behavior that might result in creative solutions to problems. Companies should give employees opportunities to apply their strengths and learn from each other.
In summary, they say:
It may be cheaper and easier in the short run to ignore failures, schedule work so that there’s no time for reflection, require compliance with organizational norms, and turn to experts for quick solutions. But these short-term approaches will limit the organization’s ability to learn.
I would add a few more barriers to organizational learn. One is that leaders tend to desperately seek control. Leaders use short-term, simple solutions, as well as policies, rules, and norms, out of fear that they will lose command of the situation. This discourages risk-taking. A leader who is self-confident, trusting, and has a growth mindset, will put learning ahead of control and will encourage risk-taking for the sake of learning.
Another barrier to learning is the work-learning dichotomy that is drilled into people at a very young age. Work is what your parents leave home to do someplace else; learning is what you do in school. This mindset is reinforced in college and in the workplace. When jobs and knowledge changed very slowly, this distinction made sense. Today, workers need to be continually learning and improving their performance. Work and learning have merged and it no longer makes sense to separate these activities.
Still another barrier to learning is the training culture of most organizations. This is an environment in which training is seen as the solution to any deficiency in performance, whether individual, team, or whole organization. Rather than accept responsibility for employee learning, managers assume that a training department, or a CLO, or HR will solve the problem by offering a training program that addresses the issue. A course on leadership, a workshop on listening skills, a seminar on ethics, or an elearning module on the latest project management software. Participation in training is considered a proxy for learning when we know that learning requires so much more.