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learning organization

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How to Create a Learning Culture in Organizations

Several excellent blog posts have recently come to my attention that, when combined, provide a how-to for creating a learning culture in organizations. One of these posts appears in Jane Hart’s blog, WorkGroup Learning in the Social Workplace. In this post, she writes that workplace learning is:

  1. Structured learning experiences (e.g., training) and informal learning experiences (e.g., communities of practice)
  2. Helping workers learn continuously on the job
  3. Peer-to-peer learning that is “lite on content and rich in interaction”
  4. An integral part of everything that is done in the organization, supported by technology and social networks
  5. Managed by learning professionals who facilitate both formal and informal learning experiences

Hart writes further that learning professionals should, therefore, take on a new role, that of “Enterprise Learning Community Managers.” I see this role a little differently. I think we need this role but learning professionals should teach all managers how to serve in this capacity. A learning culture needs every manager encouraging, facilitating, and holding people accountable for learning.

In another post titled, How to create sustainable behaviour change, Tom Quayle writes “learning and development needs to move away from the fixation that the way to grow the capability of your staff and improve performance is through training.” He explains that training doesn’t change long-term behavior. Employees must be motivated to change. This is done by managers communicating a compelling reason for the change, measuring the new behavior and giving feedback to employees, creating “triggers” in the work environment that remind employees what needs to be done, and building communities of employees that support shared learning.

Quayle offers some specific ideas for sustaining learning and change, such as:

Do your homework on your employees. If they're sales people and they're out on the road, how can you bring development directly to them? Is there an app or social networking forum you can communicate through? And what type of individuals are they? Are they likely to respond to emails or do they prefer face to face interactions?

In this suggestion, he is imploring managers to adapt the method of learning that they use to how particular individuals and networks learn best given the content. Use the ways they tend to communicate when conveying information to them.

In a blog carnival started by Enterprise Collaborative, Harold Jarche contributed a post titled, The learning organization: an often described, but seldom observed phenomenon. In this post, he writes that we need to:

move learning away from training and HR, as some external band-aid solution that gets called in from time to time. Learning must be an essential part of doing business in the network age. Learning has to be owned by the workers and learning support has to be a business function.

Jarche observes that learning organizations have these three characteristics:

  • People at all levels are narrating their work in a transparent environment
  • The daily routine supports social learning
  • Time is made available for reflection and sharing stories

What I think Jarche is saying and what I think is missing in most discussions of organizational learning, is an organizational routine of feedback, reflection, and active social learning. That is, organizational learning is not about training. Rather, it's about a community of workers sharing in a process of constantly seeking improvement through new knowledge, new skills, and new applications of knowledge and skills to achieving the goals of the organization. They examine what they do, compare that to what needs to be done, reflect on what they have learned, and make the needed change in the organization.

 

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Tools of a Learning Organization

The Adidas Blog asks the question, “What should a true learning organisation look like?” In response to this question, Harold Jarche writes that a learning organization has "shared power." In a learning organization, individuals control their own learning and they share this learning with others.  The organization supports learning and sharing of that learning by creating spaces and networks for conversation. Learning is a constant that is an essential part of working.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about David Garvin and Amy Edmonson of Harvard University Business School and their three building blocks of a learning organization: 1) environment; 2) work processes; and 3) leadership. I explain these building blocks in this way:

I interpret “environment” to mean organizational culture. This includes the values, basic assumptions, beliefs, expected behaviors, and norms of the organization. These aspects of culture must be aligned with continuous learning about and from the work of the organization. “Processes” are the routine ways in which the work gets done. Work and learning must be part of the same process. And by “leadership” they mean what top level leaders do to support, encourage, and remove barriers to learning and performance improvement. All three of these “building blocks” must be in place for an organization to be a truly learning organization.

So the question becomes, “How do we make work and learning part of the same process?” One way is to help people develop new knowledge in the course of their work when faced with a new task or a new challenge, whether that is operating a new tool or becoming an effective leader. This is done by MP900448345 making information accessible and by making the tools to create knowledge from that information accessible, too. We can teach people how to fish, but if they don’t have the rod, reel, and hook to catch the fish and the techniques and technology to find the fish, knowing how is useless. If we are going to democratize learning in organizations, we need to teach everyone how to learn and how to use tools to discover useful information. We need to make learning tools accessible to all employees when and where they need them.

One example of a learning tool is "Inspire", developed by RealTime Performance. This is how RealTime describes this product:

Employees are able to quickly and easily identify strengths and weaknesses, create relevant and useful development plans and engage in meaningful discussion with their manager about leadership development.

At the core of this solution is a dynamic resource library of on-the-job activities, books, articles, blogs, videos, classroom-based learning and e-learning. Each activity or resource is mapped to a leadership competency or behavior.

This wiki-like tool makes leadership development information timely and relevant. It’s a tool for organizing information for easy access and application.

A learning organization also needs tools that people can use to discover information about themselves, about teams, about the organization as a whole, and about the wider community in which the organization exists. The tools could be surveys that collect new information about groups of employees, models of the dynamics of organizational behavior, or methods for solving the organization’s most pressing problems. Some learning comes from applying these tools, but most learning comes from the reflective conversations about information that is generated.

Therefore, while the building blocks of a learning organization are environment, work processes,  and leadership, a learning organization is also using tools to continually produce new information that becomes the focus of networked conversations. 

 

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Learning Organization is Culture, Processes, and Leadership

“Organizational learning” and “learning organization” are terms that continue to be misused. It seems like these days any business, nonprofit, or government agency that provides training and education to its employees calls itself a learning organization. They might do a lot of training and education but that doesn’t necessarily mean employees are learning and, most importantly, it doesn’t mean that their individuals and teams are learning what they need to know in order to become and stay high performance organizations.

With the proliferation of elearning and mlearning, I’m afraid that more accessible training and education is being confused with learning. Companies are rightly proud of themselves for the quality and quantity of online performance support that they are providing. Whether employees are continuously learning and applying that learning to achieving strategic goals is another matter entirely.

It is organizational learning that will make some organizations more successful than others over the long run. Quoting Ray Stata, co-founder and former CEO of Analog Devices, Harvard Business Professor David Garvin says that learning may be the only sustainable competitive advantage for organizations today. He explains that products, services, and processes can be copied. This observation is being played out today in the many Web-based companies. Having a search engine, online payment processing, or social networking capability was a competitive advantage only a short time ago. No more. Software engineers can create comparable services seemingly overnight. Companies have to be continually learning and changing in order to merely stay in the game, let alone win the game.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUP4WcfNyAA] 

Garvin, one of the early thought leaders on organizational learning, and another Harvard Business Professor, Amy Edmonson, define “learning organization” in an interview he and Amy Edmonson did with HBR in 2008 (See video.). They say:

…a learning organization is an organization skilled at two things: one, creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge; and, second, acting, modifying its behavior to respond to [that] new knowledge and insights.  

Garvin and Edmonson go on to talk about the “three building blocks” of organizational learning: 1) environment; 2) work processes; and 3) leadership. I interpret “environment” to mean organizational culture. This includes the values, basic assumptions, beliefs, expected behaviors, and norms of the organization. These aspects of culture must be aligned with continuous learning about and from the work of the organization. “Processes” are the routine ways in which the work gets done. Work and learning must be part of the same process. And by “leadership” they mean what top level leaders do to support, encourage, and remove barriers to learning and performance improvement. All three of these “building blocks” must be in place for an organization to be a truly learning organization.

 

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