How an Organization Learns to Be a Learning Organization

The learning organization. Is it an enigma? A mirage? An unachievable construct? Perhaps the problem lies in thinking too big (initially).

Start With the Learner

In a learner centered model, the focus is on the learner because learning occurs only within the learner. Using this model, a learning organization must center the learning within each employee. This requires both systemic structures that support this model and individuals who are willing and are supported in this model. Because changing large systems can be overwhelming, often the change needs to work its way up from smaller sub-systems.

But what is a system? A conundrum with systems thinking is no matter how big the system, everything is reductionist at some point even though many may not recognize this. This is to say, once the system is defined, it has been reduced. In an article on systems thinking, Peter Senge explains this in reverse by stating “in a systems approach to a problem, you start by realizing that there is no inherent end to a system.”

Senge explains the need to engage an ever increasing complexity. When engaging increasing complexity from an educational theory perspective, teachers often use a process of scaffolding to help the learner move from one level to the next. If we are talking about employees, a model that has been often used is one of mentoring. In an effective mentoring relationship, the mentor provides the scaffolding while the mentee takes responsibility for the learning. In the trades, this would be recognized as an apprenticeship.

Key to all of these approaches, if keeping with Senge’s thoughts on systems thinking, is the notion that the teachers, mentors and master craftspeople do not have the answer. All involved are constructing the answer if the organization is learning.

Teams in the Organization

Teams are a key component of nearly any organization from a small partnership up through the largest multi-national corporation. The teams often have people of different skill levels, years of experience, philosophical backgrounds, etc. Some may view this as a problem, but HASTAC maintains that “difference is not our deficit; it’s our operating system.” Keeping this in mind, the team is a great place to create a learning organization.

Team members need to be held accountable to each other. This is more important than the hierarchical accountability to a superior. Team members will also need to trust each other in order to be vulnerable with each other (refer to Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team). This is important because the team will be learning together and making mistakes together in order to get the business of the organization done.

How to put this all together? The following are some examples.

Individual Team Member

Depending upon the size of a team, it may have 1 or more members who need some flexibility in spending money from the team budget for consumables, investigating new products, solving unique dilemmas, etc. If this team member(s) always needs to go to the team for approval, or worse, a supervisor, then learning is stifled and the organization is unnecessarily slowed down. The learning is stifled because the team member does not have the capacity to make decisions, and mistakes, and may not even approach the team or supervisor because of the chance of being told “no.” The organization is unnecessarily slowed down because of waiting for a team meeting to ask permission or waiting for a reply from a supervisor.

What if the team set aside a certain amount of money for the member to spend at his or her discretion? One way to do this is to ask the member to submit a request based upon the previous year’s expenditures. The team can negotiate this amount with the member, and then set aside in the budget this amount. If using a company credit card for these kinds of transactions, the monthly statement is put into a folder viewable by all team members and the supervisor. The team budget is updated monthly by reducing the member’s discretionary amount by the statement balance. If the member runs out of funds before the fiscal year is over, he or she will have to negotiate with the team for additional funds. Because the team has access to all the statements and the budget has been updated monthly, the team can decide if additional funds are warranted or not.

All along the way, the member’s purchasing decisions may be called into question by the team. This can help the member make more mindful purchases, but allows for the member to make some mistakes.

The Team

Teams need enough information to make decisions in their sphere of influence. Often, this will require giving the team access to more information than they had before. This is increasing the level of complexity, so it should be scaffolded by the supervisor. Some team members may resent having additional considerations when making a decision, but this is a cost of learning.

If a supervisor is intending to decline a team decision, he or she should consider giving the team the additional information that led the supervisor to the decision and see what decision the team makes. The supervisor may have made the right call, but by relying on difference as an operating system, other better decisions may be achieved. At the very least, the team will learn why the decision was made by constructing the decision themselves. This will impact future decisions as the team begins to ask questions at a more complex level.

The Supervisor

Most managers think they have power by virtue of controlling things. In fact, it’s a facade of control — a mutually supported illusion. Subordinates pretend they are being controlled, and superiors pretend they are controlling. At a deeper level, most people know that’s not happening, but the illusion has to be chipped away. Only then is the soil fertile to grow empowered people. Only then can you start to find out how people create. They don’t create by figuring things out and by controlling. (Senge)

Supervisors, give up the facade!

This can be extraordinarily disconcerting and difficult to do as many have been conditioned that someone (e.g., parent, teacher, boss, self) is in control. The reality is this is nothing but an illusion of control. The illusion of control (for anyone) can be very empowering as it can help people get up out of bed. It can also be disempowering if individuals concede their own agency to an “authority.”

A problem to consider is teams are made up of people. As a result, teams may not always come up with a good solution. An example was a department that needed to move a couple of people around in the office space available. When the group tried to determine who was least likely to be negatively impacted in order to maximize the effectiveness of the group, the result was people fending for themselves. Should a secret ballot be held to find out who should move? Should the team have to settle this publicly? Should a supervisor make a decision?

Hierarchies are likely to develop, so the illusion of control will always come into play. Exercising this control has a cost, and at some point the supervisor may be overdrawn. Carefully scaffolding how to help the team learn to solve the issue instead of making a unilateral decision may exact less of a cost to the supervisor, and it may have better long term effects as the team learns and deals with increasing complexity.

A Learning Organization Necessitates Ongoing Learning

Learning never ends. People may choose to stick their heads in the sand, but this does not stop the need to continue learning. A learning organization never reaches its destination in the same way “… there is no inherent end to a system.” A never ending process can be a tiring concept as people often want an end to what is perceived as a project. In order for ongoing learning to become “ongoing,” the learning needs to become a norm similar in fashion to having coffee or tea in the morning is a norm for many in the office environment.

Learning as a norm requires supporting learning. Duh. Surprisingly, many work environments seem to focus on output only. In order to counter this, learning should be supported in multiple forms:

  • structured professional development
  • structured informal individual development (e.g., daily reading)
  • spontaneous learning (i.e., serendipity as a guide)
  • ad hoc group projects (situated, active learning)

A challenge to this approach is not believing in the long term benefits of ongoing or lifelong learning.

Consider this: Google Couldn’t Kill 20 Percent Time Even if It Wanted To.

And why should it?