In a recent discussion it became apparent to me that there may be a fundamental misunderstanding about what it is that defines a learning organization. The discussion was centered on how to help drive agile adoption throughout an organization. My revelation about the misunderstanding came when the individual mentioned that attempts have been made in the past to “institute organizational learning by bringing in agile training and supporting those who desired to attend. The organization was also supportive of individuals pursuing advanced degrees.”
First, let’s discuss what a learning organization “is not”. Sending individuals, or teams, or departments to training does not make an organization a learning organization. Simply supporting knowledge and skill growth is not enough to define organizational learning. This is known as training. Training is providing information and teaching skills and processes an organization, or society as a whole, already knows how to do to those who may not yet know. These are fundamental knowledge and skills; in and of themselves not sufficient for organizational learning. Finally, organizational learning cannot be "instituted"; rather, it must be fostered by creating an environment in which it can flourish and grow.
Learning organizations are those organizations that facilitate continuous transformation. The aura and culture of a learning organization is one that breathes the message:
“We are trying new things, all inherently comprised of risk, and are incrementally learning from mistakes specific to our context. We are relentless and fearless about examining the realities of our environment and are innovating as a result of continuous self-reflection.”
What A Learning Organization’s Culture Looks Like
Since each organization is unique and has a context specific to its situation and market environment, I will focus solely on the culture that is pervasive in an organization that is striving to become a learning organization. Below are a few of the items I believe define the culture of any organization that values learning.
Decentralized decision making and shared responsibility define the operating system. Rather than attempting to drive decisions from the top, teams and individuals are given authority to make tactical decisions that serve both the customer and the organization, giving preference to the customer.
Attempts are not made to “bullet-proof” the system. A colleague of mine likes to tell the story about his past days as a project manager. He could, quite literally, make million-dollar decisions on any given day with respect to his projects. However, he was required to obtain multiple levels of approvals to obtain $250 of funding for a pizza party for his project team after a successful project. This centralized decision process was unnecessary and wasteful. The more idiot-proof you try to make a human system, the more people will behave like idiots.
Fear is minimal and purposeful risk-taking is encouraged and rewarded. When individuals and teams are afraid of failing, often because past risks have been punished, fear will prevail and innovation will cease; it’s all but guaranteed. This does not mean that needless risk should be taken. Rather, focus on purposeful risks, which I define as those that are consistent with the mission, values, and objectives of your customers. Yes, I said of your customers, not your organization. Organizations today need to shift from internal focus (and shareholder value) to external customer focus—the real determination of your value.
Experimentation is ubiquitous. Simply put, we do not know the ultimate outcome of action until we take it. Rather than attempting to secure up-front guarantee of success through iron clad plans, we take small experimental steps and increments to gather feedback frequently to maximize customer value.
Relentless self-reflection occurs at every level. Not only do teams reflect continuously; management, departments, and groups do as well. The organization is seen as an organism not simply as a mechanistic entity.
It may appear, at first glance, that the difference between a learning organization and an organization that values and promotes training is merely semantic. The truth is that the concept of a learning organization is much broader than simply providing training to employees. Organizations wishing to be successful and competitive must be willing to step out of their comfort zone. Trust must be extended to employees and value given to customer feedback.