It’s a subject about which there has been a great deal of study and discussion (most of it at the Ph.D. level, actually). And while I love getting into the details and nuances of organizational psychology, I’d like this discussion to stay centered on some tangible ways managers and supervisors who have to live in “the real world” can change the workplace to support a learning organization. Let’s look at learning organizations, then, and understand their attributes and how to measure their progress.
One definition, as stated in Wikipedia by Pedler, Burgogyne, and Boydell i is that a learning organization is “a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.” Peter Senge ii defines a learning organization through five main characteristics: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, a shared vision, and team learning.
I’m pretty sure that if I asked a facilities manager to report on their systems thinking and mental models as they apply to their organizations I would get back some questions asking for clarification. For this blog, I want to offer a simpler description of what a learning organization is so that it’s something I can observe and measure:
A learning organization is an organization where the cultural environment embodies rewards and support for members to increase skills and knowledge, promotes the sharing of knowledge and opportunities for learning, resulting in continuous improvement and an overall advancement of the organization toward its goals.
I tried to make it simpler! I really did. The problem is what we expect out of a learning organization. We have this preconceived notion of what results we should expect and, as such, the definition gets longer and “muddier.” But still it is measurable and observable, so I’ll stick with it. So how do we put this into practice where the rubber meets the road?
Like planting a field, the environment in which you sow the seeds of change can determine whether you are successful. The good news is that, unlike the weather, we can control the organizational environment. So let’s break this down into actions that leaders can take and the results they can expect to achieve:
1. Set up rewards for members that perform activities that support learning. If someone (not from the training department) puts on a training class, they should be rewarded. If someone takes the time to train someone on the operation of a piece of equipment, reward them. If a supervisor shuffles a schedule so someone can attend training, reward them.
This sets up a reward-for-self-improvement relationship in the organization. I’m not saying that a check is written every time someone learns something new. Remember that a simple act of appreciation is all that is required (a thank you in the hall, mentioning the individual’s effort or contribution in a meeting, a note to their file, et cetera). You can expect that people will take notice. They will start to mimic the behavior that is rewarded.
2. Implement a requirement to train someone on something every day into the performance requirements of the managers/supervisors/senior technicians. Expect it, monitor it, and measure it. Require people to keep logs of it. Be the example of it.
When you tie this requirement to their performance appraisal and therefore their reward system, you have a very powerful way to implement a powerful habit into the culture of the organization. By sharing knowledge or skills, everyone gains and the capabilities of the organization grow.
3. Implement training minutes into each meeting. In the nuclear fields, we used to have a safety minute in all meetings that we held. You can extend the idea to training. Require someone to provide a one-minute-of-knowledge exchange for each meeting that takes place. (You don’t have to stick to a minute. Five or ten minutes would be great. It really depends on your situation.)
This habit reinforces that training and constant learning is valued and practiced. After making this a requirement for some time, it will become an expectation and a habit of the organization. Your managers could use this as their requirement to teach someone something every day. This is a form of sharing knowledge. Everyone gains, and everyone is connected into the process of learning.
4. When someone goes to off-site training, make it a requirement that they teach what they learned to all those that may have a use for that new knowledge or skill. Include all personnel in this requirement (managers, supervisors, and technicians).
Share that new knowledge and set of skills. This is the return to the company for paying for the individual to acquire that new knowledge or skill set. If a manager goes to a seminar, have them relay the latest trends and knowledge about the subject to the team. If they present, have them present to their own teams and/or peers. (This could be done beforehand as practice as well.)
Those were some easy actions to implement, but let’s look at some other actions that will be more difficult to implement:
5. Revamp the promotion and performance system to reward advances in education, skills, knowledge, certifications, qualifications, and other verifiable experiences.
When a technician qualifies additional duty stations or sites, are they rewarded for that? They should be. When a technician gains skill and knowledge on being able to perform more complex maintenance, that alleviates the need for contractors and they should be rewarded. On the flip side, if a technician has not learned anything (hasn’t added to their value to the organization) they should not be rewarded by raises or bonuses.
While we have everyone learning new skills and knowledge, how do you translate this to continuous improvement?
6. Rework the suggestion program to require participation with matching rewards.
If you require everyone to submit suggestions or ideas on a periodic basis, you will eventually get winners that will mean real gains toward the organization’s goals. With this action, a rewards structure must be implemented that is reflective of the value of the idea or suggestion.
7. Open projects to anyone that is interested.
This concept comes from one of the most innovative organizations in the world, Google. When projects are born, send out the information to everyone. Invite anyone to sit in, comment, or make suggestions. You never know from where the next great idea will spring or how it will develop, but you can build the environment that supports the seeds. Opening projects creates opportunities for people to learn and experience some of the problems that the organization is dealing with. It’s a two-way street: They learn and you get ideas/suggestions that may help.
8. Get people out of the box. Send them to other sites, facilities, client sites, or educational facilities where they can see how different industries do things.
This is cross-pollination. Exposing people to how other industries have solved problems may spark ideas about how those techniques may work for your organization. They get an education on how the other world works and you get ideas that may solve some of your most persistent or difficult problems.
So let’s see where we are. We’ve built in rewards for learning and teaching; we’ve promoted the sharing of knowledge, and built in rewards for innovation and continuous improvement. Each of these can be measured, the rewards can be tracked, and you can calculate a return on investment for all of it.
It’s not necessarily easy to do the tasks that I’m recommending here, but I do believe you will reap rewards that will extend far beyond the costs. If you think about some of the organizations that do some of these things already – Google, 3M, Apple, Ford, NASA – you realize you’ll be in good company.
The reality is that, if you’re not turning your organization into a learning organization, you’re not harvesting the true value of your greatest assets – your people. Furthermore, to be competitive in the future, your organization will need to be a learning organization. If you’re competing against a Google or Apple now, imagine how good they’ll be in the near future and what it will take to beat them. You must find a way to engage all the brain power available to you because becoming a learning organization is now a necessity. So in this light, you have to ask yourself, What are you doing to make this a reality?
As always, if you have questions, comments, or topics you would like me to explore, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
i Pedler, M., Burgogyne, J. and Boydell, T. 1997. The Learning Company: A strategy for sustainable development. 2nd Ed. London; McGraw-Hill
ii Senge, P.M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. London: Century Business.