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Aug 8, 2016

How about organizational learning?

Today’s complex and changing world requires continuous learning within organizations in order to be competitive, and there is no better leader for learning than HR. Often though, HR professionals place the majority of their attention on administration rather than on learning. This is understandable given the huge risk associated with benefits, employee relations and HR technology, but it is a mistake.

This hit home to me recently when a fellow HR professional whom I regard very highly, called to ask me about the concept of learning. She was preparing to present to an internal client group that wanted to become a learning organization. With several decades and an MBA behind her, she was unfamiliar with those very concepts of learning that can place HR in a business leadership role.

She is not alone. HR professionals today are overwhelmed with hiring, benefits, compensation, employee relations, technology and data, and tend to function within the comfort of those silos. They struggle to find the time to reach beyond the requirements of administration and focus on learning, but a shift in investment of HR time can pay dividends in business results.

What must HR professionals know about learning?

First, they need to understand what organizational learning is. Let’s start with what it is not. Organizational learning is not butts in seats classroom training. Organizational learning is finding common ground, agreeing on values, terminology, behavior, and business strategy so that the work of the organization is aligned to that which drives business results.

Organizational learning is developing the agility, stamina and skill to be responsive to changing times. And goodness knows, we are in changing times.

Learning happens at several levels.

Individual knowledge doesn’t sum to team or organizational knowledge. Just because individuals are the “best and brightest,” without collective knowledge and interpretation there is no common meaning. Without common meaning it is difficult to have intentional and purposeful action that is aligned with the business strategy. It is this lack of common meaning and the assumptions about meaning for others that create unintended conflict, which takes precious time away from the real work.

As a facilitator of communication, HR can raise questions and generate answers to problems facing an organization.

Take, for example, an organization that is producing reams of data from all areas of the business, inundating operational leaders with information overload and expecting those same leaders to take meaningful action.

Let’s be clear: the reams of data that sit on managers’ desks don’t drive business; dialogue about what that data says does. Business data sits on the desk because managers don’t have time to synthesize, analyze and interpret the data. Instead of being a catalyst of dialogue, data becomes goals and rewards or consequences.

HR can take a lead role in facilitating dialogue to help interpret the data, ask good questions, form hypotheses and help to find the root cause of the business problem. Once the real problem is identified, the rest is significantly easier.

Losing market share? HR, with its broad organizational outlook, can help. HR leaders can pull together people data and contrast it with business data. They can help to identify where leadership or employee data may need a correction to be better aligned with the strategy. HR can point to existing data (and you probably already have tons) to generate a hypothesis which can then be tested.

This is facilitation. This is real value HR can add by generating learning at the team or individual level. Metrics and measures must serve the purpose of learning, otherwise they are just numbers.

Adults need context for learning.

The science of adult learning theorizes that adults learn best when the content is useful and meaningful to their life. Said concisely, workers need to know what they need to know, they need it when they need it, and the knowledge they acquire should be purposeful.

Contrast that with a week-long management training course where every possible regulation and policy is presented. Retention of the information ain’t gonna happen.

Powerful learning occurs in real time; we just don’t always realize it. By creating an infrastructure of expected performance (planning) and active reflection on what worked and what didn’t work (evaluation), HR can set up the organization to learn collectively.

This is difficult because we think we don’t have time to plan or reflect. Take that week-long manager training and turn it into a self-directed, six month program of learning at the individual and team level, guided by actual work events. Those 40 hours are far better placed when the manager-learner has a problem, conducts research and identifies the problem, then dialogues with HR about their proposed solution.

There are no known answers to the complex business problems facing organizations today.

Off-the-shelf solutions don’t work. With the pace of change in today’s organizations, the variables that were in place three months ago when the “solution” was sourced have already changed. Bringing in an expert in change management based on a proposal developed months ago and based on work done a year ago in a different organization makes no sense.

The complex business problems we face today can only be addressed through learning; learning to ask good questions, learning to facilitate possible answers, learning to evaluate possible solutions and continuing to tweak the process as events change.

We’re well past the time when change is an event. Change is with us. Always. Through good dialogue, HR can help the organization learn to learn.

HR must become a connector and a facilitator.

The administrative work of HR is critically important. Excellence in branding, compensation and benefits makes it possible to bring in “the best and the brightest.” But beyond that, HR’s opportunities abound. By becoming a connector and asking good business questions about varying facets of the business, HR leaders can begin the process of making the organization a learning organization. By facilitating good dialogue, generating candor and openness, HR can help the organization discover and build collective intelligence.

Attracting the best is relatively easy. Retaining the best – that happens when units and organizations bond through learning, and realize the rewards of their hard work. HR can and must facilitate this learning.

This article originally appeared on Carol Anderson’s blog @the intersection of learning & performance.