It Takes More Than Brains to Create a Learning Organization

Jun 19, 2014

Ray Stata, former CEO of Analog Devices, a semiconductor company, is quoted as saying, “The rate at which organizations and individuals learn may well become the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

What could be truer? In our increasingly competitive, global, fast-moving economy, companies that take learning seriously—or more accurately, the learning of its people seriously — are much better off than companies that don’t.

And, such “learning organizations” stand in marked contrast to that other kind, which tend to base decision-making on tradition, history, bias, emotion, and perception rather than verifiable data.

Characteristics of a learning organization

David Garvin, co-author of Is Yours a Learning Organization?, says learning organizations are skilled in two things:

  1. Creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge; and,
  2. Modifying behavior (acting) in response to new knowledge and insight.

Learning organizations are smart organizations because decisions are made intelligently and strategically.

At the same time, learning organizations are humble — if a process doesn’t work, it’s abandoned or retooled until it does work, without concern for whether certain individuals will lose face. (Actually, “saving face” is a bit of a non-issue in a learning organization, because employees are encouraged to take reasonable risks in a safe environment that doesn’t punish people for “mistakes.”)

Three building blocks

Garvin refers to three (3) building blocks of a learning organization:

  1. A supportive learning environment;
  2. Concrete learning processes and practices; and,
  3. Leadership behavior that provides reinforcement.

I don’t know about you, but I think working in a learning organization sounds like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, most of the places I’ve worked have been downright stupid anything but learning organizations, and it didn’t matter how brainy the employees were.

Why? Because learning organizations are less about IQ and more about EQ. And in a way, they’re also a triumph of the best of the human will.

Things that seem to get in the way

Much of what makes companies so damn dumb is the failure of leadership to set aside ego, bias, and personal interests.

For example, when an executive flatly declares “But that’s the way we’ve always done it” and then closes the conversation for further discussion, he’s not trying to gather any new data or insight. Instead, he’s content to consider himself an expert on whatever the subject may be, regardless of whether he really is an expert.

(It kind of reminds me of when Jesus said “My grace is sufficient for you,” except the leader is saying, “My knowledge is sufficient for you.” But perhaps I digress.)

Aside from human ego (which is a pretty powerful roadblock), other roadblocks to the creation of a learning culture include:

  • Leadership doesn’t quite “get” the connection between learning and improved performance and doesn’t have clear and direct measures to test it.
  • Employees haven’t been provided sufficient incentives to participate in organizational learning activities.
  • Leadership is uncertain about the most effective way to capture and share learning.

Breaking it down

How receptive is your organization to new information? How committed is your organization to sharing and acting on data in an organized, intelligent, and transparent way?

Are employees encouraged to reflect on events, with the goal of identifying what went right, what went wrong, and what could be done better in the future? Does the culture encourage open dialogue? Is learning linked to performance?

Culture is to an organization what personality is to an individual, and most of us are very wedded to our personalities — even when they hinder our growth.

So the organization that proudly declares itself “fast paced,” while refusing to admit or even see it’s a chaotic mess of reactive nonsense, is holding close to what ails it, despite the costs.

A commitment can lead to good things

However, when leadership commits to learning and sharing that learning, culture can change, and fantastic things can begin to happen.

David Garvin, et al, have developed an assessment tool companies can use to determine how well they meet the criteria for a learning organization. Where does your organization fall?