You Can’t Create A Learning Organization Without Cleaning the Tank

In their 2016 paper, “The Great Training Robbery,” researchers at Harvard Business School explained how the $164 billion corporations spent on corporate learning in 2012 produced little change in individual or organizational behavior or in financial performance. Most companies, as it turns out, do not see much return on their investment in training and education.

Perhaps with good reason. The prevailing approach to corporate training has, for decades, assumed that individual training could, by itself, yield organizational outcomes. Often overlooked is the role of organizations in shaping individual behavior. As early as the 1930s, psychologists like Kurt Lewin made the case that behavior is a function of the person plus the environment. You can’t change an individual’s behavior without also changing the system in which he or she exists. Against that backdrop, the conventional approach to training is akin to removing an ailing fish from a dirty aquarium and treating it, but then returning the animal to those same waters without cleaning the tank.

The environment must also change; and it’s no different for businesses. If leaders want to see a return on their investment in corporate learning, they must both invest in individual outcomes and establish the conditions necessary to transform their companies into learning organizations.

Continuous learning

This movement beyond individual learning to organizational outcomes starts with building opportunities for employees to learn every day. Too often learning initiatives are built on the faulty assumption that you train someone for a designated period of time and then training is over. Learning is never over; it’s a process of continuously getting better.

It should never be thought of in the past tense.

Changing systems

All too often, learning is perceived simply as additive. We speak of building new skills or capabilities, but we rarely talk about the pruning of outdated mental models or assumptions. Learning organizations focus not only on the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, they also focus on changing individual dispositions and organizational systems. That starts by challenging their employees to re-examine their underlying assumptions about the company and their role in it. To do so, leaders must shape an environment that creates the conditions that make learning possible on an organizational level.

Article Continues Below

Be psychologically safe

Creating a learning culture means cultivating an environment where workers feel free to speak up and engage in debate, where they have permission to admit mistakes and be vulnerable. A safe learning environment makes these behaviors the norm, not something to be penalized. To paraphrase psychologist Abraham Maslow: Individuals can only grow when they are not crippled by fear and in an environment where they feel safe enough to dare.

This need for transformation comes at a time when the world of business is increasingly complex and volatile. In a study of Australian employees, seven out of ten workers could not identify their employers publicly presented corporate strategy. While more than 60% of executives believe they can formulate a strategic initiative, over half say they are at best just average in executing those plans. Companies are now reaching $1 billion valuations just 8 months after going public, and the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has shrunk from 60 years to just 10. Structures and relationships within companies are becoming flatter, faster, and looser.

If business leaders want their employees to keep up with this rapid pace of change they must transform the environment in which they are working.

Alan Todd, founder and CEO of CORP/U, is regarded as one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on strategy and leadership development. A former Inc. Magazine/Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Todd’s writing and commentary have appeared in Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, and Wired, and his insights are routinely solicited from Fortune 1000 companies like Walmart, Coca-Cola, Boeing, and Johnson & Johnson. His technical innovations in leadership development are powering global growth for companies with combined annual revenues of over $1 trillion. He is a co-founder of Harrisburg University and a past trustee or advisor to Dickinson College, Penn State University, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and Graduate School of Education.

Stanton E. F. Wortham, Ph.D. is the dean at Boston College Lynch School of Education. He is an award-winning teacher, scholar, and documentary film producer. A linguistic anthropologist and educational ethnographer with a particular expertise in how identities develop in human interactions, Wortham has conducted research spanning education, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. He spent 18 years as a professor and administrator at Penn, where he served twice as interim dean of the Graduate School of Education and won multiple awards for teaching excellence, including the University of Pennsylvania Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching.