Sunday, September 14, 2008

Attributes of Learning Organizations

In my August 17 post I listed “Be a learning organization” as a key value found in excellent enterprises. You might ask yourself if yours is such an organization, and might even wonder how you would make that judgment. I suppose that in every organization you will find those who are energized by the learning process, who make a point of seeking knowledge and turning it to wisdom. But is the organization a learning entity? Here are three signposts that will help you recognize a company, division, or department that has made learning a key value.

The environment supports learning. This doesn’t happen by accident, ergo, it must be an environment that is created intentionally. Doing so requires security and confidence on the part of leadership. They must be secure enough in themselves that they are willing to accept the role and risks, and confident enough in their team to allow them the freedom to learn, even if that sometimes means learning the hard way. This attitude at the top encourages staff because they know that every failure is not going to be emphasized. You will be hard pressed to find the “blame game” in such an organization. Naturally, diversity of thought is one of the important by-products of this atmosphere. Honest (and sometimes impassioned) exchanges of intellectual ideas, concepts, and individual perspectives are the breeding grounds of creativity. Smart leaders do everything they can to encourage this environment, not suppress it.

It’s all about Process, Process, Process. You will likely find that groups which learn well are structured in doing so - because leadership is purposed in the endeavor. Leaders who are intent on encouraging learning establish distinct processes that create learning. I pride myself on being a very good project manager. Yet, at the conclusion of every project I conduct a post-mortem (I’ve always thought this an unfortunate use of the term and ironic that it is shortened to “PM”). Further, at the beginning of every major project I conduct a team review of past lessons learned. Each of these exercises is a way of transferring learning and each is an open door to discussion and new ideas. At times I have also recruited experts from outside the organization to share their wisdom, and I have seen great benefit from informal “brown bag seminars.” The learning may be informal, but it is not unintentional.

Learning is reinforced. Repeating the lessons over and over is one way of keeping them in focus. There are lots of opportunities and ways to do so, but there are other reinforcement tools as well. Open ended and probing questions that force answers to cite facts and details both test the quality of the answer and burn the knowledge into place. The leader’s job then is to listen with open ears and to encourage diverse perspectives, challenging and giving opportunities along the way for learning to occur, be recognized, and transferred. One very important tool is to emotionalize the learning experience. Have fun with it and make “aha” moments memorable. This emotional connection with intellectual or experiential learning puts an exclamation point on the gain and helps to internalize new knowledge.

You may have been in companies where Friday is the best day of the week, where nothing new is ever tried, and where just getting the job done is all that is expected. I prefer having Monday as a favorite day - and being in a challenging organization that expects me to learn and allows me the freedom that learning requires. That makes work fun and adds a little adrenaline to the morning coffee.

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