Are You Working In A Learning Organization?

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Since the Information age two decades ago till the Digital age today, knowledge still commands a premium. The more you know, the more you grow. So, are you working for a learning organization?

There are lessons to be learnt

A Learning Organization? What is that?

learning organization is the business term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. The concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues. (Peter Senge, 1990 – The Fifth Discipline, Pg. 5-13, Random House)

It is an organization that has a clear picture of his future knowledge requirements. It does not suffer from what Theodore Levitt described as ‘Business Myopia’. An organization that is on the learning curve, knows its business and is up-to-date on everything, from customer profile, to competitors, to target markets, technologies, and even production processes. Yes, it’s the one that pursues information actively.

So how do you know whether your organization is high on the curve?

Does the Organization have a defined Learning Agenda?

Learning organizations have a clear-cut learning agenda. The dynamics of sectors like e-commerce, digital, telecom, information technology and financial services are like quick sand, changing constantly. Learning organizations tend to identify the broad areas where they need to beef up their knowledge. Once these topics are identified, they are pursued through multiple approaches, including experiments, simulations, research, post-audits and benchmarking visits. Education and training alone will not bring in the requisite information.

Does the Organization ‘shoot the guy’ who brings in discordant information?

If an organization regularly “shoots the messenger” who brings in either unexpected or bad news, it’s obvious that the environment is hostile to learning. For, dissent (within limits) is part of learning and growing. An organization that is not open to criticism or contrarian views will suffer. Generally, sensitive issues – dissensions, unhappy customers, preemptive moves by competitors, problems with new technologies – are tackled in hush tones and messages, if communicated to the top at all, are first filtered and if necessary even watered down.

Does the Organization avoid repeating mistakes?

Learning organizations reflect on their past, distill it into useful lessons, they share this knowledge internally and ensure that the same errors are not repeated.

The experiences are varied – Cost, Quality, Service and Speed on the one hand with Product, Information and Documentation on the other. Companies can use Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), network databases, training sessions, and workshops to learn from their past. Even more critical is the need for a mindset that enables corporates to recognise the value of productive failure as compared with unproductive success. Productive failures give organizations insights and understanding, and thus strengthen the organization’s wisdom. An unproductive success occurs when a company is able to carry off a project with energy, style and enthusiasm but is unable to figure out the how or why behind this success.

There is a peculiar logic at work here: to avoid repeating mistakes, managers must accept them the first time around.

Does the Organization lose critical knowledge when key people leave?

This is an all too common story. When a talented employees leaves, organizations lose critical skills. Why? As knowledge remained unarticulated, unshared, and locked with one employee. It’s understood that every piece of skill and information cannot be replicated, however, learning organizations ensure that critical ones have some backup.

Learning organizations do not make the mistake of storing information and skills with one individual; they institutionalize essential knowledge and skills. Whenever possible, they codify policies and procedures, retain it in reports, disperse it to many employees and build it into their operating practices. Knowledge becomes common property, rather than the privileged domains of a few individuals. In brief, learning organizations live by the creed that knowledge begets knowledge.

To explain with a very old example; on May 15, 2000 Late. Steve Jobs, Apple Computers Ex-Chief Executive while addressing the World Wide Developer Conference in San Jose said that 3.4 million iMac computers have been sold since they hit the market two years ago. If Jobs is still revered in industry today, it’s not only because he headed Apple Computers but rather that he is been credited with rescuing the company from the brink of collapse. And, how did he do this? He slashed product mix and reinvented its computers and two years ago in May 1998 offered geeks the iMac desktop. Old incident, but golden bright example.

Now the question, did Apple hit the doldrums after Jobs? We did not see that at all.

The post-Job Apple, saw Tim Cook implementing Jobs’s intuition, which he accomplished with a quiet diligence.

According to Bersin & Associates, organizations with cultures of active learning are significantly better at doing business than other companies.

In fact:

  • They are 32% more likely to be the first company to create new products and services.
  • They are 26% better at delivering quality products.
  • Their employees are 37% more productive.
  • Their employees are 58% more likely to have skills for the future.

Does the Organization act on what it knows?

Learning organizations are not just repositories of knowledge, they take advantage of their learning and adapt their behaviour accordingly. Information is power but needs to be used. If it languishes or is ignored, its impact is certain to be minimal. Which means, if an organization discovers an unmet market need but fails to act on it, it clearly is not on the learning curve.

At a meeting early in his tenure, Cook was told of a problem with one of Apple’s Chinese suppliers. “This is really bad,” he said. “Someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes later he looked at an operations executive sitting at the table and unemotionally asked, “Why are you still here?” The executive stood up, drove directly to the San Francisco airport, and bought a ticket to China. He became one of Cook’s top deputies.

The same can be said of corporates that identify their best practices but do not transfer them across departments or divisions. At Coca Cola, for example, success depends on “having people who can identify and act on the vast opportunities that exist for our business” this means building a culture among employees in which learning and innovation dominate their business lives. In support of this effort, in ‘9s, the soft drinks heavyweight set up the Coca Cola Learning Consortium, a group dedicated to making learning a core capability. The Learning Consortium is entrusted with the responsibility of building culture and systems as well as processes that staff needs to “develop the knowledge and skills to discover and act upon opportunities better and faster than ever”. “Learning has got to be connected directly to the business,” say Judy Rosenblum – VP and Chief Learning Officer at the Coca-Cola Co.

That said, even Small & Mid-Size organizations too can be Learning Organizations. They may lack the showy display of a well-built self-owned branded learning infrastructure but they do have the learning mindset in place and that suffices. They prove that learning is a more matter of willingness than ability, They have the mental infrastructure in place to do so. They have serious learning interventions in-build in the system almost for every one at all levels. Their philosophy is “Learning Not Documented, Is Learning Not Done”.

© Satyakki Bhattacharjee