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Developing a Learning Organisation

Philip Maughan

'A Learning Organisation is one which is skilled at creating, arguing and transferring knowledge and at modifying its behaviours to reflect new knowledge and insights.' - David Garvin, Harvard Business Review, August 1994.

Why Learning Organisations?

The emergence of the Learning Organisation is due to three factors, Market Forces, Information technology and Social Change. Until shortly after the Second World War product cycles were slow and stable. It was possible to plan ahead with a fair degree of certainty and employees expected work to be clearly defined and predictable. This was the era of demarcation, when jobs were broken down into different skills requiring different people's input. The post war economic boom, particularly around the Pacific rim, combined with the Information Technology revolution has created highly volatile, short product cycles in which change and innovation are the cornerstones of economic survival.

Social Change is a less tangible but never the less a critical aspect of the growth of the Learning Organisation, and is rooted in the assertion of people's rights, a questioning of the status quo and challenging the traditional view of those in authority. From being a largely compliant society which acquiesced to authority, there has been a significant shift towards questioning those in authority. To a large degree this is due to the amount of information in the public domain, and the general rise in people’s aspirations. In the workplace this has led to a re-alignment of relationship between employers and employees from a hierarchical Parent - Child, towards a more Adult partnership. Employees now expect to be consulted and involved in work place changes.

The 'soft' or unwritten contract prior to these social and economic changes assumed that in return for job security, a regular wage and the prospects of advancement, employers could expect loyalty, obedience and reliability. Today's 'soft' contract has changed. The faster moving, more volatile markets mean that job security or promotion can no longer be guaranteed. Instead, employers require flexible, multi-skilled staff who will work on their own initiative in flatter management structures. The other side of the soft contract of course is that employees' expect to have more opportunities to learn and develop, so that in the event of their present job ceasing, they will have skills and experiences that are valued elsewhere. Where loyalty was once to the organisation, today it is increasingly towards the individual.

How to Grow a Learning Culture

The essence of the Learning Organisation is that all employees will respond swiftly and positively to change and actively seek changes of benefit to the organisation. This requires organisational systems that will capture and disseminate learning, and a culture that will encourage employees to want to share ideas and learning.

For organisational learning to be effective it must be systematic. This includes systematic problem solving in which clearly identified problems and opportunities are analysed rigorously. Quality Circles and Continuous Improvement projects are typical examples.An essential aspect of such initiatives is the measurement of any changes. Sue Jones in her book 'Developing a Learning Culture' suggests that all changes, whether in manufacturing processes, management systems or training, need to have clear and appropriate measurement criteria. Linking Training benefits to changes in bottom-line performance for example is unrealistic according to Jones. So many factors influence bottom line performance that such measurement is impossible. Better she suggests, to measure the success of training and development strategies by more direct measures. If the objective is to create a Learning Culture then the number of suggestions coming from the workforce or, as in the case of Zeneca, Grangemouth, the number of employees involved in continuous improvement projects, are more relevant and precise measures.

To these more practical applications must be added a commitment to experimentation - being proactive in exploring new possibilities as well as the more reactive nature of Quality Circles and Continuous Improvement initiatives. Learning from ones own experience, particularly through Action Learning Sets and learning from the experience of others through secondments and job sharing are obvious possibilities.

The importance of capturing learning seems crucial. The problems which caused the 'Herald of Free Enterprise', Kings Cross Underground and Hillsborough disasters had all been identified prior to their occurrence, but the information had not been effectively circulated and therefore had not been acted upon. Some organisations are now appointing Learning Managers to encourage people to learn and to disseminate learning - without it must be stressed, making learning a bureaucratic exercise.

The most crucial element in all this is Time. Many organisations feel that due to de-layering and down-sizing they are operating flat-out, and this is not conducive to learning. Time out for reflection is an essential part of the learning process. This is best achieved away from the distractions of the workplace and with a degree of informality. Formal business meetings are good for passing on information, making decisions and meeting tight deadlines, however the business of learning cannot be so tightly managed. Unstructured time to unwind and reflect are essential to release the creative energy in all of us.

Many of us find that our best ideas emerge when we are on holiday, in the bath or on a drive in the countryside. Norsk Hydro, the Norwegian conglomerate has capitalised on this by arranging senior management retreats in the hills outside Oslo once a month. The retreats last from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon. There is no formal agenda; managers simply eat and socialise together. They also take all their paperwork with them and telephone calls are restricted to absolute emergencies. Norsk Hydro finds that the combination of non-pressured time for reflection, socialisation and paperwork, immediately before a weekend, has stimulated a number of significant developments.

Ultimately however the Learning Organisation rests on the ability of the Organisation to create an atmosphere of high trust. Sumantra Goshal identified high trust as the critical factor in successful 'self-renewing' organisations. Without high trust Goshal suggests, employees will not put their heads above the parapet, creative conflict will be stifled and Group Think rather than Synergy will be the product.

Terra Nova has recently been involved with a Biomedical manufacturer which started from a green-field site. Senior Management were keen to institute working practices and policies that would encourage a Learning Culture from the outset. Our work to date has included; shadowing senior management to help them understand how their own behaviour influences trust; initiating the establishment of a Values Group, developing a Recruitment and Selection policy and process. The latter included Assessment Centres as a means of recruiting production employees plus feedback to all applicants.

A major learning point was that, while the company may be starting from a green-field, the personnel are bringing with them all the habits (both good and bad) from their past work experiences. While there are certain advantages to be gained from starting from a green-field site which makes the implementation of alternative working practices easier, there are a number of attitudinal barriers to break down, notably the cynicism that can so easily emerge when managers do not practice what they preach or when the workforce do not understand the new more enlightened working practices. The importance of the senior management team as positive role models of the organisation's values are brought sharply into focus, as is the need for effective communication systems so that when things go wrong - as they inevitably will, everyone will learn and benefit rather than revert to more traditional sniping, Scapegoating or cynicism.

Finally the story of Tom Watson, the founder of IBM is worth re-telling to illustrate how senior managers influence the development of a Learning Organisation. A middle ranking executive was called to Watson's office having lost IBM $10,000,000 on some ill advised venture. When the executive offered his resignation, Tom Watson retorted, 'you must be joking, I've just spent $10,000,000 educating you.''


Articles in this section:

Intellect, Will and Passion: The Art of Facilitating Outdoor Development Training

Putting Fun Into Work

Developing a Learning Organisation

Hearts & Minds Wins Latest Work Force Battle

Principle Centred Leadership

Becoming an Employer of Choice

The Half Hearted Virus: A trainer's tale of despair

Leadership: Death of the Hero?

Engagement: Increasing productivity by gaining the commitment of the workforce