What is a learning organization?

Most of us understand that being really good at something is not static in its nature. In all walks of life (sports, governments, companies, etc.) the best always seem to be able to adapt faster to changing circumstances than the rest. And adapt better.  This is an increasingly valuable trait in our times, because of the ever increasing speed of change.

All organizations learn at some level, because we as individuals always learn from experience to some extend (it is our nature). Unfortunately for most organizations this is where it stops. Very few organizations are good at learning on the organizational level (generalize and leverage the individual learning).  Another  way of saying this would be that in general we lack the skills to turn personal learning into institutional knowledge.

Learning on an organizational level is a widely researched, but not well understood topic.  The best model (in terms of clarity and usefulness) that I have come across is by Steven J. Spear from his book “The High Velocity Edge”. Through his years of dedicated research into the best performing companies around the world Steven has managed to identify the dna of these world class companies.  Based on this extensive research Steven J. Spear claims there are four distinctive  capabilities that set the best apart from the rest:

Learning organization - Steven J. Spear
Learning organization – Steven J. Spear

Capability 1: System design and operation

The capability to design and operate systems in the right way is at the core of a learning organization. System design should always start with clarity about the purpose of the systems. What is the value which is produced by system and who is the customer? The answer can vary from very concrete (a car made to the customers specification)  to quite abstract (gather information for strategic decision making), but the principle is the same. We should always understand who the customer is and what is valuable from their point of view and design the system output accordingly.

Once we understand what system output  should be we can proceed to design the rest of the system from an outside in perspective by the following design steps:

  1. Design the workflow – what steps are needed, what is done in each step and by whom.
  2. Design the interfaces between the workflow steps. What material and/or information is transferred and in what format. It is also important to define the triggers for exchange (e.g. time or request based triggers).
  3. Design work methods for the individual workflow steps (how the work is done in each phase).

A key aspect of system design is to do it in such a way that the system highlights any problems that occur. In other words the system should make the gap between what is expected and what actually happens very clear. This allows problems to be noticed and solved.

Capability 2: Problem solving

Although it can be very tempting to hide problems under  the rug, the best organizations manage to resist this temptation again and again. Instead they choose to treat problems as the gifts that they are. Every noticed problem is an opportunity to improve. Every problem left unsolved is a missed opportunity. Not only do the best companies understand that problems are opportunities, they also understand the there is a right time to solve those problems. The right time is of course when the problems are noticed. Elite companies understand the value of swarming problems when they occur and have the organizational capability (and slack) to do so. The culture you should be aiming for is lets fix it now and lets fix it right.

As important as swarming problems is it is still only half of the equation.  The other half is knowing how to solve problems in the right way. The right way means solving problems with a systematic method which creates knowledge. This is commonly known as the scientific method or PDCA problem solving. Their are many variants of the exact process, but they typically  contain at least the following elements:

  1. Understand the situation and narrow down the problem
  2. Formulate a hypothesis about the problem
  3. Run an experiment to test your hypothesis
  4. Adjust your actions according to the results of the experiment (formulate a new hypothesis, adjust your current one, or celebrate)
  5. Stabilize the solution so that you won’t run into the same problem two months later in the same process

And remember that “speed is king”. The faster you can go through hypothesis – experiment – adjustment loops the faster you can learn.

Capability 3: Share knowledge

Having the capability to design systems and solve problems the right ways is very powerful, but the effects of the capabilities can be boosted by a adding a third one – the capability to effectively share knowledge. This is probably  something that most organizations think they already do quite well, but in reality this is seldom the case. Things like “best practice databases” or “lessons learned reviews” rarely work.

Fortunately some companies have managed to develop effective ways of sharing learning.  The key seems to not just to share the solutions. Instead the solutions need to be shared together with problem context and problem solving process.

When a solutions is described together with the context in which it was created it becomes possible to understand how our context is different. This in turn allows us to understand the adjustments we need to make in order to make it work for us.  Sometimes the contexts can be so different that a altogether different solution is needed.

Often the discovery process is more valuable then the actual solution. The discovery process often contains insights that can not be understood just from the solution. As the old saying goes it is better to teach someone to catch fish then to give them fish.  Another important aspect of sharing the solution discovery process is sharing the inevitable failures along the way. There is solid research that shows that it’s much more effective to share “worst practice” instead of best practice. In other words we are more likely to avoid the mistakes that you made than we are of utilizing your solution.

A good practice in knowledge sharing is using a pull based approach. This means the party who needs knowledge “pulls” it from other parties when they need it, instead of the knowledge being pushed by the people who already have it to those who do not.

Capability 4:  Managing by developing capabilities 1-4

Now that we understand what are the most important core capabilities of learning organizations, we need to have some way to develop them withing our own organization. One solution would of course be to sent everyone to the appropriate training courses and be done with it. Unfortunately it is not so easy.  Although it can be a good start, sending people to training courses does not develop  the required skills.  An interesting insight in Stevens research was that the companies who were really good at capabilities 1-3 had management who spent a lot of time developing these capabilities in the people they were responsible for.

Developing these competencies in the people you are responsible for puts a lot pressure on you as a manager. Not only do you need to be sufficiently skilled in these capabilities (don’t worry you don’t have to be the best), but you also need to have the coaching and mentoring skills to help others learn. Now that’s a tall order, but that’s how the best do it.

By taking personal responsibility of developing these capabilities in your organization you can also sent a powerful message about their importance.

Rap up

My apologies in advance to you Steven in case I did wrong to your research in my brief explanation of a complicated topic (and thank you for the insights).  Buy the book. It is definitely worth the read. The book also contains fascinating examples from different organizations like Toyota,  the US Navy and Alcoa.

Understanding the dna of elite organizations allows you to know what are the right capabilities to develop in your organization beyond the immediate requirements of your business sector. This can be the thing that sets you apart from your competition and gives an sustainable edge (a rare thing indeed).

I have found this model really useful and insightful. Hopefully you will too.  I have been playing around with my own “learning organization house” – model and plan on writing about it in the near future.

As a finishing note I would like to add a word of warning:

“All models are wrong, but some are useful” – George E. P. Box


About teemut

This entry was posted in Knowledge Management, Lean, Learning, Management. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What is a learning organization?

  1. mjviljan says:

    Thanks for the post! The principles were somewhat familiar to me already, but after reading about the third capability (share knowledge) I decided to set up a discussion group at work for worst practices, i.e. lessons that we’ve learned by making mistakes. I don’t know if it gets popular or not, but I felt it was definitely worth a try.

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  3. Pingback: Toyota Kata – Workshop at ITSM.fi Top 10 Conference | Troikka

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