Not a New Idea

In an oft-referenced 1990 article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, systems scientist Peter Senge observed, “Over the long run, superior performance depends on superior learning.” The previous year, Fortune reports wrote, “The most successful corporation of the 1990s will be something called a learning organization, a consummately adaptive enterprise with workers freed to think for themselves, to identify problems and opportunities, and to go after them.”

The rub is that too many organizations never truly adopted this approach, which incorporates the traditional view that learning expands one’s capabilities and the forward-thinking view that learning helps one adapt to and cope with an ever-changing environment. Put another way, learning organizations look at individuals holistically, rather than as needing to learn new skills or fulfilling a regulatory requirement.

What’s to Be Done

As early as 1993, Harvard Business School professor David Garvin outlined what makes a great learning organization. Here, I’ve abridged and augmented his model:

A Well-defined Purpose

Garvin offers this suggestion: “A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” I add that it also respects and accommodates different learner preferences and offers different ways to learn (e.g., eLearning, microlearning, virtual or in-person facilitated learning, videos, webinars, quick reference guides, wikis, and collaborative learning). Training events should happen along a continuum, increasing relevance and retention, often narrowing the content and skill focus to allow for greater depth and higher-level thinking and application.

Learning in the Context of Problem-solving and Experimentation

This type of learning involves using data in place of intangibles, organizing data, drawing inferences, identifying challenges and obstacles, planning a proof of concept, finding out what works, evaluating the solution, and entering the loop of continuous improvement.

Practice in a Safe Environment

Should you show a six-year-old a video about riding a bike and then send her and her bike out in traffic? I wouldn’t advise it. One of the benefits of great training is the ability to practice new skills in a safe environment — to see learning come alive. To my knowledge, no one has ever lost a job because of a bad role-play during a workshop. However, without opportunities to practice and refine, causing a customer to become angry and leave the business could lead to losing a job. As a result, simulations are sometimes used as the capstone activity to a training program.

Measure Learning Effectiveness

With input from many stakeholders (including learners, who should be stakeholders in their own development), agree on key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure learning transfer and effectiveness. For example, one KPI might be, “Reduce customer complaints by 15% by the end of the year.” To accomplish this goal, you would need training to address this particular KPI, covering skills like mastering phone interactions, dealing with unhappy customers, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and dealing with conflict.

Creating Opportunities for Learning

Learning organizations create opportunities for learning. It sounds obvious, but how often are employees told to do their work while taking hours of required training? No executive wants employees to put tasks aside without reason, but consider a future when employees are given time and space to learn, resulting in increased productivity and revenue — and a more civil and respectful workplace.

“It Takes a Village”

Building a great learning organization is no small feat; it requires executive support and the buy-in of leaders who take an active role in fostering a learning culture. We’re talking money (if I had a dollar every time I was asked, “What will it cost?”, I’d be minding my leisure ranch in Montana) and time. Both are critical, because great learning organizations do not happen overnight. They are the product of numerous conversations, plans, trial balloons, small successes and large failures, and (hopefully) a workable and engaging solution. It requires working with proven learning and technology experts to help avoid setbacks and top-notch internal marketing so that learners know what to anticipate and how it will help them.

It’s no small feat, but it’s worth it; great learning organizations keep good people and help ensure personal and organizational future growth.