“Organizations do not learn – people do”, someone said. But people in the organization do share the knowledge gained from learning, and in this respect the organization may acquire and structure knowledge and thereby learn.
The core of working with learning in an organization is this understanding: that each individual must participate in the learning organization on the conditions suitable for the one. Adidas put this nicely in a crowd-sourcing blog post, stated as the ambition for their new learning program (emphasis by Adidas):
We believe we need to further and more drastically transform the company into a learning organisation by creating a culture of life-long, self-driven learning in a collaborative environment: an environment in which all employees equally teach and learn, and acquire knowledge and skills in a variety of ways to best suit present and future generations – “I LEARN, WE GROW”.
Keywords here are transform, culture, self-driven and life-long, all teach and learn, a variety of ways – and here the golden words: – to best suite [different people].
Creating a learning organization
When trying to establish an environment for learning, first consider what learning really means. Understand that people learn, not organizations. The organization might accumulate some of the knowledge gained in knowledge management systems, product designs etc., but the organization itself consists of – and must support – people who learn.
Then consider the direct outcome expected. Better products? Happier employees? More predictable results in production or services? In most cases a learning cycle must be built into all processes. A good approach for this is to use the PDCA-cycle but other approaches exist. A double learning cycle, where the employees reflect on how they learn (how the process of learning works) may strengthen the learning, and this can itself be implemented through coaching or other reflection activities like lessons learned meetings or regular SSM (Soft Systems Methodology) sessions, preferrably supplemented by the acceptance of employees spending time on individual reflection.
If the company cannot handle repeated processes in a systematic way, start there. Maybe seek help from a philosophy like Lean or Six Sigma, thereby effectively following the 4P approach as described by Jeffrey Liker in “The Toyota Way Fieldbook”.
Then concider how to make learning and knowledge sharing attractive to the employees. Make sure that reward systems are in place that inspire to learning and knowledge sharing. Also let the latter be possible thorugh various means, so that each team or individual can choose: IT-based knowledge management systems, employee magazine, clubs and special interest groups, etc. are all possible to maintain in parallel.
Adidas sees the generations, difference in age, as a carrier of different ways of acquiring knowledge and skills. That may be true. Reports are many that state todays young people as less good at reading and concentrating, but more good at sorting and moving through many inputs. If these reports are based on more than just assumptions, a learning organization really needs to allow for different ways of learning.
Learning is possible for individuals, teams or larger groups through many means and about many topics – big and small. If well functioning teams have been established, it may be a good idea to excercise the teams’ learning skills through team learning programs.
A learning organization is very hard to achieve in a company otherwise influenzed badly by the positivist taylorist viewpoint that everything can be standardized. Even in many Lean efforts this idea is one of the cornerstones. First optimize processes, then standardize them. When Taiichi Ohno wrote about this he was mentally speaking working in a new island in a see of old thoughts, just keeping this small bit of old school thinking as part of the new concept. The world has changed since Ohno’s thoughts and most companies today are more prone to accept the other lean ideas. Still, this one has stuck and lives on.
Standardization can be seen as a way of sharing knowledge. That was how Ohno meant it, and by that he was ahead of his time. Sharing knowledge was a way of rewarding those who found out a better way of doing something – and at the same time help the company make more money on good ideas. By that, not only the company but also the employees would win, for various reasons – one of them was monetary: a reward was being paid to the team or individual who made the improvement, as later described by Masaaki Imai as part of the continous improvement scheme. Another was pride: when being named as the one who made a major improvement for the company, an employee could feel proud of his skills and his efforts. Besides, Ohno’s “standards” where meant to be continuously improved by all teams using them, they were not centrally managed and dictated.
But a modern employee will not easily accept standardizations, at least not in all areas. More work today is knowledge work, less is automated. And knowledge work has the feature of being full of natural variation – often to the degree that the work is a new and individually designed and planned effort each time, like when it is project based.
When Adidas mentions a transformation, and even a drastical one, I get worried. Very often such a dramatic way of seeing it is followed by one or more equally dramatic organizational changes in the company, leaving most employees without the foothold they had gained in the old way it was organized.
It is believed by many upper managers that making such changes regularly will enforce the emergence of a learning organization, as all employees will need to stay alert and keep learning in order to stay fit for whatever job they just got or maybe will get later. My experience is the opposite: employees get frustrated, stressed, and start looking for a job somewhere else. They stop being interested in improving the company processes because they no longer can expect that anything of what they do will survive very long. They are not being rewarded at all, just getting disappointed by “all this enthusiasm put into it, all this work done; and then they change everything so we can start all over”.
Then the old Japanese model was better. And even better is the acknowledgment of what people do and what they learn and share. The way forward is showing respect for people and – as Adidas states – letting them find their own way of acquiring skills and knowledge.
Often this is better done in teams, so building up a team supporting and rewarding culture is beneficial. But, being honest in the “individual needs approach” also means allowing for some employees to work in a less team-oriented way. W. Edwards Deming wrote about this in his book “Out of the Crisis”:
There are abundant examples of people that can not work well in a team, but who demonstrate unquestionable achievement in the form of respect of colleagues and of peers, through inventions and publications in scientific journals. Such a man may make fabulous contributions to the company as well as to knowledge. The company must recognize the contributions of such people, and provide assistance to them.
Less ambitious is more effective
Big thoughts and a plan to revolutionize the way of running a business almost always fail. It may take a long time to realize this, and perhaps it is never realized, because after a while it is difficult to see what came from the plan and what came from natural development. And usually other, maybe even conflicting, initiatives have been started on top of the revolutionary one, thereby confusing the picture completely.
Then better create the conditions that will allow the company to move naturally in the desired direction, involve people at all levels – definitely including the top level – in a long termed journey towards this new expected business excellence. Stick to the idea as long as you believe in it, but be honest and tell regularly if you still do so. And when you have some day lost faith, make sure that you spend resources on analyzing, describing, discussing and communicating before abandoning the program officially. Just as you want everyone on board when starting, you also want everyone to stay on board with you when ending the program, as something else must probably take its place.