What should a true learning organization look like?
W. Edwards Deming understood that systemic factors account for more organizational problems, and therefore more potential for change, than any individual’s performance. The role of managers should be to manage the system, not the individual functions. The real barrier to systemic change, such as becoming a learning organization, is command & control management. This is why the third principle for net work, shared power, is a major stumbling block to becoming a learning organization. Narration of work and transparency are easy, compared to sharing power. But learning is what organizations need to do well in order to survive and thrive.
In 2009 I listened to Peter Senge’s keynote address at the CSTD national conference. Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline is the seminal text for learning organizations. His later research findings showed that a key factor in sustaining an enterprise is organizational learning. Knowledge, Senge said, is the capacity for effective action (know how) and it is the only aspect of knowledge that really matters in business and life. Value is created by teams, but mostly by networks of people. Even team-based knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks.
This year I have reviewed and synthesized several of my observations on learning in networked environments. Here is what I have found.
1) Learning is not something to get. Individuals need to take control of their learning in a world where they are simultaneously connected, mobile, and global; while conversely contractual, part-time, and local. Organizations must also move learning away from training and HR, as some external band-aid solution that gets called in from time to time. Learning must be an essential part of doing business in the network age. Learning has to be owned by the workers and learning support has to be a business function.
2) The only knowledge that can be managed is our own. In my opinion, knowledge management should be about supporting personal knowledge mastery in networks, with a distributed, not a centralized, approach. Net Work Literacy entails self-organized learning while cooperating in diverse networks. Each of us is responsible for our own learning but we are now obliged to share this learning. If nobody shared what they have learned, there would be no Wikipedia or other free learning resources on the web. The same pertains to sharing inside organizations.
3) Learning in the workplace is much more than formal training. There are many relatively simple and fairly inexpensive things that can be done to support workplace learning. These include creating real and virtual spaces to encourage conversation. In an open environment, learning will flourish, as it has on the Web.
“The central change with Enterprise 2.0 and ideas of managing knowledge [is] not managing knowledge anymore — get out of the way, let people do what they want to do, and harvest the stuff that emerges from it because good stuff will emerge. So, it’s been a fairly deep shift in thinking about how to capture and organize and manage knowledge in an organization.” —Andy McAfee
5) Learning is everywhere. Learning and working are interconnected in the network era. If learning support is not connected to work, it’s rather useless. Net workers need more than advice (training), they need ongoing, real-time, constantly-changing, collaborative, support. This is management’s primary responsibility in a learning organization.
In my experience, these three indicators would suggest a true learning organization:
- People at all levels are narrating their work in a transparent environment
- The daily routine supports social learning
- Time is made available for reflection and sharing stories
Image: E. Irving Couse; The Historian