Leaders' Role In A Learning Organization
Is There Time For Learning?
I was asked recently about how much time leaders should spend helping their people in a learning organization and the impact of learning time on "close to the bone" organizations. Of course this begs the questions, just what is a learning organization and what is a leader's role in one?
There are a number of definitions available for learning organizations but here are two that cover the core concept:
- "An organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself". (Pedler et al in The Learning Company: A strategy for sustainable development.)
- "Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together." (Senge in The Fifth Discipline)
Now, I cut my leadership teeth reading The Fifth Discipline and my Masters program was all about leaders as learners and learning organizations. I love this stuff and I try to live it. But few organizations actually make it all the way to these definitions.
For arguments sake let's take a look at the leaders' role in a true learning organization:
- Leaders coach every team member to achieve self-mastery, to actively look for ways to improve the organization, to take accountability for making changes, to help other team members learn.
- Leaders encourage experimentation, challenge teams to take on reasonable risk and accept that mistakes will happen; but insist on learning from them and even more importantly in taking the time to learn from successes.
- Leaders encourage open discussion of directions needed, ideas and possibilities.
- Leaders recognize that true change comes from team members involvement in, commitment to and accountability for improvement initiatives.
- Leaders become learners as well, giving up the traditional view of driving from top.
In fact, in true learning organizations there is a far flatter hierarchy and far greater a sense of running the organization together. Leadership is a role taken more than a position held.
If you think this is not possible, that decision-making must rest with a defined position and that an organization based on this premise is interesting theory with no hope of pragmatic implementation...check out W.L. Gore & Associates. You will likely know them for GORE-TEX but they are far more than that. Gore is a thriving 50 year old business with innovations and products covering electronics, medical products, space fabrics and more. They have over 9000 associates (they do not call them employees) in 30 countries. There is virtually no hierarchy. Note this from their web site:
"How we work at Gore sets us apart. Since Bill Gore founded the company in 1958, Gore has been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.
Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams. We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge. This unique kind of corporate structure has proven to be a significant contributor to associate satisfaction and retention."
They have been very successful. This year they made it to Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For for the 13th time. Sales in the last fiscal year were over $2.5 billion.
Learning organizations can and do exist and can and do thrive. And when they do exist, they make the questions the reader posed that started this post almost irrelevant. Every person in the organization is both a leader and a learner at various times and everyone is fully expected to coach and mentor each other.
But few of us will work for Gore-like organizations. I may secretly hope for the demise of the pyramid organization but I know it's a very, very long way off.
It is better, and more hopeful, to think about a learning organization as a continuum from the ultimate (Gore) to the the Dilbert organization of tyranny. Any organization that lasts more than a few years is learning something. Perhaps not efficiently or effectively and perhaps not as profitably as it could; but it is learning.
As a leader you can embed many of the learning organization principals (systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning) in your team. It is not about how much time you spend with your team members but about the nature of the conversations and interactions you have with them and they have with each other. And about the expectations you have of them and allow them to have of you. I do not believe this takes more time than many, especially those in knowledge based jobs, spend today. In fact, done well it should take less of your time as the load is better shared.
Make no mistake, moving towards a learning organization or providing skills training to employees is not about being nice and feeling good (though these are often by-products). It is about less cost, or more profit, or more fundraising success, or research dollars, or whatever is the driving reason for the organization to exist.
And this brings us back to the questions the reader posed. How much time should a leader spend so the employee can take something provided to them in training and apply it effectively on the job? As much time as the leader and employee(s) determine is necessary to ensure the training investment pays off! No organizations, especially those running "close to the bone", can afford to pay out real dollars for training events and not see a return on that investment. The skills/behaviors/techniques have to be applied and applied in a way that improves whatever it is the employee(s) is doing.
This is not a question of how much time the organization is willing to give to the leader and his/her employees. It is a question of how well laid out was the learning plan that included the formal training event as one component of the overall plan. My experience has been that even the toughest organizations and the stingiest bosses, if they are going to allow training at all, want and expect it to make a difference. Money and time for training is not endless in full-out learning organizations either. We owe efficiency and effectiveness to our organizations. That means working with your teams and individual employees to determine the needs and priorities and to put plans around those that fit within the dollar and time budgets available and/or that can be justified. We have to make the case. The nice thing is that making and proving the case once results in it being easier to do the next time and the time after that.
I know that this treads dangerously close to the typical consultant answer (or non-answer) of "it depends"! But there really is no magic formula for the right amount of time for follow-up after training events be they individual one-on-ones or group discussions.
About the Author
Brenda Kerton is the owner and Principal Consultant at Capability Insights Consulting http://www.capabilityinsights.com Brenda has over 25 years of leadership, business and information technology experience. Her strengths are strategic analysis, change leadership and aligning business with IT. Her passion is the creation of business solutions that respect the people and the work and truly achieve the benefit opportunities.