Transforming Your Company Into a Learning Organization

by | Sep 3, 2020

In 1958, the average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 was 60 years. Today, that number is 10, and this rapid pace of change shows no sign of slowing any time soon. In addition to the accelerating pace of change, work is more complex than ever before; organizational hierarchies are flattening, technology is changing, and a vast number of employees are working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For companies to be successful in 2020, employees with experience ranging from senior management, all the way down to entry-level must learn to work together and collaborate with multiple teams in order to get work done.

When we look at the data aggregated across many companies, 7 out of 10 people within an organization cannot name their company’s strategy or describe what success looks like. Additionally, that same number of people cannot clearly define what success looks like for their individual role. Plainly said, most employees don’t know the company goal or how they contribute towards its success.

Strategic Planning is Easy, Implementation is Hard

Many executives are great at building and formulating strategies, the challenge comes in driving that strategy to completion, and change efforts commonly fail during the implementation. 70% of strategic initiatives fail, but the odds of success improve dramatically when every person within the organization knows the goal and understands how their role contributes to its success.

7 out of 10 strategic initiatives fail

Developing a Strong Leadership Pipeline

The majority of leadership and development programs are meant to build a strong leadership bench of talent to drive the future of the business and move change efforts forward. Despite these programs, companies end up hiring 66% of their leaders from outside the organization. Additionally, employee engagement remains near all-time lows and the average leader tenure with a company averages around 6 years and continues to shrink.

What do the masters in management think about all of this? Gary Hamel, one of the leading thought leaders of the future of management, states that most of the management structures in place today were invented by people who were alive at the end of the Civil War. For us to tackle the problems that have arisen since then, we need a “management revolution no less momentous than the one that spawned modern industry.”

There is a way to lead a revolution: an organizational learning renaissance. This starts with your decision to build a learning organization. It doesn’t have to start with your entire company, it can start with just you and your team. It’s about building a team of continuous learners. And if you’re leading a team, it’s critically important that your leaders create the conditions and shape the environment in which learning can occur for every person, every day. That environment has to be safe, positive and dialogue-driven. This concept is critical to get right. Without a learning space like this, you’ll find it harder to accomplish your goals.

Creating an Environment Where Employees Thrive

How do you know if you have a safe, positive, and team-based environment? The great Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, created a formula that defines behavior as a function of people and their environment, B = f (P,E). Behavior change; and everything involved in change management depends upon a change in the environment. If we do not change people’s environment, they will spring back to what they were before.

Behavior is a function of person and environment

Cleaning the Fish Tank

We can further explain this concept using the dirty fish tank metaphor. Imagine a dirty fish tank. If you take a fish out of that tank and clean them, but fail to clean the environment that dirtied them in the first place, what will happen when they return? Within days, weeks, or months, the fish will be just as dirty as it was before.

If you do not create a clean fish tank — or better your workplace, to end the analogy — you will still have an environment where people fear failure, fear looking bad in front of others, fear losing their job and never speak up about it. This will result in a lack of transparency that will cause people to feel embarrassment, guilt, shame, and humiliation. The end result is that your change efforts never happen.

Clean the fish tank

The Impact of a Virtuous Work Environment

However, you can fix this. When you create a virtuous, safe, and team-based environment, miraculous things will happen. You will begin to win at learning, you will begin to push the change curve up and steeper than ever before. But first, you must clean the fish tank. You have to get people to believe they can speak the truth, to develop trust with others and communicate in a completely transparent way with others. It’s the only way you will begin to build a learning organization. If you do this, you will succeed. You will successfully drive breakthrough change. You will win in building tomorrow’s high-performing organization, today.

Abraham Maslow said decades ago, “to the extent they are not crippled by fear and to the extent they feel safe enough to dare.” Meaning, you need to have a safe learning environment where critical debate, permission to speak freely, permission to admit mistakes, and permission to be vulnerable are the norm. If you have an environment in which this type of dialogue does not occur, then you will not be able to build a learning organization that achieves success and organizational transformation.

Creating and building this type of learning organization will not be easy. Humans are optimized for speed, and as a result, most of the decisions we make throughout the day are thoughtless and mindless. We base our decisions on gut instinct. We evolved this way as a protection mechanism to prevent ourselves from being hurt or injured. We are designed for fight or flight, not for slowing down and being thoughtful thinkers. Unfortunately, deep thought is precisely what a learning organization requires.

What does this mean to us today? Our learning machine (brain & mind) is designed for efficiency and automaticity. Not for learning new things, ideas, and innovation. This automatic shorthand for interpreting the world is heavily protected by beliefs, mental models and ego defenses. Which means we are very prone to error. We need to slow down. We need to practice mindfulness. If you can slow down every week to do some mindful thinking in a group, you will begin to break through and create an environment that leads to organizational learning.

Taking the First Step of the Guided Learning Journey

You can achieve this by organizing a guided learning journey. You bring people together to engage in structured dialogue and periodically return to a relaxed community of practice, which is an informal space for people to think about what they are learning and share how they are getting better with each other.

In addition to creating the environment, you must also create conditions for learning success. Robert Brinkerhoff has completed some of the most fascinating research in learning measurement to date. In one study, he found that only 20% of learning outcomes are predicted from the training you deliver to employees. The other 40% is predicted before you deliver the training and 40% after you train your employees.

What predicts learning outcomes?

In short, his study shows us that learning is never over. Learning is a virtuous process of perpetual betterment. If you are going to teach someone where the future vision is, you must shape an environment where people feel safe and create the conditions that ensure people understand why they are going to training, why it’s good for the company, their team and themselves. You must answer these questions on the front-end, or else the impact of your learning intervention in the middle will be suboptimal. On the backend, after the learning intervention ends, you must continue to support your people. You support people in a community of practice where people can engage in structured dialogue and share barriers and talk about how they will overcome them. This informal space will drive continuous practice and provide a space for people to ask great questions and receive great answers. This community of practice is where people will engage in open and honest conversations that will lead to a shared vision, a shared understanding that will help drive your change efforts forward.

Learning Organizations Grow Through Internal Dialogue

How do you engage in structured dialogue? In Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, he writes that at the heart of changing people is dialogue. Dialogue comes from the Latin root of dia-logos, which means, “shared meaning, flowing through a group.” If you can achieve shared meaning flowing through a group, then you can move from vision to shared vision and shared understanding as to why we are going to where we are going. This is the ultimate achievement!

At CorpU, we deeply believe dialogue is critically important. Through our organizational learning platform, we connect people together in purpose-built groups to get them to engage and solve complex problems, generate and spread ideas, teach and learn from each other and experts (both inside and outside of the company), capture and amplify new knowledge to make sure knowledge is shared across the entire enterprise.

If you engage in structured dialogue, you will have the opportunity to analyze the power of that dialogue. This is where big data and analytics are applied. Through data analytics, Real concerns and barriers are surfaced to help you understand how best to overcome. Instead of struggling to keep up with the pace of change, you will finally have the tools necessary to stay ahead of the curve and overcome issues before they happen. It’s through this “dialogue analytics” where you unlock the magic to learn how to win at learning. Instead of struggling to keep up, you will be driving the change forward.

Now is the Time for Action

The time is now to create the conditions and shape the environment to become a learning organization. The time is now for you to also become a learning evangelist for your company. To help build a learning organization for your team and your company. Your job as a leader is to create the conditions and shape the environment for continuous learning. If you can build this safe, positive, and team-based environment, you will achieve your desired results, outperform your competition. Employee engagement will go through the roof, your employees will be happier, stick with the company longer, be promoted faster and live an overall healthier life. Is there really any reason why you wouldn’t want to begin building your learning organization today?

<span style="color: #8A93A8;font-size: 12px;margin:0;padding:0;line-height: 1">Written By:</span><br>Ryan Taylor

Written By:
Ryan Taylor

Ryan Taylor is the Vice President of Product Management at CorpU

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