We make many assumptions about organizational learning. Most of them are wrong.
On the surface we seem to know what organizational learning is: People attend programs or complete e-learning modules, they learn something new and they somehow become better. But this approach doesn’t represent how people in organizations actually learn. Hence we see massive failures across the board in the effectiveness of organizational learning.
As a result of this quandary, most organizations pursue efficiency in learning. They drive down internal learning budgets and replace costly face-to-face programs with less expensive e-learning solutions despite the fact that the completion rates of many e-learning modules are in the single digits. The thinking is “if it isn’t going to work it might as well be cheap and we should have a lot of it.” As a result, organizational learning is caught in a downward spiral of ineffectiveness.
What is missing from this assessment is that people are social and work is a social act. Despite our attempts to simplify employees’ tasks down to job descriptions and efficiently place them in a position on the hierarchical chart, relationships matter in organizations and we overlook them far too often.
Despite the amount of money organizations invest in content and experts for learning programs, it is the relationships that participants value the most. The highest rated item on almost every organizational learning program’s smile sheet assessment is networking. This ranking is frequently dismissed as nice but inconsequential yet it teaches us a lot about what is missing from organizational learning.
The reality is that content is now a commodity. If people want to learn something new, they can go to TED, Khan Academy or a myriad of other locations that offer content for free. What people yearn for is context and connection — ways to make the social aspect of work more meaningful and impactful. Real learning is social in organizations and people — through their scores on smile sheets — have been telling us this for years.
To make the most of learning in the social system of work, organizations must continue to retool their approaches to learning: Invest in context, not content, throw great parties and utilize leaders as your best teachers.
Invest in Context, Not Content
Despite the amount we invest in corporate learning, research by consulting firm McKinsey and the Corporate Executive Board, a research and membership company, shows that more than 70 percent of corporate initiatives fail. Executing on their corporate strategy is regularly touted as the most vexing challenge for CEOs. If the job of corporate learning is to make organizations better and more nimble, we have a ways to go.
People work in rich contexts that they create with others. They create social norms, dictate unspoken standards that they and their peers follow, and define who to collaborate with and who to avoid. All of this is done locally in tribes of employees beyond the gaze of corporate oversight. In this environment, peer expectations are more important to performance than hierarchical expectations. This local context is what organizations should be investing their learning dollars in.
One way to reorient learning to context is to look to corporate functions for teachers. Every organization has functions or teams that wield a disproportionate amount of power. Typical suspects are finance, procurement and audit. Due to their power over local teams, these functions can be incredibly powerful agents to teach the organization.
For example, the new leader of an audit function that is almost universally feared and loathed decides that they want to cultivate a more proactive learning approach. The audit process and outputs are retooled away from catching people when they are not in compliance to identifying and spreading best practices. While this shift may not seem material and could be easily dismissed as one more in a long line of corporate initiatives, the on-the-ground impact and effectiveness of the audit team has a chance to improve dramatically if it is built into the teams and the way they execute their work.
Rather than being the “death squad” the organization fears, they become the pollinators that seek out and spread great ideas. While still delivering their auditing requirements, the shifts in approach cause the organization to engage with them and their outputs in entirely new ways and local teams start to learn from them in ways not previously imagined.
When focusing on context, bear in mind a handful of critical questions:
- How do we connect people around the expectations and challenges that really matter?
- What is implicit in our local practices that is wrong?
- How do we embed learning into the ways teams work day to day?
The most pressing learning issues involve application and translation to real work, not the shiny new models typically peddled in learning programs.
Throw Great Parties
On a social level, a great party is great because of the mix of people that are gathered and the freshness of ideas and dialogue generated. Good wine can also help. Organizational learning needs to throw great parties at the points in the value chain where it will yield real impact.
For example, a pharmaceutical research and development organization could build multiday learning parties into key transition points in the drug development cycle. Not only will this help accelerate the transition timeline between phases of development but it also yields a valuable way for the organization to capture and take action on knowledge — yielding a knowledge management system that people actually value and use. Sessions can be designed around critical dialogues so that people engage in conversations that matter and help them do their local jobs better.
People in organizations long for new connections and fresh dialogue but they typically accept that they are prisoners to the intransigence of the status quo. Learning in organizations has to be built into the value chain where it will yield the most impact. By identifying and throwing the right parties, organizational learning can help people learn what will really help them do their work better.
The key to a good party is provocative dialogue. Most people in organizations have been conditioned to go along with things. To make the most of their potential, they need to be woken up and provoked with fresh stories and ideas in the context of their real work. One of the keys to a great learning party is provoking the right dialogue. This is an art form that can be cultivated but it is vital to avoid rote, formulaic events. Surprising people and making them think in new ways with new people around real work is a valuable learning lever.
Leverage Leaders as Your Best Teachers
Your leaders teach every day. They’re just not aware they are teaching. A number of organizations have focused intensely on enabling leader-led learning. To be clear, these approaches are not your parents’ leader-led learning of 65 PowerPoint slides covered in 60 minutes. Leaders must build the skill to invite and provoke dialogues.
In one project in Australia, the top 400 leaders of a financial services company worked in intact teams to help leaders translate their insights from a program back to the day-to-day realities of their team through a series of strategically designed provocations. The sessions, co-led by an external facilitator and the leader, focused not on content but on translation to the context of the team. The leaders were held accountable by the facilitators for engaging their teams with openness, curiosity and vulnerability.
The impact was striking. Rather than getting hung up on interesting models, teams actually engaged around the ways that they worked and what they could do differently. The impact on the normal operating routines of these teams and their collective impact on the organization yielded improvements in change agility and performance of the organization.
Good organizational learning needs to focus on harnessing and focusing leaders as the best teachers within the organization. Hierarchy is a strong lever in organizations and if leaders can build skills and get the right tools to teach their people, the impact can be incredibly powerful.
People learn in organizations every day. They determine their own reasons why but they frequently do this in isolated bubbles around familiar populations. Organizations need to shift from a focus on the traditional nouns of corporate learning such as e-learning, training and content to verbs, such as getting people connected with others in compelling ways. At its starting point, organizations should recognize that people are smart. If you give them the right bread crumbs, they’ll find the right way.
Todd M. Warner is the founder of Like Minds Advisory, a leadership development firm. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.