Building a Learning Organization to Ensure a Successful Future

building a learning organization
building a learning organization
Image courtesy of Upraise

Today, existing knowledge becomes obsolete in the blink of an eye. And, there’s so much you need to know just to survive that you must build a learning organization to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Here is just a taste of the many types of knowledge you must gather, disseminate, and use in forming your strategy.

  1. detailed knowledge of your market that includes customers, competitors, and the environment in which you operate
  2. complete knowledge about your products such as how they compare with the competition, how to install and operate them, and technical specifications
  3. processes and standards for how to get things done in your organization
  4. The underground information that describes the actual informal personnel linkages that don’t show up on the organizational chart
  5. New processes, products, and strategies to move the organization forward
  6. New and improved methods of doing a task

Building a learning organization allows the business to grow, expand, and realize massive profits. Despite these benefits, building a learning organization isn’t easy and maintaining one takes constant pruning and nurturing.

What is a learning organization?

First, what is a learning organization? According to one firm involved in the process, a learning organization is:

a buzzword used to describe the process of transferring knowledge within an organization. As your business gains experience, it should improve over time. You, your team, and your organization should be creating a broad base of knowledge during this time, covering any and all topics that could improve the way you do business.

Through multiple levels within the organization [individual, team, organization, and inter-organizational groups], learning organizations discover, transmit, and use knowledge as a tool to optimize market returns. Critically, a component of this process involves not just structural issues, such as conducting research and communicating findings, but involves people management to build consensus, remove the stigma of “not invented here”, and human bridges to encourage collaboration and application of knowledge to complex problems.

5 disciplines of learning

Here’s a nice little mental map showing how an organization processes and learns:

organizational learning
Image courtesy of QAspire

Identified by HBR (Harvard Business Review) as one of the seminal management books published in the last 75 years, Peter Senge introduced the concept of 5 disciplines within learning organizations. Let’s start at the top and work our way down.

System thinking

While it sounds like a tautism, system thinking really isn’t that common, especially given prevailing notions of profit centers that stress independence and ignore that organizations are more like living organisms with complex interdependencies.

System thinking forces an organization to consider all the drivers of action, processes and linkages in those processes, as well as interdependencies. Logistics is one area of marketing that excelling in employing system thinking as a means to avoid costly delays in shipments or having stock pile up resulting in high storage and retrieval costs.

An example illustrates this principle well. Lately, I’ve worked a mass vaccination site for Covid-19 handling as many as 3000 patients a day across 12-hours. Through a combination of volunteers and trained medical staff, patients commonly wait for an hour or less from leaving their vehicle to returning — something of a miracle in the chaotic process seen at most sites. Maintaining efficiency means we don’t optimize any aspect of the process but manage the flow of patients by staggering arrival times and having waiting areas to “store” patients in between elements. Rather than have everyone with an appointment arrive and wait for their turn, we schedule at most 18 patients per 5 minutes.

Here’s what the process looks like at Shenandoah University:

  1. Arrival — checked by police to ensure a patient has an appointment before entry into the parking lot.
  2. Transport — those who want or need transportation are taken by golf cart to the building entrance.
  3. Greeters ensure only patients with appointments enter the vaccination area — a large, multi-use athletic training facility.
  4. Patients wait in socially-distanced chairs until their appointment time is called, usually only a few minutes.
  5. A team of 8 checks in each patient; first ensuring they have no conditions that preclude them from being vaccinated, then filling out a record card for the patient and a slip for the vaccination to record pertinent aspects of the vaccination.
  6. Another series of chairs hold patients awaiting vaccination — normal less than 10 and often none.
  7. The patient is vaccinated by trained medical staff. The process is optimized by having pre-filled syringes, alcohol pads separated from strips, and even opened bandages that speed the process along.
  8. Patients wait for 15 minutes for observation. Normally conservatory students play music (no woodwinds) and flatscreens show aspects of the university to form favorable opinions.
  9. Patients check out by turning in the vaccination slip filled out by the health professional, which helps the CDC monitor vaccine performance and patient reactions.
  10. If needed, patients are transported back to their vehicles using golf carts.

Sure, we might deliver a few more vaccines a day without this system thinking that staggers arrivals and creates convenient holding facilities to manage slight discrepancies in the process. By having all scheduled patients arrive at the same time, we ensure no lag time when check-in volunteers don’t have anyone awaiting check-in or vaccinators waiting for the next patient to clear check-in. However, not only would patients wait in long lines, often outside to ensure social distancing, but patients would bunch up in step 8, requiring a much larger space to monitor patients for reactions to the vaccine, probably violating social distancing guidelines. By optimizing the system, rather than any one aspect of the system, Shenandoah achieves high marks from patients and the healthcare district overseeing adherence to COVID standards while achieving a high delivery rate compared with many larger, better-funded mass vaccination sites.

Mental models

mental models Mental models involve how we process information, the assumptions we make, and intuitive perceptions of the outside world. To a large extent, mental models reduce complex information into more manageable explanations of how we think things work.

Of course, not all mental models are accurate and it’s easy to insert bias into building mental models based on sloppy thinking.

Mental models aren’t always accurate but based on existing knowledge. For instance, mythology is based on shared mental models to explain how things in the natural world worked in the absence of science. Hence, the notion of gods endowed with supernatural powers explained how the sun moved from day to night and other phenomena.

Building better mental models based on extensive information helps make better decisions.

Shared vision

With a shared vision, we’re starting to move into the realm of coordinated actions. Shared vision involves gaining buy-in to a particular mental model or set of mental models.

Let’s suppose you’re an entrepreneur with the goal of dominating a particular industry. You must build a mental model containing strategy elements you believe will lead to domination. The bigger problem is transferring that vision to employees because you never get the level of commitment from people unless they can see and endorse your vision.

It’s really beyond the scope of this post to discuss the finer points of building a shared vision but recognize much of the process involves participation and two-way, honest communication.

Personal mastery

Here we need to focus on the individual, rather than the organization; recognizing that an organization is only a strong as its weakest link. Personal mastery involves continuous learning and training at the individual level to allow team members to clarify and build their own personal vision.

Team learning

Team learning involves building competencies within your teams. For instance, allowing a team to take ownership of a problem created within their tasks and providing support for problem-solving not only uses their intimate knowledge of the process but, by determining the best course of action, means the team is committed to its success.

Building a learning organization

Perhaps, all it takes to build a learning organization is going the extra mile and continually investing in employees to ensure they are at par with the necessary skills and knowledge. This calls for providing learning opportunities to enhance their skills, become creative thinkers, and find innovative solutions to problems.

All too often, management selects who will learn, what they learn, where and when the learning occurs. This typically leaves learners feeling left out and can increase feelings of resentment and inequity.

Plus, employees who aren’t interested in learning, don’t do well. Some might even fail to attend the programs. To counter this, the best thing an organization can do is allow learners to have a voice in what they learn and provide tangible rewards for taking on new challenges. Allowing learners to choose what they want to learn is a great way to improve overall productivity.

If you’re interested in this phenomenon, please take a look at the infographic following this post. It shows the latest research into how learners can make decisions about what they learn. The infographic makes it easy to understand this tricky concept and provides some of the intellectual tools necessary, such as the use of Ezra coaching app to boost employees’ learning culture. Check it out below.

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Infographic designed by Ezra Coaching App