Nothing illustrates the need to create real learning organizations more clearly than the current Covid-19 crisis. When the world changes rapidly and becomes more complex, the answer is not better steering and control, but better learning.
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — it is to act with yesterday’s logic”. (Peter Drucker)
In times of turbulence, the way we think about and run organizations is stress tested. External pressures and built-in weaknesses become apparent across society, within states, municipalities, private companies, sports teams, and even families.
We can think of organizations as Charles Darwin thought about “species”: over time, those who adapt to change survive. True learning organizations adapt to change through mobilizing people’s innate ability to learn. The core process of learning organizations is “learning to learn — together.”
As Dr. W. Edwards Deming expressed,
“One is born with a natural inclination to learn. Learning is a source of innovation. One inherits a right to enjoy his work. Good management helps us to nurture these positive innate attributes of people”.
Most organizations operate something like this: leaders plan processes, which are supposed to create planned results. Management believes they know how to execute these plans and uses sticks and carrots to control the organization. When things are slow, stable, and predictable, things seem fine. Shakespeare once wrote “When the sea was calm, all boats alike showed mastership in floating”. But as soon as disruption hits, underlying weaknesses emerge. The “tornado” of Covid-19 is one of many storms that shine light on common organizational vulnerabilities.
● Huge built-in failure costs. Lean practices in companies like Toyota and Denso have revealed the enormous failure costs in traditional manufacturing companies like Ford, GM, and even Tesla. No company or local government will survive in the long run when most organizational activity adds no value to customers or the end user.
● Wasted talent. New generations want to use and develop their talent at work, not be controlled by a stick and carrot and “scientific management”. They want to experience meaning in their jobs. Social anthropologist David Graeber (1961–2020) describes many jobs as “bullshit jobs”. His research showed that millions of employees think their job is “meaningless” and does not contribute to a better life[i]. Similar research showed that 37% of people in UK said that their job did not make a “meaningful contribution to the world”.[ii]
• Lack of adaptive learning. Industrial revolutions lead to breakthroughs in many technologies at the same time. Digitalization is changing everything, and the ability to see, think, reflect, act, and adapt to these changes will determine whether an organization survives. An organization is a system of interdependent parts that interact to fulfill a purpose. When the system is exposed to internal and external disruptive forces, it has to adapt through organizational learning. The “engine” of better learning is systems thinking.
Learning to Learn — Together
One of the pioneers of learning organizations, Peter M. Senge, wrote that a learning organization “is a place where people continuously develop their capacity to create the results they really want and dream about, where new and evolving thinking patterns are cultivated, where collective ambitions are liberated, and where people are constantly learning to learn together”
The real world is more complex than most leaders and organizations tend to admit. A learning organization adapts to the world’s complexity in three ways:
● By mobilizing people’s innate desire to learn.
● By developing systems thinking; and
● Through simplicity (this may sound strange, but we’ll get to it in a second).
Quality of the Soil
The first prerequisite for becoming a learning organization is to see the entire organization as a system. This means seeing not just your own business (“our company” or “our department”), but the entire web of interdependent pieces (including the industry and socio-political setting), as a “symphony orchestra”. Sub-optimization of “our unit” must be banned! Both municipalities and private organizations function as systems of mutually dependent visible and invisible factors. Systems awareness is the perspective of a good farmer. Any farmer’s top concern is the quality of the soil. A strong learning culture has six “scaffolding” elements, six key characteristics, that can act as a mirror for understanding what an adaptive learning culture is.
1. Constancy of purpose. Vision and mission. The first key characteristic for a leaning organization is that it has a constant and useful purpose beyond making money. Many companies show off “vision statements” that are little more than empty words that mean nothing to their employees or users. A real learning organization must create a shared practical vision based on the idea of what it should look like when it performs at its best. It should describe what it actually delivers, the reason for its existence. This purpose has to be meaningful to everyone it impacts. It answers the question “Why are we here?”
2. A safe and supportive learning environment. The second scaffolding element is a safe and supportive learning environment. Everyone makes mistakes, but mistakes should not be hidden. They are a key source of learning! We need leaders who understand this and continuously use every mistake as an opportunity for learning and improvement. Research shows that companies and municipalities that face difficult challenges are completely dependent on the security of trial and error in order to succeed[iv].
3. Built on the best knowledge. In every organization we work with, we ask the same question: “What is the best way to do this?” The answers often vary greatly. Leaders and employees explain that different actors do things “their own way.” They end up accepting a poor status quo instead of identifying current best practices and using that information to find an even better way tomorrow. To find and build on best practices means digging up the knowledge gold that already exists in the organization. The simple questions is “What is good work” and “What does good work look like?”
4. Self-directed teams. Learning organizations require leaders to understand how “to nurture [these] positive innate attributes of people”. Stop using command and control and let people find the best solutions through teamwork. This requires both freedom and structured frameworks. Following Lean and agile practices is a great place to start. Make information visual so teams can see together, act (experiment) together, and learn together.
5. Continuous improvement. Through dialogue teams reflect on what they see and decide to test out improvements. They practice trial and error. The simple question is “What did we learn from this execution?” and developing the mentality:- “How can we do it a little better than yesterday?”
6. Sharing of knowledge. The last prerequisite is learning to share knowledge. What we learn must be shared and become part of the organization’s knowledge. This is how it becomes part of organizational culture, or “How we do it around here.”
In every element listed above, we reflect and dialogue by using systems thinking. Dr. Derek Cabrera discovered the basic cognitive functions of systems thinking he named DSRP:
Distinction, what is it, what is it not?
Systems, what is it part of (part-whole)
Relations, what relations do we see (action-reaction) and
Perspectives, everything kan be looked on from different perspectives.
By practicing the DSRP rules, we get better and deeper understanding of the organizations learning culture as an interconnected system.
There is a lot of mumbo jumbo on the management market. An increasing number of leaders sincerely want to develop learning organizations, but they should be wary of magical recipes for Lean “implementation” that will make their businesses “agile”. Lean and agile involve organizational learning, but first and foremost leaders must learn how their own thinking and acting impact the culture of learning in their organizations. This journey starts with finding and facing reality, and the six key elements of the Learning Culture Mirror can be your starting point.