13 Sep 2016 21:40 IST

The real meaning of a learning organisation

For real benefits to accrue, not just people but the organisation, as a whole, needs to learn

The new recruits were huddled in a conference room large enough to hold all top and middle level managers together. The huddle was in one corner of the conference table. They were waiting for the CEO to address them. It was 10 minutes past the scheduled time of 2:30 PM. At 2:42 a HR junior came in panting. He breathlessly announced that the boss would be there any time, looked around the room and ran out.

At 2:45, the Operations Head walked in looking into his phone. He gave a quick glance and nod to the huddle and settled down some distance away from the Chair. Supply chain and HR Heads walked in later, both with phones to their ears.

One of the recruits got up and started moving towards the door. He was stopped and asked to return to the huddle by the HR Head, who frantically waved him back.

At last, the CEO walked in. He smiled at the huddle, and gave a disapproving look to the Supply Chain head, who was still on his phone. Without a word he went to the white board and wrote in block letters

'Learning Organisation'

He then looked at the huddle and glanced at his senior managers meaningfully. “Hope someone already told you that we are a learning organisation,” he said. There was a murmur among the huddle. He took that as a yes and looked at the seniors. The HR Head got the cue. He said: “We have arranged many training sessions. We have a metric for learning in terms of number of learning hours per employee. They are aware of the training programmes they will need to undergo during the year.”

The recruits didn’t seem too happy. One of them had found out that all the training programmes were in-house. They would be held in the same buildings during the weekends.

The reaction would definitely have been positive if HR had planned some beachside resorts or hill resorts as venues.

The boss interrupted the HR Head: “Excellent. But I hope the learning is not restricted to the training programmes.” Looking at the huddle, he asked encouragingly, “So friends, I understand that you are with us now for over a month. That qualifies you as veterans! What did you learn here?”

The one who had tried to go out conference room raised his hand and said: “I learn that everyone is very busy. So busy that nobody can keep his or her appointed time for meeting us.”

The seniors shuffled their chairs uncomfortably. The CEO responded: “Is that so? There is no doubt that we are busy out here since we are pushing the envelope. Looking at the seniors, he added: “But we must spare time for these young people. They are our future, aren’t they?” The seniors explained that they took special efforts to meet the young group even if they had to stay back late to do so.

Another recruit asked, “Sir, what do you mean by a Learning Organisation? Does it mean that it is an organisation of people who learn or is an organisation which learns as a whole?” The CEO responded, “Well! They go hand in hand, don't they?”

“No Sir, I don't see how.” The young man wouldn't give up. The meeting came to life.

“Young man, we encourage frankness here. But let me show you a bigger picture.” For the next 30 minutes the CEO then proceeded with his presentation, talking about numbers and challenges. He ended the session saying: “The HR Head will address your concerns about learning. Have a Good Day.”

The CEO did what any smart person does when confronted with a difficult question. Change the subject. In this case, he proceeded with his stock presentation.

The discussion could have also gone like this

CEO: Why don’t you see it that way?

Recruit 1: They are two different things.

Recruit 2: Yes. For example, everyone learns something or other every day — things like how not to annoy a customer, or how not to disagree with the boss. How no one keeps promises, so how to pad up time estimates, and so on. Someone may also learn a new technique in production. But this doesn’t mean that the organisation as a whole learned anything that is beneficial to it.

CEO: You guys make sense. So let’s see how to make sure that the organisation is learning as well. Do you have any ideas?

Recruit 1: Yes, Sir. One way is to find out of the organisation is doing anything differently based on some experience and its analysis.

CEO: Can you give an example?

Recruit 3: Let's say that we have a way of handling normal and urgent shipments. We collect data and find that urgent shipments take as much time, or not much less, than the normal ones. This annoys customers. Based on specific data we can diagnose the workflows to find out errors or impediments. Then we can modify them and try them out. Finally, when a better workflow is implemented, we can say that the organisation has learned something new and better.

CEO: Excellent. We should use this for almost everything we do here.

Hoping that something sticks?

A usual learning ‘strategy’ is: Let us throw a lot of training (X hours per employee per year) at them. Let’s hope that something of that sticks and they get better at what they are doing. Budget permitting, we can plan some training programmes at holiday resorts. We can also send some high performing people abroad for training.

Such an approach assumes that:

- something is better than nothing

- a lot of it is better

- People get motivated by training, even if it is not utilised

Look around you to see if the above approach makes the organisation as a whole learn something that gives it an advantage. Also check if people benefit through the ‘hope something sticks’ kind of strategy and if they themselves stick around.

Has to be need-based

A learning organisation doesn’t get built through a ‘hope something sticks’ attitude and a training budget. Training must be planned based on the needs of the ‘work’ being done and the requirements of those doing it. Whatever is learned needs to be used immediately in one’s work with enough time for practice. If this is not ensured, the learning evaporates within days of employees returning to work. If managers don’t take responsibility for such systematic learning, the organisation, as a whole, can never learn.