Ian Luxford concludes his feature about whether organisations are really creating a learning culture. Is yours?
Where does the learning really happen?
The different models and concepts that have been associated with learning organisations give us a lot to think about and it is understandable that some may choose not to think too much about them when facing other pressures.
But look at them in the right way – taking some very topical and specific themes – and their relevance and their potential simplicity become apparent.
Running through many if not all of Senge's concepts is the notion that what is taking place goes through the whole organisation and is made possible because it is shared. This speaks to a number of themes that are currently prevalent, not least that of employee engagement, which can be a very powerful tool in the organisational learning armoury.
People often talk about organisations as if they were three distinct units, the top management, the workforce and the layer of line management that mediates between the two (or doesn't).
We hear people saying that something needs to have the sponsorship or buy-in of the senior team or that it is being driven from the top. These are not invalid things to say but things that work have buy-in throughout the whole organisation no matter where they are driven from.
"If the top management are not cohesive, there is little chance of cohesion across the rest of the organisation and therefore of productive, positive change-inducing learning taking place."
Another area that Senge writes about is organisational 'learning disabilities'. He lists seven, all of which are familiar to anyone who has observed organisations at work with any degree of interest. A personal favourite of mine is the 'myth of the management team'. The myths are that they are a team and that they manage the organisation.
"All too often, teams in business tend to spend their time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally and pretending that everyone is behind the team’s collective strategy – maintaining the appearance of a cohesive team" (Senge 2006, page 24).
If the top management are not cohesive, there is little chance of cohesion across the rest of the organisation and therefore of productive, positive change-inducing learning taking place. Where they are cohesive, they need to rise to the challenge of extending that state to the whole of the workforce.
Line management therefore need to be integrated within this model although they too have a unique role to play. What made our healthcare client succeed was the willingness of line managers to play a leading role in change, taking others with them. Unusually but thanks to the process they followed, this group formed a consensus and worked together, creating a strong bond horizontally through the organisation.
And then, everyone else. Or do they come first? In a learning organisation, it might not matter. If the commitment to learning and making change happen is shared, we may be able to lose our obsession with 'top down' or 'bottom up' - but we have to start somewhere.
I have recently been working with Mӧvenpick Hotels and Resorts, an exciting upscale hospitality company with hotels across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Their challenge has been to engage their 16,000 employees (front and back of house) with the task of delivering a powerful branded guest experience. They have recognised the importance of true engagement and an important part of their approach has been to allow and encourage people to take ownership of the problem and shape the solution at the point of guest or colleague contact - not to impose rigid rules and guidelines.
In organisations where everyone is able to take initiative appropriately and champion change, there are no artificial barriers to learning; everyone's experience and talent become usable and when solutions need to be implemented there is more chance that people will buy in as they have had a hand in their creation. For many though, someone, probably someone senior, needs to act to start to make this culture happen. Turning something from being top team-sponsored to whole organisation-sponsored takes time and requires a delicate balance of commitment to progress and trust of others to drive things forward.
This is not a unique approach (and neither is it an employee suggestion scheme, at least not in the conventional sense). Other organisations have also been able to make important improvements happen cost- and time-effectively by sharing the responsibility for them.
"Turning something from being top team-sponsored to whole organisation-sponsored takes time and requires a delicate balance of commitment to progress and trust of others to drive things forward."
As the journey continues, people across different functions within the business become better connected. What shows that the organisation is learning though is not only the improvement that takes place but the realism over the fact that full empowerment takes time.
Is it that easy?
There is a neatness to this kind of thinking. Organisational learning cannot take place just in small pockets, it has to be widespread. Change and improvement are hard to make happen if they are not widely supported and bought into – they work worst when they are imposed. Employee engagement is not something you can do to a workforce, it comes about because of the state they are in and the 'employee voice' has been cited by engagement gurus David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, authors of the 2009 report 'Engaging for Success' as one of the key factors in bringing it about.
By handing over some ownership, you increase the chances of getting effective, sustainable change and you drive engagement, which in turn drives commitment to improvement.
Organisations are complex and they operate in complex environments. Tackling the problems they face is rarely simple or easy. Under pressure to make change happen, we don't always have the time we need. But faced with the need to act, applying some straightforward and well-used principles is better than imagining that the solution is one that could only work under other conditions.
No-one knows the future and no approach is ever a guarantee of success. Those external factors can sometimes be too much for anyone. But the thinking and culture of learning will serve some organisations well just as so many individuals have changed their own destinies in the same way. Depending on the existing culture and where you are starting from, this may be nothing new. On the other hand it could represent a considerable challenge and require a radically new way of thinking. But for a learning organisation this might not matter.