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Organizational Learning is No Accident

Creating a corporate culture that fosters learning is hard work. Here are steps to ensure that your company is at the head of the class.

QuestionWhy do companies fail to learn from their mistakes?


With so much riding on success, you would think that companies would be better at learning. Amazingly, it seems as if they fight tooth and nail against learning, often with disastrous results. The reasons, however, make a lot of sense. And once you understand the reasons, you just might be able to make a difference. If not, at least you can feel self-righteous when the insanity starts.

Few of us think much about learning when not in school or in a training environment. But learning doesn't just happen; it takes reflection and thought. Reflection time used to be built into the world. It took three weeks for a head-office communication to arrive via Pony Express, allowing ample time to ponder and rethink decisions. Now we have overnight letters, junk mail, e-mail, voice mail, fax, cell phones, 30-second-delayed stock quotes, and the expectation that responding immediately is far more important than responding thoughtfully.

Organizations rarely build in time to do thoughtful learning, and when they do, that time is the first to go when emergencies beckon. When we built the original Quicken VISA card, we scheduled a learning debrief and documentation time. But long before the project's end, other demands squeezed all the slack out of the schedule. The learning review was the first to go. If you don't do it deliberately, learning won't happen.

Implementing insights from a learning review is tough. Learning means behavior change. Organizationally, behavior change is daunting.

Organizations rarely build in time to do thoughtful learning.
— Stever Robbins

Think about what organizational change is: It's changing structure and processes. At the very least, a lot of people must change how they work. Responsibilities, roles, and reporting relationships change. And that's just in the easy case; learning that your phone system is the bottleneck in your customer service department may demand reworking physical plant and equipment in several locations. Getting the affected people together to coordinate can take weeks. Then new systems must be designed, built, and documented, and everyone must be taught how their jobs have changed. Then there's still a learning curve for the new procedures. People get up to speed at the new ways of doing things, and only then has the business "learned." And, oh yes, this all happens in spare time, because the normal workload is still present and has to be carried for the business to survive.

Part of changing the systems and structure is changing the people. A reorg can be done on paper in an afternoon. But changing just one person is hard, even when he or she understands the need for change (Yes, my doctor said to lower my intake of saturated fats, but those cookies at lunch yesterday were so good I just had to eat … six … of them). Ultimately, organizational learning is doomed to failure unless people can learn.

For starters, a lot of learning breaks down because it's never communicated. Telling someone "Now you report to Sally and your department is no longer sales, it's account relationships." still leaves them to figure out how their day-to-day job has changed. They weren't necessarily privy to the learning discussions, and can't do anything meaningful without more information about the changes and the context.

Context answers the question "Why is this happening?" It's especially important when motivating people. People like things to stay the same. But when we find out why the request was made, it suddenly makes sense. Without knowing the "Why?" most change just makes life difficult with no obvious payoff … thus, resistance.

Even if people understand the changes, they may not have the skills for the new job. When Microsoft learned that security matters to customers, Bill Gates proclaimed that all programmers would spend two months just fixing security problems. A great goal, to be sure, but the programmers had spent their careers building systems without regard to security. How can we expect them to suddenly develop the expertise to find—much less fix—any but the simplest security flaws?

One recalcitrant manager with the right budget authority can halt a learning effort in its tracks.
— Stever Robbins

And as with any change effort, Microsoft is starting with workers who uniformly lack the skills being developed. Over time, organizational priorities shape the work force. Security-conscious engineers never had a chance to develop their skills at Microsoft, so if they really cared they left years ago for companies more aligned with their style. Those who stayed are the ones who thrive in the "get it out the door and capture the market" mentality. So the change is starting with the employees least likely to intuit how the changes should happen.

Money can come to the rescue by training people. For a simple skill, it can be quick and easy. But training for large skills must be developed, delivered, and practiced. No matter how much we "thrive on chaos" and jump "into the vortex," new habits take time to develop. Humans only change at a certain rate and we've never figured out how to speed that up. The world may change faster than ever, but people just don't.

The ones who most need to change, however, are the managers. As the organization reshapes itself, resources will shift. That means money and people. Budgets will get slashed. Empires will topple. Even if everyone else is willing, one recalcitrant manager with the right budget authority can halt a learning effort in its tracks. Managers must let go and support the learning for it to happen. Being human, they can have as much difficulty changing their behavior as everyone else.

By now, I've probably convinced you that organizational learning is hopeless. But take heart: now that you know why learning is hard, you can deliberately make it easier.

Steps to Make Learning Easier Example
1. Schedule time for learning. Make learning an explicit part of your job, rather than something you hope happens. Our vendors are refusing to take new orders. When we asked why, they said, "chronically late payment."
2. Here's the big secret: decisions are at the heart of organizational behavior. Even if you only have time for one thing, learn by asking your group, "What decisions must be made differently as a result of our experience, and how will those decisions need to change?" We must decide that vendor payment is a priority. When setting out the week's tasks, vendor payment must be scheduled first.
3. Express the learning as how you want the organization to behave differently. Be specific. From now on, Accounts Payable will cut a check three days before the due date on a bill.
4. Understand the organizational implications of the new learning. What systems and structures must change for the learning to manifest? The AP files must be updated and reviewed daily. "Due upon receipt" bills must be entered immediately instead of weekly.
5. Move from organizational implication to personal implications. Whose behavior will change? How will it change? What requests will be made of them that aren't being made now? Pat must read and process incoming mail daily.
Chris must process checks daily instead of weekly.
6. Even if it isn't your job, take responsibility for helping people understand why the change is necessary. Help them identify the skills they will need to deal with the job changes. Encourage them to find ways to develop those skills, even if training isn't available. Chris may need new time-management skills.
7. Work with the managers whose employees are affected to direct money, people, and time in support of the learning. Chris's manager and Chris must make sure that Chris's new mix of responsibilities still makes sense.

Organizational learning isn't easy. There's no perfect solution. Despite the many reasons why learning is hard for individuals and even harder for organizations, it's just a behavior that can become a habit. Develop the learning habit. Practice moving learning into individual action. Help people change and grow. Over time, the very forces that make change hard will come to your aid: those who don't like learning will gradually leave, and you'll attract a culture of people committed to learning. Even when an organization fights it, strong, dedicated action can at least produce pockets of smart business savvy.

Stever Robbins is president of Leadership Decisionworks, a leadership consulting, speaking, and facilitation firm. His work is featured on LeadershipDecisionworks.com and VentureCoach.com.