Why Organizations Don’t Learn

Where organic, bottom-up meets corporate top-down.45720753_sAn article entitled Why Organizations Don’t Learn by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats in the November 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review caught my eye.

The resemblance of their suggestions and the content of Real Learning is uncanny.

Both the article and Real Learning highlight:

  • Destigmatize making mistakes (they are opportunities to learn)
  • Embrace and teach a growth mindset
  • Avoid attribution bias
  • Don’t work to exhaustion
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Take time to just think
  • Encourage reflection after doing
  • Leverage your strengths
  • Give workers different kinds of experience
  • Know who you’re working with

While we share many ideas on what makes for a successful organization, HBR and Real Learning are as different as night and day. Harvard Business Review is written for managers and executives. Real Learning is written for people who want to learn. HBR is top-down; Real Learning is bottom-up.

HBR lays the responsibility for getting things done on leaders:

Leaders can use a variety of strategies to counter the biases, including stressing that mistakes are learning opportunities, building more breaks into schedules, helping employees identify and apply their personal strengths, and encouraging employees to own problems that affect them.

The problem is that everything recommended by HBR deals with the supply side. Real Learning looks at the world through the demand side. Real Learning appeals to people with an intrinsic motivation to learn — in order to meet their personal goals. Intrinsic motivation outguns extrinsic motivation because ultimately, individuals learn what they want to learn.

It wasn’t easy writing Real Learning from the learner’s perspective. (At first I tried to write the book without using the word learning, but that proved impossible.) One has to eliminate the trainers’ bias toward “them.” You can’t get away with platitudes about what leaders should do.

HBR’s prescriptions are the right medicine; too bad they’ve chosen the wrong means of administering it.

While leaders can and should do what they can to create a supportive learning environment and an engaging culture, things won’t change until workers begin to act differently.

People in the Real Learning Project learn to learn socially, experientially, and informally. Thus, they are prepared to deal with the daily surprises that are part of the baggage of complex work.

India

When I was in India in 2011, I found out that India needs to train 500 million people in the next ten years. The solution being batted around was to build 17,000 new universities to teach them.

What would those schools teach? The half-life of a professional skill is down to five years and is shrinking fast. It makes no sense to train people on skills that will become obsolete in short order. I suggested that people need to learn meta-skills, such things as:

  • learning how to learn
  • critical thinking and conceptualization
  • pattern recognition
  • design thinking
  • working with one another
  • navigating complex environments
  • software literacy

India has neither time nor resources to prepare teachers to transfer these skills to hundreds of millions of people. The answer? Flip Indian education. Delegate the delivery of content to electronic means, and focus teachers on coaching, leading discussions, helping people over hurdles, and relating lessons to real life. Also, teach students and workers to teach themselves.

The time is ripe for India to democratize education, to help students to think for themselves, and realize their potential. Top-down (17,000 universities) is not viable. Indians must empower people to learn on their own. Giving control to the learners is the only way to take control of the situation.

Networks of individuals instead of corporate monoliths

In January 2012, two dozen authors, managers, and agile software developers met on a mountain top in Stoos, Switzerland, to try to reverse the decline of corporations. How could the practice of management be updated to work in a complex, unpredictable world?

We concluded that Western corporations are broken. Workers hate their jobs; customers complain of lousy service; investors receive meager returns. There has to be a better way.

The organization-as-machine, the model that served us from the dawn of the industrial age until the beginning of the 21st century, leads to a quest for efficiency. That works in stable, unchanging times, but it’s a formula for disaster amid incessant, disruptive change. The living network is a better model for today. Organizations need to conceptualize themselves as networks of individuals and teams who perpetually strive to create more value for customers.

This flips the corporation into an organization that respects people for their contributions rather than seeing them as cogs in the machine. The new order democratizes the workplace.

Corporate Learning

In America and Europe, the corporate learning function is dead or dying.

A 2011 study by the Corporate Leadership Council reported that 76% of managers are dissatisfied with their corporate training function; 85% deem training ineffective; and a mere 14% would recommend training to their fellow managers.

Workers and managers learn their work though conversation, collaboration, and on-the-job experience. My colleague Jane Hart calls this “learning without training.”

Enlightened corporations trust their people to pull in the resources they need. They’ve flipped corporate learning by putting the learners in charge of defining the curriculum. These corporations concentrate on building self-sustaining learning ecosystems, what I’ve called workscapes, instead of individual programs.

Real Learning builds the skills for workers to take charge of their own learning. I’m currently writing a booklet on what managers and team leaders can do to support decentralization of corporate learning.