Picture this: you’re standing on a street corner in a city after a rain when a car speeds by, plowing through a large puddle just feet from where you’re standing, your pants are soaked through. You just learned something. Learning in organizations can feel like this at times. It can be intentional and structured as in the case of planned training or it can be unintentional and unstructured as in where to stand on a city street after a rain. The truth is learning happens every minute of the day and can come from anywhere. In great organizations all learning is recognized, captured, shared, encouraged, and valued every bit as much as performance, learning never takes a back seat to performance, they are always together.
We started our discussion about organizational ambidexterity a few articles ago talking about the bottom line for organizations, organizational exploitation drives out exploration. As organizations exploit the market doing what they do best they consequently stop exploring and learning new things. When they adopt this exploitive lather, rinse, and repeat mindset they lose their ability to leverage new learning and perform in ways that would guarantee their future success. Learning is the hub of every successful company and today we will discuss the ways in which learning supports the ambidextrous organization.
Organizational Learning or a Learning Organization
“Organizational learning” processes do everything from correct errors and behaviors to conduct required training.
Words matter, so pick the ones which will define your organization very carefully. The names we assign our processes and behaviors affect us in subtle, yet profound sub-conscious ways and it’s likely you are unaware of them. Take Organizational Learning, a familiar phrase synonymous with annual training and benefits briefings. “Organizational learning” processes do everything from correct errors and behaviors to conduct required training. It’s also a term which, if each word, organization, and learning, is considered individually, is an oxymoron, antithetical, and unless you’re an ambidextrous organization, impossible. When you consider the definition of the word “organization” you discover it denotes a “parsing down” of items to a selected exclusive few, whereas “learning” suggests a widening of the aperture, considering a larger selection. Given these conflicting definitions, it’s no wonder organizational learning is so difficult to achieve at any except the smallest of incremental levels.
A learning organization by contrast does not carry the same contradictions. Learning organizations are organizations where people continually learn how to learn together, and experience emergent, spontaneous learning often directed from the ground up. David Schwandt and Michael Marquardt suggest that ambidextrous companies because of their exploitive and explorative nature bridge a gap from organizational learning to the learning organization. They practice “learning in action,” in which programmed knowledge, combined with questioning, reflection, and group learning, support and sustain performance.
Creating a Dynamic Learning Environment
If the single most important thing a CEO does for their organization is set the culture then the single most important thing culture does is create and protect a dynamic learning environment. It’s not enough to allow and encourage learning, you must protect and defend it too. What can you do to promote a dynamic (ambidextrous) learning organization? Try these ideas for starters.
- Allow Workers to Behave in Risky Ways. Give workers the freedom to explore creatively, as Teresa Amabile says “explore the maze”. Unless you’re sure your employees are about to burn the place down leave them alone and see what happens.
- Perturb Learning. In the article, Wellsprings of Creation: How Perturbation Sustains Exploration in Mature Organizations, the authors prescribe a culture that includes intentionally “shaking things up” or “perturbing” specialized exploitative routines to break cultural inertia (becoming too rigid in thinking and practice). This is a great technique for promoting new learning and exposing underperforming processes that on the surface may appear to be running efficiently. Learning inside an organization must be greater than changes outside and an organization must learn faster than its competitors. By perturbing your own processes, you expose yourself to more learning opportunities than your competitors and experience a higher percentage of changes than would be encountered normally through routine operations. Leverage perturbation to continually renew and refresh your learning processes.
- Make Questions Safe. Somewhere along the line asking questions falls from favor, even to the point of becoming unsafe. Michael Marquardt, modern-day father of an amazing tool known as Action Learning, would say this point happens in early adolescence when society tells us as children to “stop asking so many questions”, the inference being “questions” are not a good thing. Mike has dedicated more than 30 years refining this tool now used by organizations all over the world. A deceptively simple process harnessing the power of questions, Action Learning uses a certified coach, two ground rules, and six components to produce results that change cultures. With all the elements in place, it’s like a magic card trick and works every time to: solve urgent organizational problems, develop leaders, and build high-performing teams. Perhaps most remarkably Action Learning creates heterogeneous learning cultures in record time. Cultures set upon the highest, most inclusive, and respectful norms with no destructive storming in the process. Action Learning changes lives and perhaps makes a critical course correction going all the way back to our childhood. Check out the World Institute for Action Learning (WIAL) and consider putting this tool in your toolbox.