It is hard to imagine any organization who wouldn’t answer the following question: “Would you like a learning organization?” in the affirmative. Yet, there often exists tangible roadblocks to having a true learning organization, such as work rules and overly-detailed job descriptions. However, there are two significant practices that can enable a culture of learning that go beyond the traditional and passive approach of simply giving away a professional development stipend.

Get Rid of Runners

From Paul Revere to carrying the message to Athens of a Persian defeat, runners have been useful in spreading the word. However, the careful reader grazing through the historical record would determine that runners are best applied when no other option prevails.

In the United States the use of teams and projects has proliferated since Walter Deming wrote his first books on Japan. And yet in almost any team-based environment, we encounter the modern version of a “runner.” Individuals are used to establish a communication linkage between teams. However, the use of an individual linkage to ensure effective communication between teams working on linked projects is a mistake and does little to encourage a learning organization. In fact, the use of individual linkages between teams often adds a layer of confusion and prevents cross-functional communication that is essential to learning.

In learning organizations, team-to-team forums and town halls are the preferred vehicle for optimal learning. Shaping an event where teams have the chance to present and subject their work to real-time peer review is an effective learning vehicle. Additionally, real-time face-offs sharpen focus and encourage the natural competitive spirit between teams to do their best work and negotiate real-time solutions. Whenever possible, a learning environment can be created by teams collaborating in this type of public atmosphere. The benefits to public town halls outlast the lifecycle of the teams involved, while contributing to a culture of learning.

The Power of Access

Ever since Edward Thorndike (1911) demonstrated that cats could learn complex tasks in order to get out of a puzzle box, we’ve seen time and again that people too will perform similarly in order to gain access. In organizations this aspect of humanity suggests that people working on teams will perform better if given the chance to report their work to the most senior executives available. In practice, we’ve operationalized this theory in several locations where union members working on simplification projects had a chance to report their effectiveness to a company’s Board of Directors. In every case both sides of the aisle came away enlivened, optimistic and acknowledged. While we know that people work for primary rewards like time off or financial incentives, it is easy to overlook that similar to Thorndike’s experiment, human beings will perform better if they know they are given access to senior level stakeholders.

Using this access in any organizational environment is key to unlocking a learning organization as it sets up dialogs between levels that often are not in communication. Direct feedback gives the opportunity for lower levels of a company to be acknowledged and creates a learning event for both the worker and executive. Both parties leave having experienced growth.

The moral to the story is that we have available tools and techniques that encourage a learning organization. While it may require extra time, the benefits of creating a learning organization can be significant and worthwhile.

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