Everyone wants their organization to be a learning organization.
Resourceful leaders know that the people are an organization’s greatest asset and one surefire way to increase the value of that asset is for those people to learn how to become better professionals.
Being a part of a learning organization is attractive as well. Who doesn’t want to get paid while increasing their value as a professional at the same time?
And, most importantly, “learning organization” has picked up plenty of steam as a buzzword (buzz-phrase?) over the last few years, so adding this one to your repertoire will have you well on your way to effectively synergizing backward overflow.
Still, establishing a learning organization is no small task. It’s really nice to get sent to a conference or two-day course, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, how much of what we learn at conferences or courses do we demonstrably apply to our day-to-day when we return? Think of a conference or course that you went to. Think of everything you learned there. Now, take a guess at how much of what you learned actually ended up getting applied to your day-to-day work as an approximate a percentage.
Let’s say that you answered 10% (which, according to the consensus at the water cooler, would be an overestimate in most situations). Strictly speaking, if the organization spent $5,000 to send you to that conference, then the organization incurred $4,500 of waste. Even scarier is that there are lots of people who when thinking of their most recent conference and answering that question would say “0%”, which means that their entire expense report reimbursement was technically waste.
Granted, we can’t expect to take perfect advantage of all the learning that we do when the company pays us to go somewhere and learn. There aren’t many who will ever answer that question and say “100%”.
However, learning organizations get as close to 100% as possible. What sets these organizations apart is that they enable implicit learning in addition to explicit learning.
Explicit and Implicit Learning
Explicit learning is taking time off from your regular job in order to accomplish an explicit learning objective e.g. taking a SQL class. Implicit learning is learning through the course of your ordinary job e.g. figuring out how to query account data in your company’s database.
The distinction is important to make because of this: if explicit learning is not made implicit, it’s useless to the organization.
When employees go off and learn, the learning can’t stop there. Otherwise the organization will never see the benefit. They must also learn how to apply what they’ve learned, which is implicit learning. For this reason, implicit learning is far more important than explicit learning. Not only is it essential to realizing the return the $5,000 in discretionary spend that went to that conference, but it’s also a way for employees to learn without having to spend $5,000 in the first place. We can save that check for the next office party and get an ice sculpture.
Even so, organizations typically focus more on explicit learning than they do on implicit learning, most likely because explicit learning is easy to implement. The cost is explicit; it’s a simple a dollar amount. So it’s easy to approve that dollar amount, and then pick a conference and book a hotel.
The cost of implicit learning is harder to determine, but we can start by clarifying our definition of the term itself.
The Agile Fluency Model has a great way of defining implicit learning: fluency. It’s likened to fluency in a language. When you’re fluent in a language, you’re able to use it day-to-day; you can truly utilize it. The same can be said of a concept that you may learn at a course or conference. You really know the concept when you’re able to use it in your day-to-day work. When you’re fluent in it.
The cost of implicit learning then is whatever it takes to achieve fluency. Diana Larsen and James Shore, the creators of the Agile Fluency Model, describe what it takes to achieve fluency in this brief of the model on Martin Fowler’s website (and in our free downloadable eBook):
The skillful ease at the heart of fluent proficiency requires deliberate, thoughtful, day-in-day-out practice over months. It comes from a deliberate investment in learning through practice.
The rest of this article describes three ways that an organization can make a “deliberate investment in learning through practice”. It isn’t an exact playbook for success, but it is a good place to start cultivating learning in your organization. This will get you the biggest possible return on conferences, courses, certifications, etc. and also give people the ability to learn in lieu of these things.
Way #1: Give Yourself the Space to Experiment
It’s impossible to learn without trying something new. You didn’t learn your multiplication tables without trying to resolve 3x5 for the very first time. You didn’t learn how to cook without reading a new page in a cookbook, or one of those cooking websites where they spend more time telling you their life story than they do on the recipe itself.
This is may seem painfully obvious. But, be honest, how often do you try out a brand new way of doing something in your day-to-day job?
Why We Don’t Do It
- It’s risky. No one likes to fail. It hurts our confidence and self-esteem. So as egotistical beings, we avoid it at all costs. But we can’t let fear of failure become a nonstarter for growth and improvement. (More on failure in Way #2)
- We’re complacent. We’re getting a paycheck, so something must be going right. It’s almost shocking how easy it is to hold it steady and keep plugging away. The next thing you know it’s Friday, and then 52 of those pile up over and over until you start saying, “I’ve been doing it this way for years.” But growth requires the desire for change.
How to Try It
Run effective retrospectives. Get together with your team and discuss new ways of working. And then, try them. Mention that thing you read in that web article, or that interesting idea from that course you took. There is security in experimenting as a group, because if you do fail, at least you’ll do so together.
Start and join communities. If your organization has them, join one. Make time for it, and engage. Don’t bring your laptop, or even your phone. Use it like a think tank: throw out ideas, get feedback, and borrow ideas from others. Get your mind going in different directions. If your organization doesn’t have them, set one up. Or, find one on Meetup.
Way #2: Give Yourself the Space to Fail
People often say that failure is an excellent teacher. But how often do we hear that it’s OK to fail? Think of a time in your life when you underwent tremendous growth. Any sort of growth: personal, professional, physical, mental. If you can tell that story without mentioning failure, message it to me and I’ll Venmo you $10. Moreover, I’ll bet failure is a centerpiece of that story.
Failure is essential to growth, and growth is essential to learning.
Why we don’t do it
- Lack of trust. We avoid failure because we don’t want to be blamed for it, and we are afraid of being blamed when there is a lack of trust. Whether it’s with our teammates, our managers, or the organization as a whole.
- Lack of confidence. It’s tough to pick yourself back up when you fail. You’ve got to reflect on how you failed, and reassure yourself enough to give it another try. If we don’t feel like we can handle that then we are going to avoid it.
How to try it
Be transparent. If you’re trying something new, let people know. People are less likely to look for blame if they had knowledge of what caused the failure ahead of time. They may even efforts with you and help. Also, admit when you screw up. People are also less likely to blame someone if they’ve already admitted failure. Additionally, invites them to help you all learn from the failure as a group.
Build supportive relationships. If someone does something good, make an effort to praise them for it. If someone else fails, offer to help them correct it. You’ll build trust and co-accountability with your colleagues, and it’ll take some of the edge off of the idea of failure. You’ll be able to fall back these relationships the next time that you fail.
Way #3: Challenge the Status Quo
Any improvement is change, and any change challenges the status quo. That means that if we want to get better at something, we have to be OK with challenging the current way of doing it.
Why we don’t do it
It’s… challenging. It’s inherently difficult to think critically about an environment that you are a part of. But the reality is that if we’re not challenging ourselves and those around us, then we’re not growing. And if we’re not growing, then we’re falling behind.
- People don’t like change. This pretty much defines preaching to the choir, being that I am a change agent, writing an article for an audience likely to be made up primarily of change agents. Nevertheless, this needed to be said.
How to try it
- Establish working agreements. A big reason that people don’t like change is because they like the way that things are. Most people you work with even likely had a hand in making things the way that they are. Agreeing on how to have this conversation can make the conversation much more effective by avoiding language that people could find overly-critical, judgmental, or even offensive. The retrospective prime directive is a fantastic example of a concise and useful working agreement that you can copy and use. Or, develop your own group’s working agreements by asking individuals to share examples of behavior that is OK during discussion, and behavior that is not.
- Have Lean Coffee meetings. I can’t say enough good things about this meeting format. Get a group of people together who you know are passionate about improving the organization. Tell them to come up with topics that are important to them. Vote on them as a group, prioritize, and talk. This is a self-perpetuating, grassroots way to start a conversation about improvement at the organization.
Many organizations think that they are learning organizations simply because they send people to conferences. Unfortunately, these companies are only scratching the surface of the benefits of learning. Leaders and workers alike can maximize their return on, and potentially even reduce the spend on, their training budget by giving themselves and others the space to experiment, giving themselves and others the space to fail, and the space to challenge the status quo.