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Continuous Learning and Workforce Engagement
At the start of each season, legendary professional golfer Jack Nicklaus would seek out the man who had been his coach and mentor since his early teens, and he would relearn the sport, from the very beginning.
At the start of each season, legendary professional golfer Jack Nicklaus would seek out the man who had been his coach and mentor since his early teens, and he would relearn the sport, from the very beginning. Contrast this with the vast multitude of weekend duffers, most of whom will never break 100, yet pride themselves on having never taken a lesson. Or consider an NFL team, which spends all week practicing and watching film to prepare for a three-hour game on Sunday. World-class athletes in every sport receive a career full of continuous coaching and training. In fact, the irony of comparing sports to business is that athletes spend most of their time training, and comparatively little time working, whereas in the business world, we spend almost all of our time working and very little time training.
The sports-business analogy is a common one because in both, success at the highest levels requires developing and maintaining a competitive edge. Forward-thinking companies, whose names regularly populate the Fortune lists year after year, realize that promoting, facilitating and encouraging continuous learning reaps tangible benefits for the company. These are the companies that not only attract and develop the best talent, but also consistently outperform their competitors.
Walk the Walk
Unfortunately, most companies readily talk the talk when it comes to encouraging employee learning and development, but few know how to convert these concepts into reality.
How do you know if your organization is one that can walk the walk when it comes to practicing continuous learning? In his book "Learning In Action," David A. Garvin outlines a set of criteria that can be used as a litmus test:
- Does the organization have a defined learning agenda?
Learning organizations have a clear picture of their future knowledge requirements. They know what they need to know, whether the subject is customers, competitors, markets, technologies or production processes, and are actively pursuing the desired information. Even in industries that are changing as rapidly as telecommunications, computers and financial services, broad areas of needed learning can usually be mapped with some precision. Once they have been identified, these topics are pursued through multiple approaches, including experiments, simulations, research studies, post-audits and benchmarking visits, rather than education and training alone.
- Is the organization open to discordant information?
If an organization regularly shoots the messenger who brings forward unexpected or bad news, the environment is clearly hostile to learning. Behavior change is extremely difficult in such settings, for there are few challenges to the status quo. Sensitive topics - dissension in the ranks, unhappy customers, preemptive moves by competitors, problems with new technologies - are considered to be off limits, and messages are filtered, massaged and watered down as they make their way up the chain of command.
- Does the organization avoid repeated mistakes?
Learning organizations reflect on past experience, distill it into useful lessons, share the knowledge internally and ensure that errors are not repeated elsewhere. Databases, intranets, training sessions and workshops can all be used for this purpose. Even more critical, however, is a mindset that enables companies to recognize the value of productive failure as contrasted with unproductive success. A productive failure leads to insights and understanding, and thus an addition to commonly held wisdom of the organization. Unproductive success occurs when something goes well but nobody knows how or why. There is a peculiar logic at work here: To avoid repeating mistakes, managers must learn to accept them the first time around.
- Does the organization lose critical knowledge when key people leave?
The story is all too common: A talented employee leaves the company, and critical skills disappear as well. Why? Because crucial knowledge was tacit, unarticulated and unshared - locked in the head of a single person. Learning organizations avoid this problem by institutionalizing essential knowledge. Whenever possible, they codify it in policies or procedures, retain it in reports or memos, disperse it to large groups of people and build it into the company's values, norms and operating practices. Knowledge becomes common property, rather than the province of individuals or small groups.
- Does the organization act on what it knows?
Learning organizations are not simply repositories of knowledge. They take advantage of their new learning and adapt their behavior accordingly. Information is to be used. If it languishes or is ignored, its impact is certain to be minimal. By this test, an organization that discovers an unmet market need but fails to fill it does not qualify as a learning organization, nor does a company that identifies its own best practices but is unable to transfer them across departments or divisions.
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