It's Monday morning and the first e-mail in your inbox is from your CEO. The message reads: "At the senior staff meeting in two weeks, I want you to present a plan on how to make our team a learning organization."
Your first reaction is likely to be: How am I going to do that? But putting emotion aside and getting down to the task, the first issue to address is what would be present if your company were actually a learning organization.
How to recognize a learning organization if you were observing it? Identify the attitudes, values, goals and practices that constitute the culture of a learning organization. You could develop a checklist of what would be present. For each positive piece of evidence of a learning organization, there is also evidence that would indicate if the organization is not a learning organization.
In many organizations, learning focuses on the individual employee and his or her behavior. Willingness to learn is an important employee attribute, one that has value and potential to contribute to organizational results in the future. So let's begin the learning diagnosis with the individual employee and then move to the organization.
Measuring Individual Learning Involvement
Certainly in a learning organization, the belief that improved skills and knowledge are valuable to both employees and the organization is critical — a necessary condition for impact to be most effective. The key word is "both." At minimum, the language of the organization needs to include phrases like, "We are a learning organization."
But words are not sufficient. Like many beliefs about learning, the real issue is not what is said but what is done. The words sound simple and attractive. The reality is more complex and involves behavior. Some might argue that the level of spending for training is a sufficient indicator of a learning culture. High average annual training expenditure per employee is an oft-cited metric.
The assumption is that this number is an indication of the willingness of the organization to invest in employees, but it is actually a measure of financial activity, not a cultural measure about attitudes and values. This financial measure also fails to deal with the motivational and behavioral components of employee involvement. Most training is mandatory, not voluntary.
The critical evidence for a learning organization would be to measure what percentage of the required attendees would attend were it voluntary. A minimal drop-off in attendance from mandatory to voluntary would be strong evidence that the attitudes and values of employees are closely aligned with those of an organization funding such activity. A large drop-off would indicate that employees' degree of commitment is low. Of course, this experiment would never actually be run, but it is potentially valuable to ask in a survey what attendance would be if it were voluntary.
What are clear indicators on the employee level that an organization does not have a learning culture? An obvious case is the absence of funding for training and learning as measured by training expenditure by employee. The conclusion is that organizations that do not fund training and learning cannot, by definition, be called learning organizations. In general, the conclusion is valid, but it is not the entire story.
A better indicator is the level of employee participation in voluntary learning activities. One measure is the percentage of employees using tuition assistance benefits. In degree-seeking learning activities, the employee voluntarily signs up for classes and is motivated to learn on his or her own time off the clock, as opposed to mandatory training that takes place on company time.
But what is a good level of participation? At Verizon Wireless, nearly 20 percent of employees are using the tuition assistance benefit. In contrast, 5 percent or lower employee utilization would be a strong indicator of the absence of a strong learning culture. Another indicator would be whether management even knows what the tuition assistance utilization rate is.
In shifting our focus from the employee to the employer, there are a number of phrases bandied about that are worth examining in detail.
People Are Our Most Important Asset
If this is really a central value, then the practices associated with it would include a human capital investment plan to assure the required talent, skills, knowledge and experience are available to the organization in five years to meet the organization's strategic goals.
An important component of that plan would include the learning activities to be implemented to meet the future talent, skills and knowledge needs identified for future success. This requires an inventory of current capabilities and a forecast of the future, including shifts in the business as well as the impact of turnover and retirement of baby boomers.
What would indicate that people are not the most important asset? There is no inventory of the critical talent, skills, knowledge and experience required to manage the organization today. There also is no forecast of what the business will look like in the future, especially with regard to human assets required to compete in targeted markets.
In a strong culture, the senior leadership looks beyond the current recession, especially with regard to training and education resources, to assure that the skills and knowledge required to compete in a cyclical market rebound are within the organization. In a weak culture, head count is slashed based on expense control alone, and training and education budgets are cut more severely than the downturn in revenue warrants.
It's Important to Learn From Mistakes
A theme in the learning literature is the principle of rapid and repeated trial and error — a practical approach to accelerated learning. Rapid trial and error is the way kids learn when they practice catching a ball or playing a new video game. In a learning organization, the evidence of the value of honoring learning from trial and error would contain some important cultural elements.
The first element is agreement within the organization that experimentation is valuable to success. Connected with a value that designed trial and error is important, the next practice required is examination. A learning organization does not hide the results of an experiment in a secure electronic folder. It openly examines and discusses the results and the implications of those results. Changing the design of the intervention of the next trial is especially important to rapid learning. In this type of organization, the learning takes place between one experimental design and the next. The power derived from the experimentation is in the open and critical examination of the results that form the basis for the redesign for the next experiment.
In an organization with a weak learning culture, mistakes are buried rather than examined, and everyone knows that "it's important to learn from our mistakes" really means "don't ever let that happen again."
Innovation Is a Key Part of Competitive Success
Innovation is about incremental, radical or revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes or organizations. From this, we can conclude that the learning taking place around innovation is a kind of suggestion box on steroids, with a heavy dose of new ways of thinking, products and processes that bring identifiable changes.
An organization with a strong learning culture would have change management, a term that sometimes means control, but that organization would also be able to identify changes that have actually taken place — a kind of before-and-after comparison.
In a weak learning culture, the first reaction to any new idea is often why it cannot or will not work. The language in meetings is, "Gee, John, that's a great idea, but … That "but" negates the supportive phrase or phrases that precede it. The phrase after the "but" acts as the final word on the subject — in this case, why the idea won't work.
Cash Is King
Yet another element of the culture of a learning organization is the attitude of the finance organization and the priorities selected for resource allocation. The critical attitude in a learning organization would be: Cash has no inherent value in and of itself. How we wisely invest the cash in our human assets is what is important.
So what would be evidence that would confirm that this organization values learning? One place to look would be in the internal senior executive conversations about how to deal with the financial impact of the recession. In a learning organization, this question might be asked: "What would 2 cents less per share in our current quarterly reported results buy us in terms of preserving some of our most critical learning initiatives?"
In an organization with a weak culture for learning, rather than that question, the statement would be: "I don't care what 2 cents less reported income will buy in learning initiatives, I'm not about to stand up in that analysts meeting and report such results. Cut the budget!"
This quote from the June issue of CFO magazine offers another piece of evidence: "In a 2000 interview with CFO, business guru Gary Hamel claimed that finance executives are the enemy of innovation. And that was when times were good. Today, nearly all CFOs have a mandate to conserve cash, and that intensifies the pressure to put a cap on corporate creativity."
Several key attitudes, goals, values and practices would be present in organizations to indicate a culture of learning. That brings us back to the challenge from the CEO to present what it will take to become a learning organization at the senior staff meeting.
With the ideas listed above in mind, design two survey instruments, one containing a single question related to positive elements that indicate a learning culture, and one with questions that would indicate the lack of a strong learning culture. Select a random sample of 150 employees to receive the positive survey and a separate random sample of 150 employees to receive the negative survey. Responses would be indicated on a simple zero to 5 scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. A learning organization would show high values on the positive survey while an organization with the reverse results would be one that is not a learning organization.
At the staff meeting, educate senior executives about the learning organization by showing the size of the gap. From that gap, the bottom line would be an estimate of the resources required to close the gap. Then seek alignment around the leadership's willingness to commit the resources required to become that learning organization.