The car I was riding in pulled up to the curb in front of my house. It was a chilly Michigan evening in March, 1960. As I was opening the door to get out my basketball coach, who was dropping me off after practice, asked an unexpected question: “So Mike, how do you think our teams will do next year?” We had one game left in a season where we were going to win just over half our games, our football team had done about the same and with baseball just around the corner I thought we might do just about as well. But I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, “Are you asking me about next year already, we haven’t even started baseball?” He looked straight ahead into the darkness of the evening through the windshield and without looking at me he said, “I think we are going to win all three championships next year.”
What he was saying was about as realistic to me as if he had said that a man would land on the moon within the next ten years. My middle school had been around since the late 1920’s and as far as anyone new we had never won even a single sports championship, much less all three in one season. I couldn’t get out of the car without asking, “What makes you think we’ll win even one championship, especially when we haven’t even finished the year?” Then he did look at me, “It’s the rate at which the players are learning and the fact that we don’t let the losses get us down. If you could see the season like I do, like the entire progression not just the single games as they are being played you’d be able to see what I mean. Our teams are progressing much faster than the others and even though our records are just about .500 now by the time next year rolls around we’ll be very hard to beat.”
I went in the house that evening and made a note to myself to remember what he had said. Our school did in fact go on to win all three championships the next year, a set of experiences that have stayed with me to this day. And while those memories have been great to have the conversation we had that evening in the car in 1960 is what has really stayed with me. It has become a cornerstone of both the way I managed my company and delivered my consulting services. What he shared with me that evening permanently transformed my relationship to learning and performance.
A lot has been written over the years about organizational learning and especially learning organizations since Peter Senge first coined the term and the theory in The Fifth Discipline back in 1994.Senge’s work has had a telling influence on the conversations about learning in organizations but I am not sure how much his thinking has influenced the value of learning in organizations. In my view organizations are still more focused on training than they are on learning. If you ask me why I’d say because training can be measured in terms of dollars spent and activity generated. Learning is a much tougher substance to measure. In fact I don’t think it can be measured apart from performance.
What I took from the conversation that evening back in 1960 might be expressed in a formula as follows as regards organizational performance
Current Results + Learning = Possibility for Future Performance (If all our coach had looked at or valued was results he would not have been very optimistic that March evening.
Learning occurs in and is measured by future performance and not by testing. If this notion has merit then much of what we have been doing in offering training/development experiences
I’ve come to understand over the years that my coach was not simply referring to the improvement he saw in practices (formal learning); he was talking about the day to day learning that took place between the practices and the games. He was talking about the game performances but also the conversations before and after the games. He was talking about who we were being as much as anything we were doing. He was watching the informal as well as the formal process knowing that they were interdependent and served each other.
How does your organization capitalize on informal learning, is it even recognized and valued?
List all of the informal programs occurring in your organization. Post them for others to consider, review and add suggestions.
Create peer-to-peer sessions where employees informally share experiences in a structured, facilitated roundtable format.
Support informal communities of practice. Create others where you see there are gaps.
Reconsider and review your meetings. What are they really offering? Maybe time would be better spent on informal learning than status updating.
Find more opportunities for accidental learning and make them a topic of conversation.
- How does your organization demonstrate regard for informal learning?
- How can your organization recognize and promote more informal learning?