Organizational Learning in the Network Era

W. Edwards Deming, American management visionary, understood that systemic factors account for most organizational problems, and changing these has more potential for improvement than changing any individual’s performance. Therefore the role of executives should be to manage the system, not individuals. But the real barrier to systemic change is hierarchical management, as it constrains the sharing of power, a necessary enabler of organizational learning. People have to trust each other to share knowledge, and power relationships can block these exchanges. Just listen to any boardroom meeting and see how power can kill a conversation. If learning is what organizations need to do well in order to survive and thrive, then structural barriers to learning must be removed.

A key factor in sustaining any enterprise is organizational learning. Knowledge gives us the ability to take effective action (know how) and this is the type of knowledge that really matters in both business and life. Value from this knowledge is created by groups and spreads through social networks.

First of all, learning is not something to get. In too many cases we view learning as something that is done to people. It’s almost as if we are goin’ to get some learnin’! We think we can get an education or get people trained. This is absurd.

People need to take control of their learning in a world where they are simultaneously connected, mobile, and global; while conversely contractual, part-time, and local. Organizations must also move learning away from training and HR as some external quick-fix solution that gets called in from time to time. Learning must be an essential part of doing business in the network era. Learning has to be owned by the workers and learning support has to be a function of the business structure. If learning is the work today, why do we need a separate department responsible for managing it? And if workers really are responsible for their learning, why can’t they take control of it?

The only knowledge that can be managed is our own, so organizational knowledge management should first support personal knowledge mastery. PKM is an individual discipline of seeking, sense-making, and sharing that helps each of us understand our world and work more effectively. In addition to PKM, groups should promote working out loud to ensure common understanding and to address exceptions to the norm, as this is where group learning happens. The organization can then ensure that important decisions are recorded, codified, and easily available for retrieval.  Each of us is responsible for our own learning but our responsibility to our peers is to share this learning. If nobody shared what they have learned, there would be nothing like Wikipedia or other free learning resources on the web. The same pertains to sharing inside organizations.

Learning in the workplace is much more than formal instruction. Jane Hart, international workplace learning advisor,  asked her readers what were their top five ways of learning at work in 2012.

  1. Email
  2. In-person
  3. Reading blogs and articles
  4. Searching the Web and social media
  5. Connecting in social networks and communities of practice

It is obvious that there are many simple and inexpensive things that can be done to support workplace learning that do not include training or courses. In an open environment, learning will flourish, as it has on the Web. When we remove artificial boundaries to working and learning, we enable innovation. Andrew McAfee, at the MIT Center for Digital Business, wrote

“The central change with Enterprise 2.0 and ideas of managing knowledge [is] not managing knowledge anymore — get out of the way, let people do what they want to do, and harvest the stuff that emerges from it because good stuff will emerge. So, it’s been a fairly deep shift in thinking about how to capture and organize and manage knowledge in an organization.”

Learning is everywhere. Learning and working are interconnected in the network era. If learning support is not connected to work, it’s rather useless. Consider the following:

  • If I’m sitting at my desk with a work-related problem, can I call the Training Department to quickly get me up to speed?
  • If I want to learn about a new market sector, will the Learning & Development specialist help me?
  • If I need some coaching to prepare me for a meeting with a new client, can I call Human Resources to connect me with the right person who is available?
  • If I’m stuck on trouble-shooting an unfamiliar piece of software, can I get someone from Training to walk me through it?
  • If I’m looking for great examples of collaboration and social learning, do the folks in Training & Development model them?
  • If I want to become a better networked learner, can I call a Training specialist to get me started and coach me?

People in a network era learning organization need more than training; they need ongoing, real-time, constantly-changing, collaborative, support. Much of this they can get from themselves, their communities of practice, and their networks. But they can only work effectively if barriers to organizational learning are removed. In such an environment people at all levels are narrating their work in a transparent environment, the daily routine supports social learning, and time is made available for reflection and sharing stories. As Frederic Laloux notes in Reinventing Organizations, the key role of a CEO is in holding the space so that teams can self-manage (and learn for themselves).

If you are in a position of authority and you are not removing barriers to learning, then you are not serving your organization in the network era.

Remove the barriers to organizational learning

Remove the barriers to organizational learning

Note: this is an update of a previous post.

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