Thursday, September 23, 2010

Building learning organizations require a paradigm shift!

We are in the performance business, not the knowledge-gain business. The learning leaders who understand the difference are the ones who succeed.
1. Lead with a performance strategy, not a learning strategy. For far too long we have designed learning approaches to every problem. When a business unit approaches us with a new learning issue, be it technology- or business skill-based, we immediately begin thinking of ways that fall back on traditional approaches such as the classroom, be it virtual or bricks-and-mortar, and e-learning. What if we first considered strategies that enabled knowledge gain, sharing and maintenance in the workplace and then backfilled with the appropriate training to support the gaps that remained?

The above is an excerpt from the article Selling Up, Selling Down by Bob Mosher. He goes straight to the point by emphasizing a need for performance-focused training instead of a knowledge focused one. He also stresses the importance of:
1. Building learning tools that both support and teach.
2. Fostering understanding of performance strategy with front-line managers. 

This article reminded me of Harold Jarche's post, You need the right lever to move an organization. He summarizes Klaus Wittkuhn article on Performance Improvement and writes:

A key concept in the article is that you cannot engineer human performance. Human performance is an emergent property of an organization, and is affected by multiple variables. Therefore Witthuhn suggests to first address the “Steering Elements”. These “ensure that the right product is delivered at the right time to the right place”, and include – Management, Customer Feedback, Consequences, Expectations and Feedback. Once the steering elements have been addressed, then look at the “Enabling Elements” – Management (again), Design, Resources and Support.
Only after the steering and enabling elements (the non-human factors) have been aligned, should we look at work performance. The rationale here is that it is only within an optimized system that we can expect optimal human performance.

Both the ideas, I felt, are closely linked. Just as it is futile to training learners for the sake of learning, it is equally futile to train them if the conditions are not conducive to performance. To build a "learning organization", one that can hope to survive the flux of the future, much more is needed. It will require a mental overhaul on the part of the strategic decision makers and probably a re-hauling of the reward system in an organization.

The mismatch, I believe, happens at least at two levels.

  1. ~The training does not map to the actual performance need and hence does not show result.
  2. ~The context of the performance is not conducive.

The line managers/supervisors responsible for "getting the job done" are not rewarded for showing patience and sustaining learning. They are conditioned to respect the language of productivity, efficiency, resource management, output, and the like. Hence, any time spent away from the "actual" delivery work is effort wasted and not encouraged. OTOH, the employees required to show improvement in performance post a training session do need time to adapt to a new way of doing something. It is that initial extra time that all new approaches require before the sudden spike happens; once it happens, the effect is lasting. 

However, berated by their supervisors for wasting time, the employees soon slip back to the old ways of working with a "that training just didn't work"! attitude. Training gets a bad reputation. Supervisors continue to harass frustrated employees. Productivity remains the same or may dip. The management thinks of further cutting down training cost during the next budget (since it doesn't work anyways!). Training never gets a chance to speak. Frustration is rampant. In the meantime, employees turn to each other for support and to get their daily job done.

The training department and management needs to stretch training to the actual performance by "training" supervisors to support and sustain skill acquisition. Any learning will have a long-term impact only if applied, given the freedom to make errors, reflect, correct, and reapply...This can be expedited with support and mentoring; coaching and peer programming. The supervisors need to be introduced to tools they can use to sustain learning. They need to shift focus from "short term productivity" to long term skill acquisition. However, they also need support. 

Thus, supporting learning must be built into an organization's DNA, into its strategic plan, into its appraisal and feedback system, into the reward system. Leaders and supervisors also need to become mentors and teachers. And that can only happen when the organization undergoes a paradigm shift.

Quoting from Senge:

“Leader as teacher” is not about “teaching” people how to achieve their vision. It is about fostering learning, for everyone. Such leaders help people throughout the organization develop systemic understandings. Accepting this responsibility is the antidote to one of the most common downfalls of otherwise gifted teachers – losing their commitment to the truth. (Senge 1990: 356)
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