Learning as a foundation for engagement, part 3: Tools

Earlier posts in this series introduced organisational learning and explored why the practice hasn’t had much traction in organisations. This post offers tools for learning processes.

1. Suggestion box blog

In this cartoon by Harvey Schwadron – an employee outside the boss’s office drops a suggestion into the suggestion box. Unfortunately, the suggestion box has no bottom and the suggestion falls into the resignation box directly underneath it. In organisations that don’t learn well, suggestions are ignored or, worse, those offering them are treated as troublemakers. Try a suggestion box blog – the blog administrator can receive suggestions and publish them, or enable the person making the suggestion to post directly. If there is an open culture, the blog can be open so others can comment. Responses or contributions from the company’s leader will add to its credibility.

2. After action review

Richard Pascale describes the after action review (AAR) in a HBR article Changing the Way We Change. The practice emerged in the US military and is used after military action or exercises to enable learning. Suspending rank is the key feature of the AAR as it encourages participants to review events in order to learn. The process is based around four questions that can be adapted to any organisation and is especially useful on completion of events or projects.

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why was there a difference?
  • What activities do we sustain and what activities do we improve?

3. Stupid hour

Learning doesn’t come easy when we take ourselves too seriously, or we are driven by the need to look good. Dorothy Marcic, in her ground-breaking book Managing with the Wisdom of Love, advocates a ”stupid hour” where staff get together, perhaps at the end of the week and ask “what are we doing that is really stupid?”

4. Lean thinking

Lean thinking, modelled on Toyota’s processes, provides scaffolding for learning by creating multifunctional teams to surface opportunities for improvements (OFIs). Here is more detail from a post by Alex Twigg.

5. Incentives

Some years ago Portland Cement near Whangarei changed their remuneration system from an over-time based system to a total remuneration system. Overtime hours were annualised and employees were expected to work up to 51 hours for their annualised salary, but could go home if they finished the work. This changed employee behaviour – under the overtime system, they would welcome breakdowns, as they would have to work longer, and therefore make more money. But under the annualised system, they were incentivised to work more smartly. As an example, loader tyres used to be frequently damaged by limestone rock. Employees wanting to get home quicker, welded wings onto the loader buckets to clear rocks away from the tyres. The employees got to go home earlier and the company saved money. Annualisation effectively opened up avenues for learning.

6. Appreciation

Appreciation is arguably the noblest form of communication. Too often, workplace communication focuses on fault-finding – concentrating on what is wrong, rather than what is right. When people are frequently criticised, over time they cease any meaningful communication with those who are criticising. This creates the antithesis of learning. In an environment of appreciation, people feel safe to make suggestions. Here is a link to an earlier post that elaborates on appreciation.

the communication spectrum

7. Undercover boss

The TV show Undercover Boss features businesses in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. Across diverse businesses in these three settings, a consistent experience emerges – when the “boss” gets to know the people on the front line, they typically learn to appreciate what the workers do and return to their C.E. role much better for the experience. The C.E.s often enact employee suggestions, or include the employee in a project team. Here is Directv’s C.E. Mike White, talking about his undercover boss experience.

8. Learning from customers with social media

When I wrote this post about social media in February, this year, Stabucks Facebook page had almost 20 million likes. Now, 11 months later it has more than 26 million. Not all will provide useful insights for Starbucks, but any complaints can be quickly identified. Twitter serves the same purpose.

9. Values for learning

As with any other sustainable development in businesses and communities, better learning processes are underpinned by enabling values. Values that align well with learning include openness, honesty, integrity and appreciation. They are also the antidotes for defensiveness. You can probably think of others.

Do you consider your organisation is skilled at organisational learning?


Learning as a foundation for engagement – part two

From part one of this series, it is evident that the concept of organisational learning has been around for decades. But it doesn’t appear to have made much impact. For me there are two primary reasons:

  1. embedded defensiveness
  2. over-complicated prescriptions

1. Embedded defensiveness

Shooting the messenger is a practice that in earlier days manifest itself in physical violence and persists today, usually in more subtle punishments. In Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen threatens violence to the messenger that informs her of Antony’s wedding.

The space shuttle Challenger exploding

It is notable, however, that death and injury can still be caused by poor engagement and defensiveness. The explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 can be attributed to organisational defensiveness and a lack of engagement. The Roger’s Commission found that the issue with the o-rings, that caused the disaster, had been know since 1977. The 1986 launch proceeded, despite the unheeded warnings of those who believed the o-rings might fail due to the unseasonably cold weather.

More recently, and closer to home in New Zealand, the Pike River mining disaster appears to be reveal another example of poor learning through organisational defensiveness. On 19 November 2010, a massive explosion killed 29 miners in the Pike River mine. A year later, testimonies from the resulting Royal Commission of Inquiry are revealing how industry insiders were concerned about conditions in the mine in the weeks before the explosion. A Japanese mining expert, Masaoki Nishioka, told the Royal Commission that he advised the mine’s management of his concern’s about the safety of the mine before leaving the mine on October 20. Bernie Monk, whose son died in the mine has found some consolation in that miners are not not so scared to stand up and raise concerns.

In both the cases of the Challenger and Pike River Mine, a common element is the decision makers not wanting to hear news that would impede the progress of their plans.

These are the extreme and public cases of defensiveness. But it manifests itself in many organisations and is the main impediment to better learning. When manifested as the “I know best” attitude, defensiveness suppresses beneficial ideas from the organisation’s rank and file that might reduce costs or spawn innovations. The MacLeod Report, Engaging for Success articulates the link between innovation and engagement:

Gallup indicate that higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation. Fifty-nine per cent of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas against only three per cent of disengaged employees. (page 12)

the downside of defensiveness and the upside of learning and engagement

Over-complicated prescriptions for learning

Many books have been written about organisational learning, typically offering complex tools and methods to achieve learning. Professional development efforts to implement these ideas are first invested in senior staff, and often the initiatives fail to gain traction further down the hierarchy. Perhaps the tyranny of defensiveness sabotages efforts?  Harvard’s Amy Edmondson comments on this phenomena in this excellent video:

First, many of the early discussions of the learning organization were abstract and without concrete prescriptions for action. Second, the concept is really aimed at the CEO, or other C-level executives, rather than local leaders who are leading focussed work … in the organisation itself – where the real critical work of the organization is done…

It appears that Japanese companies learned to democratise learning decades ago, while Western companies are still struggling to embed learning processes. The diagram below reveals the extent that learning is embedded in Japanese automobile assembly plants. Note that the suggestions generated by Japanese workers far exceed those from Americans and Europeans. (click on the image for a larger version)

Practical tools for engendering learning will be explored in the next post in this series. I would love to hear examples of how defensiveness or over-complication has impeded learning in organisations you are familiar with.

Learning as a foundation for engagement (part one)

Four organisational capabilities support internal and external stakeholder engagement – leadership, organisational learning, communication and adaptive capacity (or change). This post examines the strong links between organisational learning and engagement.

The discipline of organisational learning has been around for a long time, but does not appear to have gained much traction. I suspect, as engagement practices become more mainstream, organisational learning will receive renewed interest.

The emergence of organisational learning

Bob Garratt, in his book The Learning Organisation provides a “personal history of the development of the learning organisation concept“. He traces its beginnings back to thinkers such as Reg Revans, Fritz Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) and Jacob Bronowski (author of the BBC Series The Ascent of Man) at the end of the Second World War. Bob Garratt positions organisational learning as part of the softer side of management theory, paralleling the more hard-edged analytical management theory. 

(image of Bob Garratt from http://geniusmethods.com/about/panel-of-specialists)

The concept of organisational learning is hard to pin down, but should never be over-complicated. I regard it as the ability of an organisation to create a culture to enable it to learn from its stakeholders.

Key ideas

Learning about organisational learning theory in the absence of practical application can make it unnecessarily complex. So here, we will look at a few more key ideas about the learning organisation. These will make more sense as you apply them to your experience. The ideas here are adapted from Bob Garratt’s The Learning Organisation. Note that he first wrote this in 1987. I am impressed that the ideas he expressed align nicely with Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s research described in Supercorps (more about this later).

1. Organisations are complex adaptive human systems – not mindless machines. 

“It is first essential to break the predominant managerial and directorial mindset that human organisations are rational emotionless data-logic driven machines which stay resolutely on carefully planned and pre-determined tracks regardless of the changing environment…” (page 12)

While the physical sciences accepted Einstein’s relativism as representing a more complete picture of our universe, the management mindset seems to stick with a more clockwork Newtonian view of the world. Perhaps it is because rational systems are easier to manage than human dynamics. Bob Garratt refers to biology’s complex adaptive systems as a guide for working with people and organisations. Peter Senge reinforces this, stating that we need to “stop thinking like mechanics and start acting like gardeners”.

2. Organisations driven more by processes than structures. 

The hierarchical structures developed to facilitate production in the industrial age often hinder information age companies. Departmental structures often become silos that hinder necessary organisational processes, especially flows of communication and knowledge.

3. Learn from your learning and understand our learning processes

Often we are so busy that we fail to integrate reflection and learning into the process. Managers that do this often implement knee-jerk actions in their desperation to fix things. Another trap that organisations fall into is making universal changes, that, of necessity, require a huge investment in their success. Bob Garratt advocates taking small steps and learning from those actions. This is the basis of “action learning” – we will look at that in more depth later. As with other organisational learning writer’s, Bob Garratt acknowledges the importance of double loop learning articulated by Chris Argyris. This website provides a clear explanation of the concept.

4. Creating a learning culture 

In a culture that encourages learning, people feel safe about sharing information, confident there will not be unfair retaliation. And it goes further than that – people know that their ideas are valued, and they, when they make suggestions, they are truly heard, not just being patronised. The culture has specific practices to foster learning and to guard against undue defensiveness.

5. External adaptation

Edgar Schein identifies that how organisations adapt to the external environment, shapes the culture. Organisations that learn effectively are highly adaptive and rather than develop a siege mentality, are actively engaged with stakeholders. Thus, threats can quickly be reframed as opportunities.

6. Embracing lifelong learning 

Learning has to be encultured at all levels of the organisation, from new hires right through to the board. Bob Garratt (also the author of The Fish Rots From the Head) emphasises the need for board members to engage in learning, rather than seeing themselves as a “completed work”. A “humble posture of learning” is required at all levels.

The link between organisational learning and stakeholder engagement

By now, the link between organisational learning and stakeholder engagement will be very clear to you. Contrast an organisation who has a defensive leader, who even struggles to trust his closest advisers, to an organisation that strives to have clear lines of communication from its “central nervous system” out to an ever-expanding network of stakeholders. A metaphor might be the difference between a fence post in the ground (treated with chemicals to resist decomposing organisms, and, on the other hand, the root system of a vigorously growing tree, whose rootlets are weaving its way ever-more deeply and broadly into the soil (see the post Fence post or tree – a metaphor for engagement).

The concepts of organisational learning, first articulated over half a century ago, diverge beautifully with many other aspirations for effective organisations that honour their stakeholders. Organisational learning therefore, shouldn’t be regarded as a narrow discipline, but rather, should be regarded as a set of principles that integrate into expressions of good practice.

To conclude this topic, here is a video of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, talking about her book Supercorp. While it does not specifically talk about organisational learning, how do you think it relates to some of the concepts discussed here?

Peter Bruce

Leading engagement

It’s no surprise that the attributes required for effective leadership are those required for effective stakeholder engagement. My website, Stakeholder Engagement offers resources for developing capability for stakeholder engagement. Alongside specific stakeholder engagement capabilities, I have identified leadership, organisational learning, communication and adaptive capacity (change) as four essential capabilities to support enhanced engagement.

Compare this to the findings of the Hay Group 2010 Best Companies for Leadership research. The top twenty companies collectively, from General Electric at number one, to BASF are huge, and therefore have potential to do a lot of good by modelling leadership excellence.

Hay Group’s Ruth Wagemen pinpoints the practices the twenty best companies are more likely to do than the rest of us:

  • “developing structures and practices that locate the best practices wherever they are, and whoever has them, and make sure that that’s what’s getting used throughout the organisation”
  • they were “far more likely than everyone else to have an ex-pat programme that is intended to help people learn how to operate really effectively in a different culture and to lead effectively in that context”
  • “were more likely to actively collect the best practices in leadership development throughout their subsidiaries, throughout the world, and to harvest those lessons and to share those practices with the rest of the organisation”
  • “were much more likely to pay men and women the same, for the same kind of work.”

Organisational learning to the fore

What is particularly encouraging is the strong thread of organisational learning through these findings. The idea has been around for a long-time, but is yet to become mainstream. Bob Garrett relates how organisational learning emerged after World War Two, with the work of Reg Revans, Fritz Schumacher and Jacob Bronowski. Chris Argyris gave it impetus and Peter Senge popularised it in The Fifth Discipline. It appears that organisational learning’s potential is being tapped in these trail-blazing companies. Peter Senge urges us to “stop thinking like mechanics and to start acting like gardeners”. One interpretation of this, is to leave behind industrial age practices of organising and management, and embrace the more organic and emergent processes of the knowledge age.

Businesses can scour their internal environment for knowledge as is modelled by the top 20, and seek learning from external stakeholders too. Fostering stakeholder engagement capability can only benefit this process.

Hay Group links

Organisational learning links