Agreed: If companies want to survive or even succeed in turbulent times of digital upheaval, they have to adapt quickly. So today, it is necessary to do what has been talked about for a very long time: Create learning structures. But what does that mean? And how can it be done?
Basically, it’s simple
Learning is about making experiences, processing them, and — in the best case — using them beneficially in the future for whatever you generally want to achieve.
So if you want to make your organization learn, all you have to do is make sure that your colleagues, employees, and perhaps even owners and customers
- can and do share learning experiences on a regular basis,
- evaluate their experiences together and purposefully,
- use their jointly gained insights for the next learning experience — that is, for their next (learning) success.
Learning, Made Easy
The rapid business successes of learning organizations have long been visible to literally everyone (for example, in the form of omnipresent Amazon parcels). It has long since become generally accepted how important, even vital, learning structures are for organizations. For a long time now, concrete, easy-to-implement approaches have been around to make organizations learning-oriented./1/
Why aren’t we already organized accordingly everywhere, e.g. in our schools, universities, teams, companies and governmental institutions?
Could it be related to the fact that we cannot yet believe in learning organizations?
After all, the definition of learning given above and the recommended three-step process are likely to contradict our personal and social experiences of life.
In school and university learning success and success in general means to be able to reproduce a given subject matter exactly to the point in examination situations, exactly as the examination requirements specify. If we manage to do so, we receive good grades. We leave educational institutions as experts who are certified to the highest possible level in order to earn our money by applying our knowledge and skills in a focused manner.
And that means, as we have learned it in school and university: as it is demanded of us./2/
In the outlined everyday socio-psychological game, that is, in doing, we learn what the personal and social pattern of success looks like. It is well described by “command and control.” Better educated people tell others what to do and then control the implementation.
This — we learn — is necessary for overall success. Because: Everyone (!) benefits from this, i.e. both individuals and the community./3/
It so happens that, for example,
individual officials and committees in government departments write curricula that teachers, students, and parents must subsequently implement. Teachers tell their students how to do what and then give appropriate grades for the results. Managers or management committees create business and project plans, which the company and project teams then have to execute. Engineers develop processes that skilled workers will implement, etc.
Because we generally organize ourselves in this way
and that for a long time and apparently quite successfully — we learn that within our organization there are certain specialists or committees of specialists at different positions who take care of good and correct decisions due to their expertise and their function. And we also learn that we don’t need to worry about their decisions. We have our own clearly defined sphere of responsibility and duties./4/
Human beings, creatures of habit
For a long time, this hierarchical form of knowledge transfer, task distribution, and organization, aimed at the expertise and decision-making power of the individual, was a guarantee of stable success. And no doubt it still does a good job in many areas and will continue to do so for a while.
However, now that one branch of the industry after another is being challenged and turned upside down, especially digitally, we are surprised to find that this successful model of the past is reaching its limits.
But this is not so much because
hierarchical patterns of thinking, acting, and learning are ineffective or bad per se. Rather, they no longer fit the changing circumstances so well. For today these are more unsteady, more uncertain, less plannable.
This means that the rules of the game are constantly changing. And this increasingly quickly and with no way to predict well or even co-determine how.
For individuals, teams, companies, and even entire societies, this means that today they have to act differently and faster, while still (re-)acting well, which means primarily: to decide in the overarching positive interest of the entire enterprise.
To do this, the many relevant events
have to be noticed quickly, in order to evaluate them and to make good decisions in time. Hierarchical communication structures are too non-permeable and too lengthy for this, at least comparatively./5/
More importantly, however, and more fatally, it does not occur to individual control points in hierarchies to make decisions that extend beyond their tightly defined area, the much-cited silo. They are even forbidden to do so. That’s how we learned it from childhood, that’s how we’ve always been incentivized, and that’s how we still are being incentivized.
And so we find it difficult to leave hierarchical patterns of thought and action. We continue to trust that individuals will do the right thing based on their individual competence. We hold on to this, even when we see that as a result competetors are dangerously outranking us and we notice that we would have to become more flexible — for example, by establishing learning structures.
“Change or Die”?
In uncertain times like these, this could be an overly risky game. So it’s about time that the skilled experts that we all start to create organizational environments, to connect our expertise, to learn together, and to decide together and together well.
In principle, this is simple. We just have to overcome our own hierarchical worldviews to do it. We have nothing to lose but gain. At the very least, a very likely rewarding experience.
Do we dare to try the experiment? I certainly do hope so.
- /1/ E.g. Kanban, Scrum, Design Thinking
- /2/ Analogous applies in general to experiences we have on the job: Those who meet predetermined goals are rewarded with monetary and/or status gains
- /3/ So, for example, teacher, student, and class, team member and team, citizen and society, etc.
- /4/ As a student it might be memorization, as a product manager, it’s to take care of my product line, as a sales representative it’s to take care of my assigned customers, etc.
- /5/ At least more impermeable and tedious than their agile counterparts.
About the Author
Edgar Rodehack is a teamwork enthusiast with a preference for Agile forms of collaboration. So it’s good that he does this for a living. He is an organizational consultant, business and agile coach, moderator and facilitator. Also, he’s married with three kids, and he really enjoys making music, writing and reading.