Learn to learn or…

I talk a lot about the benefits of focusing on training. Many people agree, which is heartening, but many are sceptical. At first, I was surprised. For me, the benefits of making training Priority Number One are intuitively obvious.

But that’s the danger with intuition – when it’s wrong, you are blind to it.

So I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Gathering the evidence, teasing apart the logic, following the mental path that invisibly leads me to that conclusion. This article is one small part of that process.

How would you convince someone that training should be your organisation’s focus? I started with three questions:

  • What are learning organisations?
  • Are learning organisations successful?
  • Are successful organisations also learning organisations?

Point (1) is important – there’s no point discussing it if we have clashes in terminology. (2) and (3) together get around the correlation is not causation argument. If a focus on learning has no benefit or success leads organisations to focus on learning, both won’t hold.

Ready? Let’s go.

What are learning organisations?

I found a great definition of what a focus on training looks like courtesy of the Association of Talent Development. They define that learning organisations have the following qualities:

  • Learning has an enterprise-wide role—involved in the executive team, creating solutions to business issues, and setting organizational strategy.
  • Learning has value in the organization’s culture—learning opportunities for employees, C-level involvement, learning for growth of the organization, and innovation.
  • Learning links to individual and organizational performance—alignment with the business, efficiency, measurement of the effectiveness of learning, and success with nontraining solutions for business needs.
  • Investment is made in learning and performance initiatives.

Well, that seems to capture the gist. From this, I see four key strategies:

  • Everyone is involved in learning opportunities,
  • Learning opportunities are valued,
  • Performance is measured in relation to learning opportunities,
  • The organisation invests in learning opportunities.

I’ve made recommendations along these lines before. The wording is different but the principles align.

How well do most organisations do against these strategies? I don’t have the perspective to answer for entire industries. I do know how many businesses function:

  • Is everyone involved? Many organisations have a training strategy. For many of these, the strategy is no more than a vague declaration: “we prioritise investment in our employee’s skills.” This declaration does not translate into action – at least not well.
  • Is learning valued? Learning is seen as important but not as much as “real work”. That seems to be the common attitude. If you’re lucky, you’re given money for training… but not the time.
  • Is learning performance measured? How many skilled employees are told ‘great work, but you need to teach more’? Some organisations have precise requirements (for example, training that’s mandated by law). They do well at measuring these. Outside of these requirements, though, training is seen as a burden and distraction.
  • Is there investment? Maybe there’s a training budget. But no training strategy, no coordination, no investment in time. Training is a box that gets ticked so leaders can pat themselves on the back.

As the ancient internet expression goes, your mileage may vary. But the above model of training and development is painfully common. Training deserves to be a core strategy; it’s usually an afterthought.

But, okay, so what? It’s not like most organisations don’t learn at all. Do they all need to be awesome at training? Can’t we live with ‘good enough’?

No. Not if you want to be successful. Or even survive.

Are learning organisations successful?

I got the definition of a learning organisation from the Association for Talent Development. The Association runs a yearly contest looking for the best examples of them. What does winning an award mean for an organisation’s future?

There were 28 winners in 2013. The winners throughout the years include charities, companies and government departments from all over the world. These organisations are self-selected, which skews the data. Still, what these tell us is quite illustrative.

I went back to the 2013 winners to see how these companies have fared since winning an award. It was hard to find information on some of these organisations, but highlights include:

  • All 28 organisations seem to still exist. That’s reassuring.
  • The winner, Cognizant Technology Solutions, scored well in earlier and later years too. They have climbed the Fortune 500 ranks from 484 in 2011 to 230 in 2016.
  • #9 on the list, Cerner Corporation, won many awards since then. Among them, #1 World’s Most Admired Company in Health Care: Pharmacy and Other Services (Fortune, 2015).
  • #21, ESL Federal Credit Union, has appeared on the Great Place to Work – Best Small and Medium Workplaces list in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Organisations aren’t good learning organisations only at their peak. As the years since 2013 have shown, most of these winners had a lot of growth and success ahead of them.

Are successful organisations also learning organisations?

Success is harder to track in the public sector than the private. I can offer all sorts of anecdotes about public learning organisations being successful. But for simplicity, let’s look at the world’s top companies.

Fortune’s list of top companies by revenue gives us a decent measure of private sector glory:

  • Walmart
  • State Grid
  • China National Petroleum
  • Sinopec
  • Royal Dutch Shell
  • Exxon Mobil
  • Volkswagen
  • Toyota Motor
  • Apple
  • BP

How many of these companies are learning organisations?

Walmart has a surprisingly detailed training strategy. They conduct training needs analyses, design programs and deliver training through a range of methods. The details around each of these steps are fairly detailed – way more than I’d expected from, you know, Walmart.

It’s hard to assess from the outside whether training is valued in the organisation. On paper, it certainly seems to be. Everyone is involved, there is strong investment and learning links to performance. They sound like a learning organisation to me.

Sinopec has its own training philosophy. I assume it sounds way better in the original Chinese. Their “three training projects” are:

  • Tens of thousands of key talents training project (an effort to improve the skills of managers and subject matter experts),
  • Talents on key positions capability upgrading project (improving the capabilities and innovation from business managers, researchers and other key roles),
  • All staff upgrading project (baseline employee training).

They developed this training with higher education organisations, and deliver it online and in person. Again, how much of this translates into real-world training opportunities, I can’t say. But I can say that their strategy is both detailed and ambitious. If they’re not a learning organisation, then they’re doing a great impersonation of one.

Royal Dutch Shell was the topic of a research paper (‘Learning at Royal Dutch Shell’, Strategic Direction, Vol 18, Issue 7, p10-12). They researched the company, concluding that they are a classic example of a learning organisation. The paper even traces their significant losses in 1998 to a failure in this. They had drifted from a learning organisation to one with dysfunctional strategies and priorities. In other words, they had grown complacent, but their complacency wasn’t fatal and they have recovered.

I couldn’t find any details about Volkswagen’s learning strategy. I did find some Glassdoor reviews talking about how much they value learning. Still, I promised data, not anecdotes.

Next is Toyota. The company that invented 5 Whys thinking. The company where frontline employees, not management, are recognised as the experts. The company where they took one of the most dysfunctional plants in the world and made it one of the best – without replacing employees. There’s a reason why Toyota has a golden reputation among learning organisation enthusiasts.

From the outside, Apple feels like it should be a learning organisation. A paper (‘Organisational learning and lean supply relationships: the case of Apple Ireland’, Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Vol 3, Issue 2, p96-107) used them as a case study on how learning organisations solve problems where others don’t.

Finally, another paper (‘Organisational Learning’, Management Learning, Vol 32, Issue 2, p181-196) analysing how learning organisations work and why they succeed used British Petroleum (BP) as one of their key examples.

I couldn’t find much relevant information on State Grid, China National Petroleum or Exxon. And the evidence for VW wasn’t great. Even so, six out of ten of the highest earning companies are definitely learning organisations. That’s pretty compelling, isn’t it?

Learn to learn or…

What can I say after all this research?

  • Learning organisations are successful,
  • Successful organisations learn,
  • Your organisation is probably neither.

Do you know why learning creates success? It’s insurance against the changes of the future. Instead you can focus on doing your tasks now, even as the ground moves under your feet. Suddenly you blink and the terrain has shifted. What you were doing is now pointless. You can either learn to shift with the terrain or scream into the wind.

Teaching and learning aren’t burdens. That’s backwards. They are the only things that make the tasks possible. Being ‘good enough’ at learning makes you ‘good enough’ at your job. Then when the tasks change, and change again, you are left behind. It takes a community that excels at learning to keep up.

Learn to learn or die trying.

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