by Myles F. Suer

Creating a learning organization

Nov 13, 2019
IT Leadership

Innovation and success at digital transformation are built upon a foundation. So, what wisdom do CIOs have about creating learning organizations?

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Credit: bananajazz / Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I asked the participants in the weekly #CIOChat about innovation. In the middle of the discussion we had a brief tangent about learning organizations. Given that, I wanted to tap into the #CIOChat’s wisdom next on learning organizations. As you will see, learning is intimately linked to an innovation. For this reason, CIOs and other business leaders need to establish organizations that learn.

What’s the value of creating a learning organization?

A learning organization continually acquires new skills and capabilities and encourages and expects this habit at every level of the organization. According to CIOs, there are real consequences when IT leaders don’t enable learning. In fact, CIOs believe IT leadership and greater business organization will not survive in the longer term when this does not take place. Everything changes rapidly today—the business and technology—and IT organizations have to learn to change along with it.

Clearly, there is no done with change. There is no end to how we can improve. Technology doesn’t hold still, so neither can IT. Continuous learning is required. One CIO said, “the problem is that when you sit still, you end up planting an anchor. Clearly, without learning, people will only know what they already know, which means their organization will not be able to move forward. When this occurs, an organization is not improving. Instead, it’s effectively going backwards towards oblivion.” The companies that have failed here is long and includes the likes of Kodak, BlackBerry Digital, Compaq, Palm, Toys R Us and Borders Books. 

Sadly, many of these companies had things that were in the pipeline that could have enabled them to reestablish their right to win, but they didn’t chase them or put them into what Geoffrey Moore calls the Transformation Zone. In contrast to the above list of companies, learning organizations create a positive feedback loop. Taking this step, encourages continual learning which not only gives the organization new knowledge, but it grows the desire to learn even more. Being a learning organization enables agility, adaptability, resiliency and the ability to meet the evolving needs of organization constituents and the marketplace as a whole.

Learning organizations as a result are more agile, change-friendly. They are places where people retrain and upgrade their skills. For these reasons, they become less calcified. It’s in their investment in people that they invest back in the organization and its continual improvements. There is an implicit understanding that learning has no end—it needs to be a continuous loop. CIOs say that learning is an opportunity to say we’re investing in you, because you’re valuable. This inherently drives employee engagement, development and growth. One CIO said, “I’ve told this story before, but at a previous organization, a manager said to me the people I get certifications for keep leaving, so I’m not paying for certifications anymore. That left people who would stay and didn’t want certifications. Whoops”.

Additionally, learning organizations do better at accepting change management and creating change leadership. Both of these are crucial today. A learning organization is a responsive organization, understanding the need to keep up on things and to pivot from time to time. However, you cannot be higher up in an organizational maturity model, if you don’t have stable operations. Otherwise, you and your staff’s energy are largely consumed firefighting.

Are learning organizations by nature more innovative?

CIOs are clear they don’t think anything is automatic. If leadership demonstrates support for continuous learning by accepting risk and the rewarding the right behaviors, etc. than an organization is better positioned to enjoy a more innovative culture not attached to historical skills. It is essential that there be organizational tolerance for failure and a willingness to innovate and experiment. It’s possible to have a learning organization that teaches risk aversion. This type of organizational culture determines whether innovation can take place.

Put simply learning keeps an organization up to date but innovation pushes an organization to do new things. Given this, a learning organization does not on its own drive more innovation. However, it helps and is essential to innovative organizations. To create innovative organizations, as well, you need a culture change so that failure is seen as well as a learning opportunity.

Intrinsically, learning organizations are better positioned to be more innovative but people can be innovations worst enemy. Learning, growing, adapting, reading about missteps and failures and recovering from failure, increases the likelihood of success. For this reason, CIOs do not believe that learning and innovation correlates. Learning requires more than learning from mistakes/failures. Innovation may not always be successful, but failures serve as a learning opportunity.

What are the key things CIOs need to do to enable a learning organization?

The CIOChat’ers provided a list of 10 things:

  1. Make resources available (time, money, flexibility)
  2. Build a culture that values learning
  3. Build a habit of celebrating and reinforcing learning.
  4. Find ways to make learning easier -there are many types of learning, enable them so individual learners can find a way.
  5. Defend the budget and time needed for staff to engage in learning opportunities as if your job depended on it. Because it does.
  6. Give people the time and budget to learn, reward them for achieving learning goals. But more than that demonstrate that you will use those new skills and people to move forward.
  7. Model learning yourself. If you’re not doing it, no one else will. Engage your organizations senior leadership in doing the same. The whole organization, not just IT, needs to be all-in or you likely won’t get the full potential.
  8. Enable mentoring programs. Mentoring can have a number of positive outcomes for the organization, including breaking down silos, transferring institutional knowledge, accelerating leadership skills, fostering open communication and dialogue and the resolving of conflict.
  9. Introduce non-traditional ways of thinking, working and doing. Agile. Lean startup. Design thinking. Get your team out of their comfort zones.
  10. Allow time for learning and trying. Highlight failure as an inevitable success if you learn everything possible from it.

Who should be the CIO’s biggest supporters in driving a learning organization?

CIOs say that a learning culture should start with the CEO and C-Suite and must be enabled through HR processes and messaging. Both senior leadership and the IT staff top down. If senior leadership doesn’t see the value, the organizational culture will be neurotic. If the IT staff isn’t supportive, they will go through the motions of learning without actually learning anything. With this said, CIOs stress that learning needs time. And finally, if learning time is seen as a waste of time, no one will embrace it.

What is the best advice you would offer a CIO wanting to establish a learning organization?

CIOs say start by looking inside your organization and find departments with cultures that are predisposed to supporting learning. Where needed, CIOs may have to redefine the organizational culture. In these cases, CIOs will burn most of their energy on that and not on learning. At the same time, it is important to start small. CIOs should create a small set of learning opportunities, but make sure they are as inclusive as possible. CIOs need to ensure that staff realize that learning is for everyone. CIOs, importantly, need to have a plan for how to use skills once people have gone through an update. At the same time, CIOs should look for ways to encourage ongoing learning.

Think about what you want your outcomes to be, and get a diverse team involved so they can help design and build the organization that will get you there. CIOs needs to set aggressive goals, measure outcomes and nurture a learning culture. Importantly, there should be sensitivity to team members that want to understand what’s in it for them. CIOs should communicate this as part of their messaging.

One CIO discussed delved into information security. They said that for years, they asked folks in information security interviews what they were learning or playing with. A surprising number didn’t have good answers. Clearly, learning is a process. It needs to include everyone. And in many cases, it needs to pull in people outside IT to participate. IT needs to choose a model to guide the process. They should as well measure progress and reward innovation and success in this area.

Learning is intimately linked to creating innovative organizations, but more is required than just be a learning organization. Nevertheless, learning requires that CIOs enable the organization to trust and learn. For some this will be a big change, but for others it will be a natural way of doing business.